How others perceive you, and how you define yourself

There is something I’ve been talking about a lot in and out of class recently: perception and labels. The point I’m going to try to get to here, is that how other people view and label myself or my peers may not be accurate. How I label myself and what I let define me may be completely different from how my classmate defines me. Whether we are trying to or not, we make assumptions. Sometimes they’re harmless, and sometimes they are very hurtful. Often, we can never tell whether our perceptions are wrong unless we ask: which can be scary. When I attended a lecture on campus about all the things that could affect a person’s ability to create the family they want, I realized all of the boundaries the world sets based on how they see us: not on how we see ourselves.

I had an epiphany when I walked into Safeway. This week I got sick, and after a few restless nights I decided it was worth the trek to Dallas to pick up NyQuil. It took me awhile to find the right aisle in the first place, but that’s a whole other story.¬†Underneath my well sought out NyQuil was a generic brand. No, the bottle wasn’t as pretty, but the price tag certainly was. The ingredients were practically identical so I figured there was no use in spending double just for a name-brand item. If I wasn’t a broke college student trying to save four dollars, I probably would have just stuck with NyQuil and not taken the time to read the ingredients. I’d prepared myself for a less potent, most likely more disgusting version of NyQuil. After all, it was just a Safeway generic cold and flu remedy. After a wonderful nine hours of sleep, I have to say I was proven wrong. The title may not have been as appealing and the container not as beautiful, but what was inside was just as good as anything else.

Yes, I’m aware my anecdote is a bit of a stretch. But how do you expect me to write without a metaphor or two?

On the surface, I’m saying that it’s what is inside that counts. What I saw of the knock-off NyQuil bottle wasn’t accurate, and if I hadn’t given it a chance I would’ve wasted a precious four dollars. More importantly, how other people label you or I as a human being is most likely inaccurate. Certain aspects of our life define us: upbringing, family, race, heritage, sexual orientation, and gender. Maybe some of those things have shaped you as a person, maybe all of them or maybe none of them. The problem doesn’t come from how you define yourself, or how you become the unique person that is you. The problem is that other people are so fast to use these labels to make judgments: often wrong ones.

Many things define me: my gender, my age, and my race/heritage are the ones I identify with most. I’m female, 18 years old, and mixed race. If you’ve looked at my picture on the main page, you can probably tell which one of these is mislabeled most often. My father is black and my mother is white, but more often than not people put me in the category of “white.” Not only is this inaccurate, but it is extremely hurtful. I have a large family, and was raised very close to my black heritage. My family’s roots in this country define me greatly as a person, and have shaped my love and advocacy for all kinds of diversity. I do not, however, identify as black. I am very purposeful in saying that I am mixed race, because I have had a different experience in this country than a black woman my age or a white woman my age. I have even had a different experience than other mixed race women, who may be misidentified as black. This is obviously an example of labeling that is hurtful.

Being a female has an impact in how I am viewed in this world, especially in business and work. My mom purposely gave me a gender neutral name so in the future I wouldn’t be judged solely on the basis of being female. Though I thank my mother for giving me a leg-up in the business world, I wish she didn’t have to.

Occasionally I get labeled as straight or gay (which I am neither) but I try not to take offence; sexual orientation isn’t something you can tell just from looking at a person. I’m also often mistaken for being much older than I am, but I mostly take that as a compliment.

I asked some friends to answer a few questions about labels, and here are their answers (see the bottom of the post for more information on the interviewees):

Which of the following do you feel has helped shape and define you as a person: race, ethnicity, heritage, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or anything else?

Gavin: “Socioeconomic status, age, and ethnicity. I’ve always lived in a very privileged, rather wealthy, household. Because my family has been well off, I’ve been able to travel and experience things that I would’ve have been able to without it…I feel like I’ve become very ‘worldly’.”

Mariama: “I would say that my race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status have helped shape who I am…by society’s standards they make me lower on the social hierarchy. My circumstances have shaped who I am today…my race (and ethnicity) provide my culture and values.”

Katie: “What has helped shape and define me the most would be gender, because I feel like being a woman is really important to how I look at the world and myself. It affects every aspect of my life and at times is something I’m proud of and at other times something I’m embarrassed or even mad about.”

Rebecca: “I think gender and probably age are the only real things that have defined me as a person. Heritage as well. I am half Armenian and my grandparents and great-grandparents experienced the Armenian genocide…”

Which of these things do you think other people most often use to define you?

Gavin: “Socioeconomic status and ethnicity. I can’t begin to say how I’ve always been known around my friends and classmates as the rich, ethnic kid.”

Mariama: “Most recently in college I have seen it to be my socioeconomic status, gender, race, and age. I think these are things that society can use to place me on the social hierarchy…I think that society is afraid to allow people like me continue to succeed…”

Katie: “I would say that people define me based on gender, race, and socioeconomic status.”

Rebecca: “Being a woman in general is definitely something people use to define me.”

Are you ever hurt when people label you as something you’re not?

Gavin: “Hell yes. Only if it’s something I deem offensive though. For example, I get really pissed with people ignorantly label me as Chinese when they find out I’m from Singapore.”

Mariama: “I don’t necessarily get hurt…but I do get annoyed and frustrated. I get it if they get it wrong and then ask me later, because then they’re taking the time. But in today’s society people have the courage to be whoever they want. So people should stop assuming, you know?”

Katie: “The incorrect label that I have been assigned most often has been an incorrect assumption of my sexual orientation. People often assume that I am a lesbian. Since I don’t find this insulting, I’m not hurt by it, but I prefer it when people openly ask me about my sexual orientation rather than assuming.”

Rebecca: “I didn’t get a lot of my Armenian genes, so I look much more white and Irish (dad’s side) than a dark Armenian beauty. I feel like sometimes people brush past my Armenian heritage, which can hurt me because that heritage is so important to me: especially in regards to the genocide.”

Do you feel comfortable correcting someone if they label you in a way you’re uncomfortable with?

Gavin: “Hell to the yes. I’m not going to put up with people mislabeling me, if they make a mistake I correct them ASAP.”

Mariama: “I definitely feel comfortable correcting someone because my identity is important to me. And I would want someone to correct me because all of our parts are important to create who we are.”

Katie: “I would say I do feel comfortable correcting people…perhaps if I were not straight, but was assumed to be, it would be harder to correct people without knowing their reactions.”

Rebecca: “I haven’t experienced a ton of mislabeling in my life because I am a straight, Caucasian, cis woman. I can only imagine what my life would be like if one of those things wasn’t so. I am the majority in a lot of identity categories, but I will always stand by other people in their fight for recognition and equality.”

Do you ever identify yourself differently in different situations? (i.e with different groups of people).

Gavin: “I do. When I’m in the states I identify myself as a Singaporean and always act proud of my heritage. However when I’m in Singapore I always identify as American and act proud of my upbringing. I don’t know if that’s because I want to be unique or something, but there’s that.”

Mariama: “In general, I don’t really find a need to define myself as anything, really, besides my name. But for instance, in college, teachers always think I have the colored person’s perspective. So in the classroom I’m more defined by my race.”

Katie: “I would say that I don’t define myself differently, but rather I tend to emphasize different aspects of my personality with different people.”

Rebecca: “What it is to be a woman in today’s society is becoming more and more apparent to me each and every day – my limitations, what I can or can’t do, etc. Being around men can sometimes bring that out, for sure, because I don’t know where they stand when it comes to what I contribute to the world.”

Clearly, different people have been defined by a multitude of aspects, and sometimes even the fact that other’s define them as so. Regardless of how you see somebody initially, it is important that we realize at one point or another we’re bound to be wrong.

Misidentifying a race, making assumptions about sexual orientation or misgendering can be very hurtful: so if you’re unsure, ask!¬†

Gavin Lee: Male, 18 years old, Singaporean.

Mariama Suwaneh: Female, 18 years old, black, Hispanic.

Katie Nance: Female, 19 years old, white.

Rebecca Cort: Female, 19 years old, Caucasian.


By Quinn Murphy

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