Shy, talkative, annoying, easy-going, beautiful, ugly, popular, outcast, white, black, brown, Hispanic, Asian, slut, prude, gay, straight, smart, stupid. These are words we use to brand people after only a few glances.
We make assumptions about others and act according to those assumptions. Each of us lives with labels about our intelligence, appearance, talent, oddities, occupations, and ways of speech. All day, every day, we label others and people label us. After all, as humans, that is what makes us different than our primal counterparts. We have the bitter-sweet ability to judge and show empathy for others. But, our ability to connect with people comes with the heavy burden of frequent misjudgment that our society must soon learn how to bear.
Growing up, I was never someone who could fit in with one group. I was involved in far too many activities to be tied down to one group of people. All throughout elementary school, I found it easy to make friends no matter where I went. I would walk into a supposed ‘nerve-racking’ audition and leave feeling unstoppably happy not only because I aced the audition but also because I had made new friends in the 20 minutes of the audition. There were no judgments made; no outcasting of anyone; and no labels. Whether it was in tennis, music, dance, or theatre, I was never alone.
But as I grew older and learned more about my family’s background and witnessed the bias we faced because of our skin color, religion, traditions, and the stereotypes associated with being Indian in South Georgia, I found myself feeling alone more and more often. I remember asking my dad one night, “Why do we always have to wait longer than the other people in security lines at the airport?” I didn’t get my answer that night but it gradually came to me over the years. As I entered the dreaded middle school years, I became fully aware of what it meant to be involved in things that weren’t exclusively for people who looked and acted like me.
I had to learn to face all of the labels I was given in every aspect of my life. When I was in school, students would always say, “I bet you’re only smart because you’re Indian” and “Do you ever do anything else with your life except study and write?” Before a tennis match, opponents and their coaches would say “Wow! You’re too pretty, petite, and posh to play in this league.” At mock trial and speech competitions it was always, “No one was expecting that from a quiet little ‘exotic’ girl! And on top of that, you’re a freshman?!” When I auditioned for films or performances, it was always, “How do you expect to get this role when you’re not white with blonde hair or blue eyes, and without a feminine, soprano musical range, or affluent parents?”
In fact, last summer, I auditioned for a solo performance at Carnegie Hall and, unexpectedly, received a spot after six callbacks. But, I remember at rehearsal one day, I was staring at my fellow performers to see that almost all of them shared their light skin, blue/green eyes, straight blonde and brown hair, incredibly rich parents, and a sense of entitlement. All of which I could never imagine for myself. I was a skinny, brown-skinned, curly-haired, first generation kid from a semi-conservative, 100% non-musically talented household. I was shocked to see that although we were all making our mark as some of the most talented artists in the country, these young musicians were nothing like me. Their labels of “too smart,” “too talkative,” “too inexperienced,” and “not one of us” should not have affected me at all. And yet, I could feel them suffocating me under these tiny labels and forcing me to question my own identity. I couldn’t relate to these kids, and I was finding it to be a new pattern in my life. My race, gender, economic status, talents, looks, communication and speaking abilities were always up for judgment. People were deciding who I was before I even got the chance to show them.
Now, as I enter the lion’s den known as high school, I am realizing that I transcend these labels every day. Everything I was once discouraged for is now making me unique. The days I spent perfecting aimless stories and poems, the hundreds of auditions I sang my way through no matter how much I didn’t look the part. The hours I spent practicing on a tennis court until my knees got weak, the nerves I have successfully endured speaking publicly all make me the person I am. Growing up, I wanted more than anything to be like everyone else. I never understood the exquisiteness of being one of a kind.
As a society, we must learn to keep our empathy but lose the labels. We cannot put people into preconceived factions without understanding them first. Yes, a label is just a word, but words are powerful and if we don’t choose wisely, people will do exactly what their labels want them to, and that would be the very primal society we struggled so hard to escape from in the first place.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.