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Life in the Age of Labels

High School Musical taught me a lot about life: Zac Efron is very cute, musicals are objectively better than non-musicals, and stereotypes enable us to reduce everyone down to just one or two traits. Of the three preceding statements, only one is something I still grapple with today.

Attending Harvard has been an uphill struggle in many ways, for better and for worse. Upon entering the institution, High School Musical’s notion of labeling and stereotypes became ever more apparent to me. I realized that we were all labeled before we even got to college. Across my class, I saw band kids, jocks, philosophists, glam queens, student body representatives and more.

Obviously, in trying to create a holistic class, the admissions office had decided to find students from across the United States and the world who were the best at what they did, and to some extent, this made our strengths a defining characteristic.

Moreover, as we entered the institution, it made sense that we would use these labels to help us navigate the social scene. According to Psychology Today, labeling is an adaptive feature that aids us in breaking down the complexities we face in daily life. It thus makes sense that we rely on it so heavily in college as we are meeting, for the first time, so many people from so many walks of life that having a few crutches to lean on is a lifesaver.

Nevertheless, simply relying on labels does not help us grapple with these complexities. As I have traversed Harvard, I have realized time and again that there is more to people than what meets the eye. As a senior, the conversations I have had with my classmates in the past few weeks have evolved in complexity and range of thought from the banal conversations shared over a meal in Annenberg. 

I realize that classmates, who at one point I saw simply as having one distinctive characteristic, are whole people with ranges of opinions. They have also grown immensely and in many ways have outgrown the person they were when they first walked through the Yard. Had I relied on stereotypes and labeling, and not listened and considered what my classmates have said and done, I might never have been able to understand the essence of who they are.

It is this that I believe to be so important, now more than ever before. As I graduate this coming Spring, I realize the importance of valuing words and actions above anything else. Harvard has shown me that intersectionality brings to the fore a whole range of incredibly specific, unique characteristics and experiences. 

Just because someone identifies with one form of an identity group, or spends all of their time honing a skill, this does not mean that they have any less to them than someone else. Appreciating the beauty in difference and learning more from that is vital to understanding the beautiful complexities of our world.

Danu Mudannayake originally hails from London, UK. She studies Art, Film, and Visual Studies at Harvard College and aspires to work in the film industry after she graduates.
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