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Our Un-labelable Selves

As a linguist, I study the diverse ways that the world’s languages mark and identify attributes such as gender and social standing. Categorizing individuals, and the associated labels we assign, is an inevitable part of our cognitive system as humans. But labels do not immutably create, define or cement identity.

A photo of Dani Byrd

In this issue of USC Dornsife Magazine, we consider varied perspectives on identity. It’s important to recognize, as a counterpoint to this, that identity is not static. Discovering our myriad identities as our lives unfold is a constant exploration rather than a problem to be solved or a fact to be discerned. I identify as a teacher, a mediator, a mother, a wife, a sports fan….

But more foundational than these multifaceted identities is the anchoring sense of self upon which they are built — an underlying system of core values and ethics. Or what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls “a settled philosophy of fundamental things.” I believe we craft this sense of self through the human connections we forge with parents who profoundly shape our expectations and priorities, professors and mentors who expand our perspective, friends and partners who challenge our beliefs, or even (or perhaps especially) those we encounter through chance interactions.

Young adults leaving home, perhaps attending college, are flooded with opportunities for these defining relationships, many of which are inspiring and even frightening. They contemplate identities they have long carried, or to which they newly aspire. What can carry them through life’s momentous events and relationships is their underlying selfhood.

I think that each of us is defined ultimately not by labels, but by this sense of self on which our identities rest. It is that un-labelable “me-ness” that settles on our shoulders as both a privilege and a responsibility, bolstering and sustaining us as our lives evolve.

Dani Byrd
Interim Dean of USC Dornsife