At New York Comic Con this year, I remember that a girl in a Starfleet uniform came up to our booth and I greeted her with a lot of excitement... and I called her a Trekkie.
I immediately regretted it. She did not actually seem offended by it (annoyed maybe) but I did want to take it back.
Labeling and categorizing is something I hate to do. During a presentation this week I tried to make it very clear that while I was talking about shared interests and norms within a group of people - what I referred to as Geek Culture - I warned participants against going out and calling people geeks just because they happened to be into some of the things I talked about.
I throw the phrase "Geek Culture" around a lot because I'm usually talking about broadly shared interests but the most important thing to consider when talking about people is their identity. You'll never know what people identify with or as until you asked them. My definition of what a trekkie is doesn't matter. What does matter is what the girl I spoke to identified as.
Last week's episode of South Park showed us that the Goth Kids are Goth, not Emo, not Vamp Kids (or Twilight Fans), despite the fact that no one else in South Park can tell the difference. They are very clear about what they identify as and what we think doesn't matter.
I identify as a Geek and that is one of the few labels I proudly wear. I like it because it covers a lot and I don't find it too limiting. I'm often asked if I'm a 'gamer' and I usually reply with "yes, I play games" and not "yes, I'm a Gamer" because I'm not sure what they mean by 'gamer.' When asking that type of question, people often (but not always) have a definition attached to the label. As the recipients of these questions, we also attach our own meaning to labels.
I play video and tabletop games a lot, more than the average person, probably. Does that mean I'm a gamer? Yes and no. Do I meet a definition of a gamer? Sure, for a lot of people the answer is most likely yes. Do I identify as a Gamer? ... It's complicated. It's also somewhat uncomfortable.
We simultaneously want to belong and not be pigeonholed or labeled. Do I play games? Yes. Do I love to play games? Yes! Do I enjoy the company of other people who play games? Yes! Do I like to hang out with people who identify as Gamers? Absolutely! Am I a Gamer? Well, no. And the reason has nothing to do with my relationship with gaming, it's mostly because I don't want another label. I would not be offended if you called me a gamer, I just would most likely not introduce myself as one.
Identity is very important and as you can see it goes way beyond race and ethnicity but while we are on the subject... I was born in Puerto Rico but I never introduce myself as Puerto Rican. When asked if I'm Puerto Rican, I usually answer "yes, I was born in Puerto Rico." To me being Puerto Rican means something and I've never related to or identified with Puerto Rico enough to call myself Puerto Rican. I can't explain it completely but I have an idea of what Puerto Rican identity is and I don't have it. I think of Puerto Rican-identified people as a group I do not belong to.
Everyone's reasons for identifying or not are very personal and often complicated.
Not everyone does this but when I talk about culture and identity I capitalize the cultural group and those who identify with the group. For example, Geek culture and self-identified Geeks are capitalized but geeky things are not. Also, a bunch of people who are really into something (anything) could be called geeks but not necessarily Geeks. Does that make sense?
So when I called the girl a Trekkie, I said it with the best of intentions. I assumed she was a big Star Trek fan and a part of me even thought she thinks of herself as a Trekkie and would appreciate it if I recognized it and let her know I could see it. Yeah, that's one possibility. Another is that she came with her friends and she was guilted into wearing a Starfleet uniform she hates and she felt like punching each and every person who came up to her assuming she was a Star Trek fan. There are a million possibilities. The one thing we do know is that I threw the label 'Trekkie' at her without any idea what it meant to her or how it made her feel.
So be careful when throwing labels at people, you never know what it will mean to them, how it will make them feel, or how they will react.