Race May Be a Social Construct, But Racism is Very Real

by Zola Ray “Race is a social construct.” I saw this sentence on the projector in my Race and Ethnic Relations class and jotted it into ...

by Zola Ray

“Race is a social construct.” I saw this sentence on the projector in my Race and Ethnic Relations class and jotted it into my notebook. Figuring that the statement was simply being used as an indication of how ridiculous and harmful racism is, I was on board with it. I even used it in conversation a couple times.

During a discussion in another course, a fellow student of color mockingly repeated the phrase, “Race is a social construct.” At first, I had to wonder why this phrase was worthy of mockery. Perhaps some people find it too lofty, I thought. But soon I realized that the idea of race as a social construct can sometimes bring us to a conclusion that is anything but progressive.

Yes, race is socially constructed rather than biologically based. Bill Nye has said so himself. From a scientific standpoint, he is right. However, I fear many people will use his sentiment, and other similar ideas, as a way to discount racism. Many people mistakenly view the term “social construct” as being synonymous with non-existent. As a result, people take this view even further by trying to silence people of color when we speak about instances of racism or take pride in our racial identities.

A while back, my Facebook News Feed was filled with friends sharing a spoken word poem by a black poet named Patrick Ea, in which he says, “I am not black; you are not white.” He goes on to say, “These labels were made up to divide us,” and he challenges his audience to shed racial labels.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I found parts of the video beautiful. But I can’t ignore the glaring problem. The poem disregards a large chunk of history. The poet says that race was created to divide us, but that’s only part of the story. Race was constructed as a means to justify the oppression and economic exploitation of people of color, and that’s the important part that leads his argument astray. Within the past couple of years, we’ve seen Raven-SymonĂ© choosing not to identify as African-American in what turned out to be the first of many controversial comments. This mentality of shedding one’s racial identity to create a “colorblind society” may be the result of some not understanding the context in which race is discussed as socially constructed.

This lack of contextualizing and understanding is what makes so many people of color cringe at the expression “race is a social construct,” as my classmate did. For some of us, hearing that idea sets off the “alarm.” The alarm is a term coined by W.E.B. DuBois that is described accurately by Nicholas Powers in the following passage from his article for the Indypendent, titled “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit”:
The ‘alarm’ is a reflex most minorities have, it’s a rising anxiety that signals you are surrounded by people too privileged to know they’re hurting you. Or who would not care if they did. It can beep quietly. Or blare like a foghorn. The alarm is part of the psychological package that W.E.B. Du Bois described in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk as, ‘double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.’
If you are a member of any oppressed group, this feeling is probably familiar.

The reason the alarm goes off upon hearing that “race is a social construct” is not because of the statement itself—rather, it is because of the fear of what is likely to come out of the person’s mouth next. It is all too common for this same person to tell us to “stop making everything about race.” Many people believe the only way to end racism is to throw away the concept of race altogether. However, what many people of color hear is: We should not be proud of our racial identities.

What many people who believe in “colorblindness” do not understand is that many people of color are now proud to wear the labels that were once used to stigmatize us. It shows what we have prevailed through years of oppression, but others think identifying this way is just further fueling racism. Thinking critically about race does not contribute to racism. And a colorblind society is not the solution to racism. In fact, the conclusion we reach should be quite the opposite. The only way to fully end racism is to think about race critically and frequently. We need to realize that racism lives within every one of us and within many facets of our society. Then we need to work to fix it.

This includes talking about who constructed the idea of race and why. Europeans used race to justify their colonization and oppression of people of color. It was the justification for murders, rapes, conquest, slavery and many other forms of dehumanization. Because of this so-called “social construct,” white supremacy has continued to poison our society for centuries. The lives, opinions, and well-being of people of color are valued significantly less than those of whites. Although race was “constructed” centuries ago, innocent Black men, women, and children are still beaten and killed by authorities every day.

Many white people view race as having a significant correlation to human worth, and have for centuries. Conveniently deciding to ignore race now can’t undo all of that oppression. If white supremacists are treating people of color as if we’re lesser beings, the way to counter this is not by saying, “Race isn’t even real.” That’s hardly a strong enough argument against the oppression people of color continue to experience. To be on the right side of history, we must fight back by calling people out when they say or do something racist. We must let them know their opinions are based on harmful ideas created years ago to justify the dehumanization of people of color.

Yes, race is a social construct. No, that does not make it—or the impact of racism— trivial.

So does this mean people should stop saying that race is a social construct? After all, the phrase itself is not inherently racist, but it can be associated with racist ideas that involve silencing the voices of people of color. I believe that if there’s a common association between a phrase and a problematic idea, then using the phrase may lead to criticism. When oppressed people hear something associated with an oppressive concept, the alarm goes off in our heads. This is the same alarm that sounds when we experience microagressions, which cause us to feel less safe or comfortable, even if we are not experiencing direct or overt bigotry.

Of course, one may acknowledge the roots of how race was constructed in hopes of moving towards ways we can end racism. So, what is the most effective way of doing this? First, it’s important that we point to the origin of this construct and its harmful effects on today’s society. We need to direct our anger at the oppressor, not the oppressed. Then, we need to truly assess the way we look at race. While we should never “stop seeing color,” we need to change the way we see it. We need to remove the lens through which we see whiteness as the default. If race was constructed, then whiteness was constructed too.

Because race was socially constructed by Europeans, white people are seen as “raceless,” whereas people of color are racialized. This leads us to see white people through the lens of personhood before race, while not giving people of color the same treatment. We end up seeing people of color as representatives of their respective races instead of as unique individuals. Ultimately, this rhetoric dehumanizes people of color and perpetuates racism.

It needs to be understood that people of color talking openly about our racial identities is not the same as reinforcing racism. It is the result of being proud of our success and tenacity after being placed at the bottom of a social hierarchy. People of color have adapted to being racialized by owning the labels that society gave us, and this is an important part of fighting racism. It fuels us to enter white spaces unabashedly while also creating our own.

Dismantling racism is a complex issue, but one thing is for sure: Racism is very real and we all need to challenge it within our society. We need not focus on the fact that race does not exist biologically, but rather on the fact that race was created to instill a horrible social hierarchy that continues to exist. Race exists to keep people of color out of power and ultimately to strip us of our basic human rights. The fact that race is a social construct is a reason that we should be talking about it, not a reason to ignore it. “Race is a social construct” shouldn’t be the end of a conversation about race. It should be the beginning.

Photo: Shutterstock

Zola Ray is passionate about exploring race, gender and other aspects of the human experience through her writing. She’s a strong believer in the idea that if your feminism is not intersectional, it’s not true feminism. On her spare time, she can be found admiring cute animals or watching YouTube videos. You can follow Zola on Twitter @zolamray and visit her website: www.zolaray.com.

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