Race Is a Social Construct, and It’s Built With Language

Every time I read the statement, “Race is a social construct,” in a blog post or editorial, I can’t help but think the unwritten assumption being made by the author is that race and racism are highly malleable, subject to easy disassembly. We might be led to believe race is merely a social construct and if we talk about it enough we can undo its very existence. I don’t think this is true. I think talking about race instead reinforces its existence and, by extension, strengthens racism. Our only language to talk about race is a language filled with words which only have meaning in relation to the construct of race itself. That we have no choice but to talk about race in this way seems only to make matters worse.

Yesterday, Max Blumenthal tweeted:

(The link in Max’s tweet is now dead, but the original text is still available.)

Max’s tweet prompted a conversation wherein assorted Twitter users expressed both support for and concern about the upcoming gathering in Cleveland (referred to in the post at that link) that is being promoted as being a venue exclusively for Blacks. Of particular note are the following:

Dara Silverman, author of the post at the link above:

Rania Khalek:

Remi Kanazi:

Kim Moore:

and some irony from Terrina Aguilar: <insert smiley here>

These are only a very few highlights out of many more tweets on the subject, some of which devolved (unsurprisingly) into accusations of anti-Black racism, others accusing the organizers of racism. As has been noted before, Twitter doesn’t support a lot of nuance in attempts at conversation.

But the real truth, I think, is the medium (Twitter) doesn’t really matter so much. What does matter is that we have no language to talk about race other than a language which references race.

I have no reason to doubt the goodwill of the organizers of the event in Cleveland, nor do I have reason to doubt the goodwill of Dara Silverman as author of the post about the nature of the event. She used the language available to her to the best of her ability.

I also have no reason to doubt the goodwill of people like Max and Rania, who read a post about an event and expressed concern over how the language of the post might be divisive.

I am enormously sympathetic to the concerns of Remi and Kim, and have no doubt that Kim is absolutely right to stand up in defense of safe spaces for Blacks to gather and heal at a time of increasingly virulent racism in our society.

What I would wish for, in the midst of all this, are some new words to have that conversation Terrina mentioned. Audre Lorde wrote an essay with an extraordinary and relevant title: The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. It strikes me that our language of race may well have originated with those who most benefited from the establishment of a divide based on those characteristics we associate with race. We won’t dismantle the social construct of race with the tools which created it. We need new tools. We need new language.

Addendum, 24 July 2015: Douglas at The South Lawn wrote an excellent post in support of Rania Khalek.

Addendum, 27 July 2015: More from Douglas – Anatomy of a Bad-Faith Argument.

Addendum, 30 July 2015: Drew Franklin’s The Logic of Racial Justice Rhetoric (pt. 1) (I’m very much looking forward to subsequent installments.)

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