I can’t decide today not to be black, because the world will insist that I am black, and there are institutions and arrangements that define me that way. I can’t decide not to be black and go in New York and hail a cab. The first cab drivers driving by are not inside my own psychology. So, the construction of race is extremely important, but it’s not individually constructed; it’s socially constructed, and that has material implications and consequences.
– john a. powell, A Civil Conversation with Krista Tippet, On Being, March 10, 2015
The material consequences of our social constructs are only partially understood. In the past nine months the spotlight on incidents of deadly police violence highlights one egregious outcome of the construct of race held by whites in the United States. This construct prompts good men, men with families, men with deep friendships, to run for their lives — fear for their lives and at once deeply understand that they are, at least in the moment, not seen as human and precious — and be killed by other men who report that they fear for their lives. In the latter case that fear is more often embedded in the construct of race than in the reality before them.
Should that spotlight move just a micron in any direction, it would also include a construct of gender and sex that is also appalling. I have seen the spectacular examples of sexism on a trip this last week. But these are only the ones around me, not the ones enacted in bedrooms, boardrooms, hallways, and alleys across the US.
Just the other day a middle-aged man told me that he found the history of the US in the 1960s too gloomy. He thought it more useful to focus on what is going well as we solve the world’s big problems through technology. By extension, activists from the period were seen to be overly sensitive, perverse, and nihilistic. What. Planet.
Then, too, I have been wrestling for some time with the phenomenon that I see among individuals who announce that they reject identities and will live outside them. Whether post-gay, post-racial, or post-gender, their positions seem to me to be suggesting that they seek to avoid the material implications of the identities without doing the concerted work of de-constructing and re-constructing identities. This work is difficult beyond belief because we have so little shared experience as targets and agents in the oppressive systems used to maintain advantages associated with the identities.
Years ago a trusted leader in my life suggested that the elimination of racism will take concentration and focus that would be akin to bending steel with our minds. I think she was pointing to the need to push ourselves to reconstruct our notions of race, gender, sexual identity, age, class, disability and more. But that push will take more than my effort or yours. It will take the collective power of community because, as john a. powell states, these are not “individually constructed.”