For decades, anthropologists have been teaching the line that race, gender, sexuality, and any number of other things are social constructs. It’s an effective pedagogical tool – we get a kick out of it every time a student’s face lights up with realization as we explain the “myth” of race, and the historical conditions on which these ideas are founded. And then the students go out of the classroom a little more enlightened, and ready to wield the whip of social construction against anyone who still clings to a notion of biological determinism.
But a little enlightenment can be a dangerous thing. Without the full background in history, theory, and social reality, these students often go out into the world believing that, since race and gender a social constructions, all we have to do is stop believing in them and they’ll go away. It’s this colorblind and genderblind attitude that allows the system to continue – because you can’t destroy a system simply by not believing in it!
I’ve made the argument before that we need recognize and teach that social constructs are not just false realities, but that they are themselves real – material-semiotic constructions built over time that shape our lives in significant ways. In the wake the repeated police killings of Black people, the ongoing destruction of indigenous culture, and the persistent abuse of women, we need to begin teaching that social constructs kill. They kill not just with bullets in guns – though it is increasingly apparent that they do that too – but also through restricted access to resources, through repeated stress and trauma, through inadequate medical care, through imprisonment, and many other pressures that don’t make it onto the nightly news because they are not dramatic and eventful.
We need to teach this, and to help our students examine the ways that social constructs infuse their own lives. We need to help them recognize the ways that they are often complicit in the killing, so that maybe, when they go out into the world they’ll be equipped not just to dispel myths, but to fight for justice.