Many of us in the humanities have been saying for quite a long time that gender and race are social constructions. I think that people who focus on that argument have generally been arguing with people who I don't talk to or read much: those who would argue that there is something essential about such categories. According to this conception, human beings play no role in the assignment of racial and gender characteristic: they are a reflection of nature, or genetics or some other non-anthroporphic force. Such people do, of course, exist. When I was a kid, I remember my grandmother saying that women who wear pants think that they are men. And even in formal intellectual circles, such things as The Bell Curve do appear from time to time. So if you're opposing those people, I suppose the point cannot be made strongly enough.

But there is a danger in overemphasizing this point. In my journey through the halls of academe, I have frequently this position articulated as one that race or gender isn't "real." Though I suspect in many cases this is mere shorthand, I nonetheless think that this formulation is so inaccurate as to be a barrier to the understanding of the issue. Social constructions are powerful and they certainly exist. To cite perhaps the two most obvious examples, money and the nation-state are social constructions, and they have tremendous effects on people's lives. (I would throw "religion" in there as well, but no need to step on anyone's toes!) To say that "whiteness" or "feminity" or any such category is socially determined is certainly not, in my view, to say that these things do not exist. The first, to me, is clearly true; the second just as obviously false.

Rachel Dolezal Source:

Rachel Dolezal


But if we assume both that race and gender are constructions and that they actually exist, another question arises. To what extent do or should individuals, rather than societies, have the capacity to identify with whatever group they choose? In the news lately has been Caitlyn Jenner, who identifies as a woman, and Rachel Dolezal, a  woman of European extraction who (apparently) identifies as African-American. Speaking generally, the lefty academics I tend to know seem supportive and excited about Jenner but uneasy and ambivalent about Dolezal. If we want to say that gender is fluid and flexible and the individual should find and perform his/her own identity, is not the same thing true of race? And if that is the case, then surely such smaller issues such as the accusations of cultural appropriation leveled at, say, Iggy Azalea would become moot.  If race itself is something that we can choose, it would seem even less controversial that speech patterns, clothing styles, music preferences and other such things that tend to be coded racially would also be up for grabs.

I don't know what to make of this. It might appear that our commitment to the hard-wiring of racial identity (be it genetic or cultural) is in fact stronger than our commitment to parallel issues regarding gender. The accusation against Jenner of "appropriating" femininity just doesn't really resonate and I have a hard time imagining someone taking issue with her on those grounds. (I've heard her criticized for publicizing and implicitly endorsing a specific form of femininity, but that is not the same thing as saying that she is not entitled to the feminine identity.) And both of the examples I've citied involve someone trying to claim an identity that has historically signified lower status rather than higher. Would the example seem different if Jenner were a trans man instead of a trans woman, or if Donezal had been a black woman trying to pass as a white one? I suspect it might, though I cannot even predict what direction the reactions might have gone.

Ultimately, though, the question is this: are we truly looking for a world that is more supportive of the idea that gender and race are personal constructions, rather than cultural ones? If not, why not? And if that understanding is somehow lacking, what other one would better represent the reality of the situation? Is that the same as the one which would be the most humane?