One often hears people declare something to be “just a social construct” as a way of dismissing its reality or relevance. In reality, the fact that something is a social construct makes it infinitely more powerful and difficult to escape than if it were, for instance, a biological brute fact. We get around biological brute facts all the time. Social forces regulate our eating, drinking, defecation, urination, sexual pairings, etc., etc. Social forces can drive us to suicide — meaning they have overcome the most fundamental biological drive of survival. Biology isn’t infinitely pliable, of course, but it is hardly destiny.
If race or gender were mere biological facts, we could easily overcome them, just as we’ve managed to overcome the differences among the hugely varied genetic inheritance among people whom we group together as “white” or “black” or whatever other race. Even on the level of skin color (undeniably a biological factor), we tend to ignore the rich variety of skin tones in people we refer to as black and white. We’ve all met black people who could pass as white, and white people so swarthy as to defy easy categorization. All those concrete biological differences don’t matter for the sake of the social classification, however. I imagine a similar feat could be achieved if we regarded the possession of certain genital formations or fat deposits as completely indifferent, or sorted out body shapes into categories not governed by the ultimate categories of sex.
But race and gender are not biological facts — they are social constructs, and that means they have shaped us on a deeper level than we can normally become consciously aware of. They have provided a grid of intelligibility that informs our most intimate sense of identity. They are what we do every day. We don’t just get to “opt out” of that. We can’t wake up one fine day and decide we don’t believe in those social constructs. That’s not how it works. The fact that one can even think of opting out of a social construct is itself a reflection of the social forces that produce an individualist blindness that increases the more one is on the “positive side” of a social construct (white, male, straight, etc.).
To put it differently, if you’re on the privileged side of the social construct, you’ve been bought off — and then blinded to that fact. By contrast, if you’re on the denigrated side of the social construct, the strategies are varied and not as effective. Blinding is rarely an option, because only with difficulty can you stay ignorant of a social force when you’re on the receiving end. The social construct might try to buy you off (or let you “buy in”), if you have something the structure wants or needs. But mostly, the social construct will just force the denigrated groups into complicity and compromise in order to survive.
This is why those on the receiving end of a social force are our only hope — most of the time, they can’t blind themselves. They are forced to understand what is going on, while the privileged mostly wander about in blissful ignorance. And along the same lines, the only hope for the privileged is to actually listen to what the denigrated have to say. The blindness of privilege can only be broken from the outside, only be challenged by some initial empathy with the denigrated. Even this process is fraught with danger. The privileged are accustomed to being in charge, so they might turn the denigrated into helpless objects of charity. The privileged are accustomed to thinking they deserve what they have, so the encounter with the denigrated may produce nothing but rationalization — or even a defensiveness that can shade into pre-emptive violence.
When everything you’ve done every day for your entire life presumes that your privilege is natural and right, calling that privilege into question feels like an attack. It’s as though someone were threatening to take away the air you breathe. People who feel like they’re in danger act erratically. There’s no right way to break through that bubble. No amount of politeness can guarantee a positive response, nor is there any direct way to account for the varying degrees of privilege that are always at play — a multi-millionaire could prove to be more open to change than someone barely clinging to respectability.
In short, it’s going to be awkward. For human beings to interact as equals when social constructs have done everything in their power to convince them they’re not equals — that’s awkward. That is by definition a situation not accounted for in social norms. It’s hard to deal with, and one can perhaps understand why a certain type of well-meaning white liberal wants nothing more than to figure out a set of rules that can guarantee that no one is allowed to be offended at what they say, or why everyone is in such a hurry to clarify that they aren’t “personally” racist so as to cloak their statements with a kind of force-field. Perhaps eventually we’ll come up with newer, better rules that respond to the fact of equality rather than trying to disguise and distort it, but that time is not yet — as shown by the very desire for a set of rules that gives white people a free pass. The kinds of norms that would respond to equality can only arise out of the experience of equality, and as things stand now, the experience of equality is an awkward one for all concerned.