Scott Woods: Stop Saying Race is a Social Construct Until You Mean It

A noble and accurate statement doesn’t always recognize the way race functions.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
Protesters march in Columbus in April 2021.

This is basic Anti-Racism 101, but stating that “race is a social construct” isn’t the intellectual burn you think it is.

When you say “race is a social construct,” you’re basically trying to thwart, not only debate, but the very real effects of racism. It is noble to want to dismantle an unreal and destructive perception in the interest (we assume) of building a better, more equitable world. Except that’s not how the statement is used or how race functions.

As an individual, there are a great many decisions you can make that preclude race. You can decide who you love regardless of race. You can hire someone without regard to their race. You can worship somewhere and not concern yourself with the liturgical body. Congratulations: You’re a decent basic human being if you do. That said, the world isn’t largely run by individuals. It is run by political and economic systems (which, at the end of the day, is redundant). It is run by social and ecological materialities. Race has no scientific basis in reality—there is almost nothing of grand import in the differences between melanated and less-melanated people—but the world doesn’t operate on the basis of science. It operates on the basis of values (more social constructs!). No amount of Stevie Wonder records imploring us to be as colorblind as he is will change that. (And even he makes room to point out the very un-colorblind reality of racism. Literally wrote a funk workout called “Black Man.”)

Saying “race is a social construct” is technically true, but it doesn’t change anyone’s reality by saying so, which should be the goal. We should be seeking to bring energy and work into the world that changes things, not that levels us all into a political zombie state. It is even dangerous in the sociopolitical era we find ourselves in to make too proud a stance of being enlightened in this way. While you are proclaiming that race is a social construct, actual constructs devised to destroy people of all colors are working overtime. These machines do not feed on your enlightenment. They are fueled by action and demise. We cannot afford to put that kind of sugar in our gas tanks.

Money is a social construct, and yet its hold on every facet of reality cannot be overstated. The purpose of buildings like churches and schools and banks and offices are social constructs; we make up what happens inside of them. Religion is a social construct, as are faith and the concept of gods. How many times do we use these things that, technically, only exist when and where we say they do? And how many times have they affected someone’s life regardless of that person’s acceptance of them as a reality? I’d point out that the Crusades were basically a war of social constructs, but frankly, every war is.

People who say this out loud with their chest think that you’re hitting yourself in the face with your own hands if you act along lines that acknowledge race. The better analogy is that they are akin to someone standing on a beach telling you that it's OK to go into the water while a hurricane is happening. When the car goes flying into your living room, the problem isn’t that the car or the hurricane is real, but that you think it is, and that somehow opens the door to misery. I don’t really know how they explain those instances in which racism visits them and they’re subjected to its impacts because they’re too busy telling me something racist just happened to them. 

Scott Woods

Saying race is a social construct is the cousin to the phrase, “I don’t see color.” Really, if you want to get anything done in the interest of building a better world instead of denying your way into a new existence, it’s best that neither one of them gets an invite to the cookout.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.