Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bacon-Flavored Strawberries: Gene Marks Is Socially Constructed, And So Are You

So the latest face-melting jackassery doing the Tour de Shame on the SJ blogosphere is this prize putrescence, “If I Were A Poor Black Kid”. It's exactly as skull-crushingly awful as you'd expect: a rich white dude bragging about how he would be way better at poorblackkid-ing than poor black kids are, and if only people who actually are poor black kids would be as good at poorblackkid-ing as this rich white dude would totally be, then they could all be rich white dudes too. Or: “If I hadn't been born at the top of the heap, I'd've pulled myself up here by my own bootstraps!”

Obviously this is pukatronic, in more ways than I can possibly enumerate, but I think the thing that frustrates me most about Poorblackkidgate is the utter lack of self-awareness. Postmodernism is older than the Beatles; it should be old hat by now, and yet apparently people – people who are given a platform and are listened to – are still unwilling or unable to acknowledge that they are socially constructed. A rich white dude cannot say, “If I were a poor black kid...”, because it is meaningless. If he were a poor black kid, he would not be the person he is. He would have different opinions, different personality traits, different ways of expressing himself. In writing his article, he envisions Himself – Gene Marks, rich white dude – transplanted into the body of a poor black child, all his beliefs and morals and experiences and viewpoints intact. It's a breathtaking failure of imagination.

Ours is a very individualistic, libertarian, self-determinative society. We all like to think that our Self is this essential inner truth which simply is. Time and time again, though, it's been proved that most (if not all) of our identity is socially constructed.


Born this way” seems like a nice sentiment at first. Don't discriminate against me, because I didn't choose to be gay any more than I chose to have big feet. Well, that's problematic of itself (it smacks of apology: if I could choose, I'd totally be straight!), but “born this way”? Demonstrably not. Ancient Rome didn't have Pride parades, because Ancient Romans didn't have the cultural category of “gay”. They had gay sex, just like every human society, but they had no concept of “gay” as an identity. If I'd been born in Ancient Rome, I would not be gay, because the categorization of sexual orientation did not exist. My sexual desires might be the same as they are now, but they would not be framed as ontological gayness. I would not be gay.

What frightens people, and makes them reluctant to admit to their social construction, is that they think this would make their identity/selfhood somehow less valid. It doesn't. My being gay isn't any less real for being a social construct. President Obama's blackness isn't any made less significant by race being a scientifically nonsensical category. Social realities are still realities.

Saying, “If I were a poor black kid, I'd pull myself up by my bootstraps to reach the position I'm in today” ignores social realities. It's pure fantasy. It's like saying, “If this piece of bacon were a strawberry, it would be a bacon-flavored strawberry.” You're imputing the properties of bacon to something that is not bacon, and thus what you are saying is nonsense. If this piece of bacon were a strawberry, chances are very good it would taste like a fucking strawberry.

This is why I got so angry back in August at the rhetoric demonizing the rioters in London. To dismiss criminals as sub-human “scum” is to completely overlook the social construction that makes breaking the law unthinkable for you but quite doable for them. To say, “If I were a poor black kid I'd work really hard and get good grades” is to utterly ignore the social construction that makes bootstraps seem like the solution to you but unrealistic for, you know, actual poor black kids. It's the Enlightenment fallacy I wrote about last time: assuming that your (probably straight/white/rich/cis/male) reality is everyone's reality.

Recognizing that you are socially constructed does not make you not socially constructed, any more than recognizing your privilege makes you not privileged. What it does do is give you the critical tools to identify the way specific aspects of yourself are socially constructed, to understand therefore that other people are constructed differently, and to sympathize therefore with their point of view. It confers on you the epistemological humility to see that yours is not the only, nor even the definitive, reality. It empowers you to question everything you've always been told about how the world works, both explicitly and implicitly, and to see in what ways power differentials and systemic injustices are shored up by cultural reification.

It's arguably the most important tool you can have, and – unlike BOOTSTRAPS!!1eleventy – it doesn't require you to begin from a particular social location. If Gene Marks were self-aware, he wouldn't be talking about bacon-flavored strawberries.


  1. This is the big discussion in trans* issues, particularly the break between some transsexual women and the idea of the transgender umbrella. Even Julia Serano (who I really like) seems to make the argument of some sort of innate gender because otherwise, why would transsexual people exist?

    I can see both sides, I suppose. After all, taking the transsexual example again, if society constructed people to never be transsexual, and to be perfectly within two genders, then why have there been people who don't fit?

  2. Yeah, I definitely struggle with the question of gender. Like, when I see a trans* person assert that an innate gender definitely exists, it kind of pisses me off, because that's not my experience of it; but then I don't want to assert that an innate gender definitely doesn't exist, because clearly in their experience it does. Maybe gender is real for some people and not others, or something.

  3. (libractivist here from Shakesville.)

    I love this post. Well done. I really need to just start following your blog.

    On the gender thing, I've been thinking a lot about that myself (at this point I'd consider myself non-binary gendered or genderqueer.) I think you hit the nail on the head with the sexual orientation comment you made about Ancient Rome: sexual attraction is probably not (entirely) socially constructed, but sexual identity is. Similarly, I think there's some sort of innate gender impulse that we have constructed gender identities around, but just like sexual orientation the social constructions don't always fit very well, and aren't necessarily the only or best way of categorizing us.

  4. Thanks very much, libractivist. That's a pretty solid theory about gender identity. I think part of the problem is that we've had millennia of natural law theorists conflating "natural" with both "good" and "unchangeable" (usually to justify their oppression of others), and so when I hear somebody saying something is natural or innate I tend to assume they also think it's good and unchangeable. Which, of course, it isn't. I mean, it's natural and innate to operate on the principle of survival of the fittest, and yet we as human beings can and should be far more than that, right?

  5. Its pretty interesting that we seem to then come to another Enlightenment era idea when speaking about social constructivism then: tabula rasa. I mean, the problem is that there is no real way of determining how natural or inborn something is, so it seems a fools errand to try to tell people what they are 'naturally'. On the other hand, I do think it's not completely outside of possibility that certain personality traits and other such things are at least partially influenced by things beyond society's control.

    The problem I see when gender comes into it is that, while I see things like ' level of patience' being something that might be influenced by biology, people use this idea to then reify a group of unrelated traits (which might go either way for different people). label them 'male' and 'female', and then say that that is inborn. It's the grouping that is problematic: saying certain things are inborn might not be.

    I hope that makes some sense?

  6. there was a book in the 1960's called 'Black Like Me'. the author, a white man, altered his appearance and was assumed to be Black.
    few white people could do that, but what we can do is occasionally go places and attend events where we are not in the majority. we can listen. we let someone else speak. we can stand up for our friends and associates when other white people are being unfair or racist. I don't know what Black youth should do, they should ask their parents.