The realms of modern science and debate pose a unique contradiction: as society gathers more knowledge, it seemingly becomes even harder to answer some of the fundamental questions one might have as a human being. In fact, public consciousness has transformed so much that it is now impossible to view concepts as simple as race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity without spiraling down the net of theories surrounding social constructionism, intersectionality, biological determinism, and so on. The purpose of this paper is to examine the notion of social constructs such as gender, race, and sexuality as they exist somewhere on the inter-rim of reality and fiction.
Race or ethnicity is not necessarily real, which means that racial and ethnic categories can be fluid, subjective, and sometimes irrational. While there is certainly a trend among modern thought leaders to label everything a social construct, it is crucial to look deeper and uncover the history behind the development of social constructionist approaches. John Skalko gives a social construct the definition of an entity “whose meaning is based on agreement by members of a given society” (1).
Thus, not only gender and sexuality are social constructs but the role of a President or the idea of Santa Claus. They exist primarily because humans agree that they do, which makes currencies, and money, in general, a great example as well. Without prior agreement, currencies or borders of nations would cease to exist. If one ponders about the objective reality, then the money is real as they can touch and smell it. However, a crucial notion that lies at the very foundation of social constructionism is that unless people decide what papers and coins represent, there is no actual value in them. Similarly, what makes race a social construct is the fact that while a person may look different because of the color of their skin, which would make race real, it is actually the skin color that is real, while the race is the system of beliefs and behaviors people have surrounding a person’s coloring.
In opposition to social constructionism stands the idea of essentialism, which prioritizes biologically determined characteristics of individuals. Sahin notes that essentialism is “an approach assuming that people and things have natural and essential common characteristics which are inherent, innate and unchanging” (193). Thus, essentialists view sexuality as a constant for all individuals, which makes it not change across time and place. Therefore, concepts such as sexuality or gender become “truths” everyone has, which are biologically determined and inherent.
However, essentialism supports biological determinism, which argues that one’s genetic makeup fully shapes their social roles. An example that demonstrates the flaws of such a view is the fact that race is not biological, as there are no genes common to all members of one race or another. Furthermore, if the concept were in any way “real” in terms of genetics, then race would remain constant across geographical and cultural boundaries. Instead, the race is undeniably fluid as a person considered Black in the United States can be re-categorized as White in South America. While modern society still largely functions on the notion that race is rigid, it is apparent that the way an individual perceives their racial identity can transform through time and change with experience.
Despite the argument that posits race and gender are not real, assuming that these concepts exist simply in people’s heads would be wrong as well. After all, social constructs of difference develop in existing systems of power and privilege, which makes the impact of being categorized into a certain group non-fictitious and, thus, crucial to acknowledge. For instance, racialized differentiations evolve within the context of power relations, which include slavery, lynching, segregation, and White supremacy when it comes to African-Americans in the U.S. The same is true with gendered and sexualized aspects of the social construction of inherent difference.
Thus, it is crucial to recognize that social constructs can be real in terms of people’s beliefs about one another and how they choose to interact with each other. In the context of sexuality, it is evident that modern U.S. society is heteronormative. The media validates the idea that heterosexuality is something deviant, abnormal, and unacceptable. The study, which sought to examine the impact of the coming-out process on LGB athletes, uncovered that people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual face social stigma (Petty and Trussell 176). Common assumptions and myths regarding members of the LGB community are that gay men are child molesters, same-sex families are bad for children, homosexuality is caused by childhood trauma, gay people are more likely to have an addiction as well as mental issues, and so on.
While these horrific beliefs are not made of matter, and one can not touch them, they are real in every sense of the word as they form people’s attitudes, which are then translated into action. Unfortunately, this means discriminatory behaviors, policies, and practices targeting gay individuals. Varrella presented the most recent statistics on homosexuality in the U.S. as part of the yearly Statista homosexuality report. The nation has a long way to go to secure broad legal protection for members of the LGBT community as the data reveals that 1,429 gay or lesbian people have been victims of hate crimes in the United States in the year 2019 (Varrella).
Moreover, there have been more than 300 cases of assault on gay or lesbian individuals in 2019 (Varrella). Thus, it is apparent that sexuality, as a social construct, leads to actual, real-life outcomes, some of them horrifying and disgusting.
Although someone’s perception of their racial identity may be fluid, which hints at the fictitious aspect of the race, what makes the concept really is the rigidity of the political and economic meanings of being categorized as White or Black. Racial classifications lead to tangible outcomes based on the assumptions about people’s differences based on skin color and hair texture they produce. Historically, Americans were quick to embrace the very notion of “race” to justify slavery. The idea of race continues to shape the way people interact with one another, which is why it is important for multiracial individuals to choose which box they tick and whether they are Black, or possibly White-passing, or else.
“Truths” people are accustomed to not recognizing and blindly following are often not true or factual in any way at all. Race, gender, and sexuality are merely examples of humanity’s need to cope with reality and make sense of the outside world by categorizing everything and treating it in accordance with pre-determined assumptions everyone agrees on. While the theory of social constructionism offers a new perspective on centuries-old concepts considered inherent and unalterable, it is crucial to acknowledge that social constructs can be real as well and not exist exclusively in people’s minds.
Petty, Lisa, and Trussell Dawn E. “Experiences of Identity Development and Sexual Stigma for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young People in Sport: ‘Just Survive Until You Can Be Who You Are.’” Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, vol. 10, no. 2, 2016, pp. 176-189. Taylor & Francis Online. Web.
Sahin, Mehmet. “Essentialism in Philosophy, Psychology, Education, Social and Scientific Scopes.” Journal of Innovation in Psychology, Education and Didactics, vol. 22, no. 2, 2018, pp. 193-204. Web.
Skalko, John. “The Incoherence of Gender as a Social Construct.” Ethics & Medics, vol. 45, no. 4, 2020, pp. 1-2. Philosophy Documentation Center. Web.
Varrella, Simona. “Homosexuality in the United States: Statistics and Facts.” Statista. Web.