How to Respond When Someone Tells You That Race Is a Construct
You have nothing to prove. Sometimes, the best thing to do is walk away.
A couple of months ago I wrote an essay about my experience growing up as a light-skinned Black woman in the United States.
I wanted to speak honestly about internalized racism and how it has manifested throughout my life. My hope was that by turning a critical eye inward and engaging with my flawed journey — still flawed, by the way— I might be able to offer a road map for people working through similar issues.
It was a tough piece, and I received a wide variety of responses. Some were complimentary. One of the first was from a mother who said she was excited to share the essay with her teenage daughter. That melted me completely.
Some responses were questioning. One reader asked how I could side with Blackness without reinforcing the same binary value systems I was critiquing. It was a wonderful question that I gave a very brief answer to, which the reader seemed pleased by — I’m planning to write a more comprehensive response soon.
Then, of course, there were other less productive responses. For the most part, these were personal judgments phrased as inquiries. Example: “Why are you such a bad person?”
Generally, these responses were such transparent projections that I didn’t give them a second glance. These people were really asking: “What gives you the right to imply that I’m a bad person?”
The simple answer, had I chosen to give it, would have been that this piece wasn’t about them at all. It was about me. If someone gestures to a wound and says “This hurts,” and you respond with “How is that my fault? Stop attacking me!” then a nuanced conversation just isn’t on the table. It was easy to skip over those responses.
Then I received one that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t skip over. One that was so absurd that it warranted several glances. Unfortunately, I decided it also warranted a response.
The message, from a person we’ll call “Harold,” started by asserting that “race was an archaic construct which has been dismissed by the scientific community,” so any discussion regarding racism was outdated and irrelevant.
Harold continued to say that I was being racist for talking about race. Then they spent several paragraphs passionately asserting that my issue wasn’t with institutionalized racism but with my own flawed character. I was just blaming others for my bad decisions and refusing to take responsibility for my behavior, etc.
The comment had all the markers of a bad faith argument. It was more of a personal attack than a conversation starter. I shouldn’t have engaged, but I did.
I engaged because Harold’s response had a quasi-intellectual quality that just so happens to be extremely effective on me — future trolls, take note. Having spent the majority of my life fighting to be taken seriously in academic and intellectual spaces, I’m still learning that I have nothing to prove to people on the internet who like to call women uninformed or, in this case, “profoundly unscientific.”
Spark meet fuse.
As a writer who frequently discusses this subject, I am well aware that race is a construct. There are no biological differences between races. They aren’t essential. Race is just an idea that perpetuates a value system. One that encourages the exploitation of certain people — labeled Black and Brown — for the comfort and economic gain of other individuals — labeled white.
It’s pure mythology to declare that the scientific community as a whole has rejected the idea of race.
So yes, Harold was technically correct. Race itself isn’t real. However, they left out some important context.
Like how, despite the fact that race doesn’t exist, people still believe in it. Even scientific people who, for the record, are human beings—with internalized biases and prejudices just like everyone else.
It’s pure mythology to declare that the scientific community as a whole has rejected the idea of race. There are still, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, studies that seek to measure differences between races.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the idea of race endures.
When individuals act on those ideas of race, the very real process of racism occurs. It occurs in our labor market. It occurs in our legal process. In our housing process. Our hospitals. Our homes. Our schools.
I could go on.
I could talk forever about how I know racism is real. I could further outline its effects on my community. I could attempt to sway Harold by emphasizing the humanity of the people who have lost their lives to this ideology. To the prison industrial complex. To the southern border. To Flint. To police in Louisville, Minneapolis, New York, and every other city in every other state.
I could throw every racist experience and event I know of at Harold hoping that something might stick to them. Even so, I know that nothing will stick to them.
I will exhaust myself in service of this person I do not know, and it will change nothing. Of course, it won’t. This is all theoretical for Harold. A nuisance at most. To Harold, this back-and-forth is a no-stakes game of cards. Just something to do.
The best answer for why I engaged anyway would be because I felt like it. Because I was venting. I was not hoping for any outcome other than the relief of having said my piece. I got righteously mad and was spitting fire just for myself.
The truer answer is that people like Harold have been dismissing me and calling me unintelligent my entire life. I reacted because I felt like I had something to prove.
This essay exists to remind me and anyone else reading it that we have nothing to prove. Especially not to those individuals who are determined to dismiss and undermine us.
As a Black woman, a queer women, and a fat woman, I am so used to fighting for a seat at the table. At any table. Then, when I get a spot, I fight even harder to stay there. It’s exhausting. Structurally disenfranchised people spend so much of our precious time fighting to be heard—arguing our value in the labor market, legal process, housing process, hospitals, homes, and schools.
I usually don’t have much choice in the matter.
If my boss is harder on me than my co-workers because I’m fat and they assume I’m lazy and don’t work as hard, I have to push back against that. If a teacher only calls on the white students in class when I’m trying to get an education, I have to push back against that. If a doctor undermines my pain as a symptom because I’m a woman and they refuse to give me adequate and comprehensive care, I have to push back against that.
If a person calls me dumb on the internet, it might be a good idea to ignore them. If only to conserve energy for all the other battles I’m required to fight in a day of surviving in this body. I have to stop throwing that energy into black holes with no stake in the conversation.
Regardless, I love my work. I love the process of putting something into the world and sharing space with readers who’ve seen the value in it. I love the questions I’m asked when they are compassionate and earnest. I love having the opportunity to share what I know and learn what I don’t.
When it's honest, genuine, and unpretentious, another person’s perspective is a real gift.
Those conversations are worthy ones. Productive ones. They are nothing like the battles I have to fight to thrive in this country, and they are nothing like the conversation I entered with Harold.
One of the last things Harold said to me was that I should get off my high horse.
The last thing I said to them was that they should try finding their own horse to ride because I was done crawling through the mud with them.