You are doing social justice wrong (Racism is real. Race is a social construct.)

If asked to recall a section of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, many people would most probably come up with this line: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” For so many compounded reasons—economic, social, political, and other—we are still very far from achieving Dr. King’s dream, in this nation or around the world. Racism remains a very real, very institutionalized problem, entrenched even within discourse of equality and resolution today; however, race itself is a damaging, colonialist social context, and the continued practice of defining and categorizing by “race” as if it is some scientific fact is one of the largest impediments we face because it stops us from talking about real, addressable underlying problems.

Language and syntax directly informs and limits the way we can think, speak, think about what we hear, and speak about what we think. Language helps us to shape perception of our world and culture, and likewise, our perception of our world and culture shape our use of language. This is an oversimplification of syntactical studies, linguistics, discourse studies, and a few other things, but it is an important thing to realize when we start to talk about racism and how to solve it. For example, think about the options for diversity surveys on job applications: the diversity of the world’s varied ethnicities and their combinations are reduced to five, maybe six choices. In what way does that allow people to identify what their ethnic origins are? After all, that is what the question of “race” is meant to interrogate: where do people come from?

If we are trying to identify ethnic origins, asking for “race” is fundamentally asking the wrong question. Race, as a term, has a long and sordid history based in colonialization and the foundation of anthropology, where people wanted a “scientific” justification for why it was okay to treat other people, nations, and cultures as “not-human.” Thus, a classification system for treating different ethnicities and nationalities as different species was born. The fallacy of this system was that humans are all the same species; we aren’t talking cats, dogs and horses here. Yet, despite the fact that race is not a real thing when applied to different human beings from different places, we use the constructed binaries and false dichotomies of “race” when trying to talk about ending systemic prejudices and, in general, discrimination and human rights.

Considering this, it is no wonder that we don’t ever seem to move forward when it comes to ending racism. If we cannot really define what we are talking about when we talk about race, we cannot come to a real solution. Ideally, the long-term, hard fought solution is starting a conversation about human rights, and that all human beings, regardless of any perceived differences, are entitled to the same rights and privileges. The everyday solution that is part and parcel of this requires making small ripples when faced asked to identify race. Answer human. Gauge a response and start a conversation. Ask what someone’s ethnicity is. Better yet, forget what they look like and ask them about their childhood, their interests, what they want to do in the future. And remember, there is only one “race”: human.

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