After elluding to wanting to talk about social constructionism as a white hegemonic discursive framework on twitter, I figure I should make good on that claim/discussion.
The problems and ills with biological essentialism as a discursive framework are generally well-known and mostly opposed within most anti-oppressive discourse1. And this post isn’t about that. Instead, it is about what usually supplants biological essentialism within our discourse — social constructionism. Broadly speaking, social constructionism asserts that human properties like race, gender, disability, etc aren’t inherent to specific kinds of bodies. Rather, the perception of a racialized body depends on the context (society, in other words) in which that body is viewed. That things like race, gender, disability, are socially mediated rather than inherent qualities to individuals. Note, this isn’t an ontological discussion about whether or not these properties exist but an explanation for why/how these properties exist. It is a description.
There is great liberatory value in understanding human properties in this way. Chief amongst them is the idea that if these properties aren’t inherent to the person but rather about contextual perceptions, these perceptions are significantly easier to change than something inherent. For example, much easier to change with the social construction of race than attempt to rewrite a person’s DNA to change the amount of melanin they have. Basically, if it is human society/culture that assigns value to certain properties and oppresses people with different properties, this is something that can be changed (and, in fact, is almost always already changing). The changeability of the valuation of human properties seemsto confirm how we understand history and the ways that meanings assigned to properties aren’t constant over time, as is suggested by a biologically essentialist model.
At present, all I’m really asserting is that social constructionism is also a white created theory for explaining how things work and that this whiteness — like all whiteness — comes with dangers and problems. Chief of amongst them is the hegemonic nature of the theory and the continual expansion of its territory within discourse.
The question, to a certain extent, is “is everything socially constructed?”. It often seems, at times, that many people’s response (if they are familiar with the theory) is ‘yes’. But the answer cannot be and should not be ‘yes’. If they answer is ‘no’, however, where are all the discussions about the limits and boundaries of social constructionism? What are the boundaries?
One problem is that it is far too easy to assert ‘yes’ and talk about how all things are socially constructed, even when the people holding the beliefs do not believe this is so. Perhaps the easiest limit to social constructionism is religion or spirituality. Social constructionism is a secular system of thought. Fundamentally, it cannot really allow entities like gods, spirits, ancestors, etc to actually exist. Such beings must also be socially constructed (even if this is only asserted by people outside of the tradition). Why? Because socially constructionism doesn’t only oppose biological essentialism but other kinds as well.
I come from a people with strong roots in Catholicism. And it is common enough for some bakla people to think that we are this way because God made us this way. This is an essentialist belief. But it is an essentialist belief not based on biology. It is what could be called ‘theological essentialism’. Most people would assert that you cannot believe both that gender is a social construction AND that God created you to have a specific gender at the same time. Within white discourse such a position is untenable. And part of the problem lies within social constructionism itself, since most of its adherents strictly oppose all essentialist frameworks.
Of course, this example might not be convincing for a lot of people, since who cares if a colonial religion’s perspective on gender is incommesurable with constructionism? Well…
This was just an easy example that didn’t require me to reference any indigenous belief systems. But I also come from a people where my gender has a spiritual dimension within the indigenous worldview (something I’m also not getting into bc it is besides the point). And while I can, within my own worldview, reconcile a general commitment to constructionism and theologically essentialist aspects of my own gender the only way this is possible, as far as I’ve been able to tell, is to understand that there are limits to social constructionism. But also understanding it as a white created theory that also seeks to dislocate my Tagalog worldview because it is still a white created explanatory system. It has no more vested interest in affirming my worldview (or even allowing it to exist) than the medical or scientific strains of biological essentialism favoured by many.
Moreover, you can percieve the whiteness within the theory when you look at its expansionist tendencies. Social constructionism (and its strongest adherents) rarely sketch out any limits to its territory, rather seeking only to furter expand with an aim to bring all phenomena within its borders. It is this prescriptive angle I find most troubling and the way that, in many spaces, there isn’t any room for someone like me to articulate an essentialist/spiritual dimension to my gender without being branded a heretic or reactionary.
(and i have no real idea how to conclude this but i think i’m done writing on this topic for now…)