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Racism: Race is a Social Construct

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Race, an indefinite term socially constructed from the idea of what it is, presents a damaging ideology on the basis of perception. Formed and shaped by the external force of society and the internal force of self-identity, this constant and persistent struggle of notions at odds with one another results in a flawed hierarchy of power and status. Ultimately, the problem of racism remains unanswered and unsolved, for it’s difficult to change beliefs that refuse to see reason. An enemy of freedom, racism provokes resistance; be it an outright protest or a silent fight, done with dignity, it’s the greatest show of noncompliance. All desire behind revolution has meaning and reason, but not all reason should stem from the desire for violence.

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Racism isn’t something that’s learned, it’s influenced and projected by a mass accumulation of degradation from a self-imposed superior race; it’s a refuge for the ignorant that pick at faults in differences and seeks invalidation of similarities. Much like how Assata and her people “had been completely brainwashed and [they] didn’t even know it” into “accept[ing] white value systems and white standards of beauty and, at times…the white man’s view of [them]selves. [They] had never been exposed to any other point of view or any other standard of beauty” (Shakur 31). In the midst of the loss of freedom, control is something everyone strives for, even if it is miniscule—even if it’s for a brief moment. But, when everything has become interdependent—whether by force or choice—there is no absolute control over anything, much less, themselves. Rather, the only aspect in abundance is influence, the power of others that seems to function linearly and prominently. Day by day, the truth becomes masked by lies, and in the denial of reality—that there truly is beauty in everything despite what others say—results in abandoning self-knowledge for mere perceptions; external perceptions that alter what someone thinks about who they are, what they say, and what they do. The only choice in the matter is whether or not to believe in the influence—good or bad—or not all racism is “out in the open. It [is] undercover” (Shakur 34). It is with this subliminal stimulus that creates the biggest impact; this “brainwashing” in order for the so-called inferior group to adhere and conform to standards and values that deviate from their own. The by-product of social perceptions trains people to be accustomed to see certain features as striking or significant; so much that they grow to accept it.

Aside from Assata’s experience, Tayo in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony stated, “I always wished I had dark eyes like other people. When they look at me they remember things that happened” (Silko 92). For the supposed “sin” of his mother who “went with white men” (Silko 118), Tayo suffers the consequences of outside judgment; so much that it sways him into wishing he could change this unchangeable feature. Eyes are windows to the soul, but to change his eye color—this integral part of his identity—would equate to opening a metaphorical window that once offered excursions with privileged glimpses into his true self, only to see snippets of another’s life not his own. This projection of ignorance from oppressors is due to the fact that disparities, as T’seh—a wise symbolic character—said, “scares them…most people are afraid of change…They are fools. They blame us, the ones who look different. That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves” ‘ (Silko 92). Oppressors fear the idea of integration and unity; it is much easier to deal and think in terms of separation and control. As Robin D.G. Kelley said in his lecture on Racial Capitalism, “the purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not black people” (Kelley, 1:00:15). Racism controls the actions of the oppressors, yet the thoughts of the oppressed.

Racial capitalism, deriving both social and economic value from the racial identity of another person, allows oppressors to confine others across a full spectrum of realms, in order to emphasize that the oppressed fail in comparison in every aspect. Race and identity are often mistakenly intertwined, but on the contrary, Robin D.G. Kelley—the first African-American on the Harmsworth Chair of American History at Oxford University—claims that there is more to it, for “race isn’t simply primarily about an identity. We confuse sometimes race with identity. It is a structure of power, or means of structuring power through difference” (Kelley, 7:18). When it comes down to it, race is a power relationship; racial categories aren’t only based on variances alone, but it’s also about segmenting people into groups for the purposes of domination, exploitation, and attacking. Fundamentally, as Assata wrote, “the rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives” (Shakur 50). In doing so, this makes power visible and tangible; what those in power can touch, those without it cannot. The usage of the word “considered” suggests the presence of debate and rethinking—a consideration—between property and lives, but by negating the word “considered” with the preceding “always,” throws that idea into the wind. There’s nothing more important than basking in the glory of class and status—in power from above—because “racial capitalism, much of it’s about value” (Kelley, 6:16). Money might not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy power, “lock, stock, and barrel” (Shakur 119). Pride and dignity are hooked up to position and money. Without one, you can’t have the other, and that’s exactly the point and definition of racial capitalism; rulers single out weaknesses of others and turn it into their own strengths to skew class and hierarchical structures to their benefit.

Love can dispel hate, if the oppressed have the willpower to fight—to break free from the chains that bind them—against an identity created by others; power is in the hand of the beholder to yield or wield. Only when someone lets go of all the things that weigh them down—judgment, contempt, and fear—can they truly learn how to fly; by and for themselves alone. In the beginning, Assata’s grandparents would instill in her the idea that she had to be like the whites in order to succeed, but “becoming ‘somebody’ in life just didn’t mean too much to [her]. [She] wanted to feel happy, to feel good” (Shakur 21). Despite wanting all these good things and feelings for herself, Assata still falls into the lure of conformity in the beginning by admitting, “I never questioned the things [the whites] thought were good…And everything they wanted, i wanted. I saved my culture, my music, my dancing, the richness of Black speech for the times when i was with my own people…In many ways i was living a double existence” (Shakur 37). Grammatically and typographically, the I is always capitalized because it refers to and represents an individual, much like the capitalization of first names. In this case, in choosing to omit the capitalization and opting for the lower case, Assata is conveying a loss of individuality—that these so called idealistic desires aren’t her own, but rather out of a sense to fit in. The conversion of “I” to simply “i” also applies to the “double existence” she aforementioned. Though denoting the same meaning of the pronoun, the editorial style of the letter insinuates very distinctive measures of self. Further, she realizes consciously, that, “[she] was a puppet and [she] didn’t even know who was pulling the strings” (Shakur 38). In a sense, she likely does know, but would rather not admit to the truth of being pulled in various directions—to act as the “puppeteer” wishes. Additionally, “puppet” has negative connotations in the sense that the control isn’t in one’s hand—they’re acting as others please. At a turning point, Assata recognizes that to cover up and throw away yourself for others—to take on an unrealistic image—is “sad and disgusting,” for “when you go through all your life processing and abusing your hair so it will look like the hair of another race of people, then you are making a statement and the statement is clear” (Shakur 174). Repetition of the word “statement” expresses a meaningful declarative sentence, one that is against changing and—with emphasis—“abusing”—one’s looks, trading it for another’s—but for what? To Assata, the cultural and original appearance “was a matter of simple statement…this is who [she] is and this is how [she] likes to look. This is what [she] thinks is beautiful…it was important not just because of how good it made [her] feel but because of the world in which I loved” (Shakur 174). The growth and shift from her grandparents’ idea of what’s “good” for her and her own developed definition displays maturity and a strong grasp on self-identity; without the need for input from others. In the end, Assata states that, “the first place [the] change begins is in yourself” (Shakur 203). The only way to change the world is to first start with oneself.

Though change can happen over time and in the silence, sometimes violence is a last resort. Assata writes, “nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them” (Shakur 139). Where words fail, actions may take precedence. But that doesn’t mean that freedom comes without consequences. Even if “there’s no sacrifice that’s too big to make” (Shakur 138), that depends largely on the sacrifice itself. If the stakes are between life and death, is that price too big to pay when there’s no compensation? Regardless, battles should only be a penultimate solution, for the goal of any revolution must be peace; fighting fire with fire would never douse the flames of resentment.

Though arduous and a test against time, it’s not impossible to redefine racism; there’s always good in the bad—no matter how minuscule—it’s still there. If it’s a social construct, then it can be deconstructed, in the same way it was built—by people, over time. If it’s a misguided way of thinking, then it can be redirected. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Tools can backfire and so, in order to find true balance, the oppressed should stray from succumbing to the same actions as those of their oppressors.   

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