Welcome to the “I Didn’t Want To Ask What That Word Meant” series with your friendly host/Queer Union Treasurer Zev Alexander. I’m not much of a writer of articles or creative thinker, I mostly just go to school and fill out paperwork. So I’m just going to lay down working definitions of common terms in the social justice/queer theory world. It’s scary to ask for definitions of words that people throw around, and sometimes the academic texts can be daunting. So hopefully these will be good jumping-off points. But remember: words mean different things to different people, and everybody’s experience with a word is different. Never be afraid to ask “what do you mean when you use that phrase?”
A social construct is defined in the dictionary “a phenomenon or category created by society… a perception… that is ‘constructed’ by social or cultural practice.” This means that the way an idea is used comes to define certain people, to carry certain significance, and to effect people’s lives. Though often when somebody says “race is a social construct,” or “gender is a social construct,” it can come across as invalidating to somebody’s racial or gendered identity. It is important to think about these terms as cultural processes, rather than as dictation of how somebody must relate to their own lived experience.
For example, race is often imagined to be inherent and defined by the physical characteristics of a person. While this way of thinking- that somebody just looks like their race- effects the way that people live their lives and are treated, it is important to us as a group to think of cultural processes alongside of lived experiences. This means considering the cultural histories and social practices that go into creating these identities, and the alternative ways of imagining identities and defining ourselves.