Social Construction of Difference Allan Johnson's Article Essay

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Social Construction of Difference

Allan Johnson's article discusses how various forms of difference in American society are socially constructed. He begins his argument by referring to a comment made by American novelist James Baldwin who once suggested that there in reality were no blacks or whites, but only the perceptions of blackness and whiteness.

Johnson and Baldwin do not reject the physiological differences people may have, but Johnson's powerful argument suggests that there are social meanings we attach to our physiological differences which have become more significant in our lives. And that is the essence of social construction. A "white" person is not simply someone with a white complexion of the skin, but in our society we attach a whole set of characteristics and behavioral traits that we presumably believe belong to a white person. It is this premise that allows many people to say that certain and certain groups of people do, or do not, act "white" -- or, for that matter, "black."

Johnson argues that the same approach holds true with regard to what we consider to be "normal." The "normal" in our social perception is the standard which we consider to be the rule, and against which we assess those who do not follow the same standard. In this way, we attach a list of characteristics and traits to people who demonstrate differences in their look or behaviors. These characteristics we attach to certain groups of people are not necessarily real. For example, as Johnson argues, we do not consider 100 million Americans who cannot see properly without the help of eyeglasses as "disabled." That is because we have been accustomed to assume that it is "normal" to have visual problems for everyone. However, in many other cases, a person's disability becomes a marker, an identity of the person. "And that difference is not a matter of the disability itself," Johnson writes, "but of how it is constructed in society and how we then make use of that construction in our minds to shape how we think about ourselves and other people and how we treat them as a result."

The social construction of difference is excellently illustrated in the movie Crash (2004).

In the scene when Farhad, a Persian man, and his daughter Dorri are trying to buy a gun, she shop's owner refuses to sell them a gun. In the shop owner's eyes, Farhad and Dorri are not merely persons from Iran, but presumably people with different characteristics and traits that make them unreliable. And when Farhad is escorted outside, Dorri manages to complete the purchase, but only after enduring verbal sexual harassment from the shop owner. The shop owner is someone who has been socialized to assume that women to a certain degree deserve to be harassed. In a different scene, Jean, played by Sandra Bullock, instructs her husband to hire another locksmith after seeing that the one working in their apartment is a Hispanic man. For Jean, the locksmith is not simply someone who is ethnically Hispanic, but is presumably a person who has characteristics of a gang member.

At the heart of social construction of difference lies a systemic and structural inequality based on privilege. In contradiction to traditional American notion of meritocracy, people in America generally possess privilege not based on what they are capable of doing, but because of their physical appearance, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, social class, and other social markers. The more a person shares the characteristics of what is considered "normal," the more he or she is going to be privileged. Since it is "normal" in America to be heterosexual, heterosexual men and women are more privileged than homosexuals. Likewise, since it is considered "normal" for men to be representatives of government or corporate offices, a women working for government or a big corporation is going to be judged not only for what she does, but also how her womanness supposedly affects her behavior and performance.

Like difference, our identities are also constructed by various social forces. As Patricia Williams argues, racial identities are shaped by how the dominant racial group -- Whites -- impose their views on others. Whites decide what it means to be a person of color. "[I]n a world of normative whiteness," Williams points out, "whiteness [is] defined as the absence of color."

So, we speak about "people of color," by referring to non-whites. This characterization of non-whites is based on an assumption that whites have no color. "Those who privilege themselves as Un-raced," Williams writes about whites, "are always anxiously maintaining that it doesn't matter, even as they are quite busy feeling pity, no less, and thankful to God for their great good luck in having been spared so intolerable an affliction."

In American society today, the construction of difference and identity is linked to popular racialist and prejudiced perceptions. As Bronson and Merryman show in their article "See Baby Discriminate," our presumed color-blindness may actually be an illusion, a smoke screen which hides our inner tendency to stereotype, essentialize, and reinforce the existing racial hierarchy.

For example, at a children's research lab at the University of Texas, Austin, a researcher named Brigitte Vittrup observed a hundred Caucasian families with children of 5 to 7 years old. In most of those families, parents were reluctant to discuss race issues with their kids, some of them in the hopes that avoiding it would make their children color-blind. But when asked how many white people are mean, most children answered "almost none," while when asked the same question about black people, children mostly picked answers "some" and "a lot."

The structural inequality, according to Bronson and Merryman, affects children's perception from the early childhood. Unless parents discuss race matters with their kids, children are more likely to embrace racial differences as given and develop early prejudices about members of other races. Bronson and Merryman say that "children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue -- but we tell kids that 'pink' means for girls and 'blue' is for boys. 'White' and 'black' are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own."

But children do not construct the difference between whites and blacks on their own. Their perceptions are profoundly shaped by what they see in their social environment, what they hear their parents saying, what they see on TV, and the prevalence of segregated neighborhoods and schools which they grow up assuming to be "normal" and the way it should be.

There is an interplay of racism, prejudice, power, and privilege in the functioning of structural inequality in American society. All of them are linked to each other and influence the way differences and identities are constructed. These social constructions may serve the interests of the privileged group but have a destructive impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. "For every social category that is privileged," as Johnson points out, "one or more other categories are oppressed in relation to it. . . . Just as privilege tends to open doors of opportunity, oppression tends to slam them shut."

Thus, the way we understand our identities, the way we mark differences of certain groups of people, and the way we define the normalcy are shaped by existing unequal power relations in American society. And our tendency to identify ourselves with members of our closest social environment, which leads to stereotyping about others, further reinforces the existing social inequality.

Racism as a system of privileging the dominant racial group has a long history in the United States. And without tracing and unpacking the development of racism in America, it is impossible to effectively deconstruct it. Racism in early colonial America played a crucial role in protecting the privileges and economic interests of wealthy whites. It was…[continue]

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