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Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black[…]

Race as discussed in academia should not be treated as just a social construct.

Question: What needs to change in academia?

Harris-Lacewell: The academy has changed, especially if you sort of think about the elite academy, but in a way that I’m not sure is great.  So maybe it’s important, but really imperfect in some important ways.  So I would say the biggest change in our discussion of race is that we talk about race as a social construction.  We keep pointing out that race is not a biological reality.  And except for Skip Gates at Harvard who is taking everybody’s blood sample and determining our DNA relationships around race, and thereby reasserting this kind of “blood is race”, everybody else has moved on past DNA, and past blood, and is thinking much more carefully about how race gets constructed through our laws, cultural practices, common self-understandings, those kinds of things.  And that’s really important, except that it’s not how most people actually experience their lives.  So I’m empiricist, right?  I’m a political scientist who’s out there in the world empirically trying to grasp how people are experiencing their own lives.  And I guess I’d have to say race feels really real on a day-to-day basis even if it’s a socially constructed identity.  When you have to get your hair done and you need a Black barbershop, that feels real, not socially constructed, right?  When you’re pulled over by the police and you’re nervous because he’s a White guy and you’re Black, that feels real.  When Don Imus calls you a nappy-headed ho, that feels real.  That doesn’t feel like, oh, this is just a part of this kind of, you know, fluid notions of human identity that emerge across . . .  Maybe, but I am concerned that part of what happens when the academy shoots off that way is that it fails to be able to talk about people’s life experiences; the kind of humanity with which we understand our race and experience our racialized cells.  That your Black body moving around in New York; your Black body on the train in Mississippi; your Black body sitting on the Beach in California evokes different behaviors, attitudes, opinions than the White body does.  And that, I think, we lose when we focus exclusively on the socio-historical constructions of race.