Ethnicity Studies · graduate school · Native American Studies · personal · Writing

The problem with “real”

I’m becoming irritated with the over-usage of the adjective “real.” It gets attached to so many things. “Real men express their feelings.” “Real women have curves.” “Real adults take responsibility for their actions.” So, men who can’t express themselves aren’t real? Thin women aren’t real? Irresponsible adults aren’t real? What does that mean? Because these people who exhibit tendencies that we don’t associate with “real” are still people. They still exist and have a material existence.

This ties into a lot of the theory I read on authenticity– typically racial or ethnic authenticity, given my field of study, but I think it can connect to other aspects of authenticity as well. Like being a “real American.” As soon as we start attaching the adjective “real” to nouns (and nouns that are often humans) it becomes a matter of shaming people who don’t fit into that category, and the byproducts of shame can range from anger, depression, self-loathing, to hostility and defensiveness.

Another byproduct of applying “real” as a qualifier is that those that fall outside of the definition of “real” often find themselves the subject of societal ridicule and political oppression. Discussions of this abound in ethnic studies. The ramifications have real and material consequences: tribal groups denied their existence because they aren’t registered on the Dawes Roll; individuals denied culture because of blood quantum; individuals ostracized because they aren’t “real” because of where they live, how they dress, how they speak. Groups enslaved because they aren’t “real” humans.

This last is the most dangerous byproduct. Dehumanizing people because of their race, religion, politics, nationality, and actions can lead to the dehumanizing treatment of those people. There’s a reason people use words like “thug” “felon” “insurgent” “rioters” “protester” “liberals” “conservatives” etc., to identify people. It’s so we can forget that they’re people. It’s also why we use words like “savage” why we use racial slurs, why internet trolls are so quick to start hurling adjectives and start focusing on parts of the person, like appearance, race, intelligence, gender, and so on. As soon as we focus on the parts, we can pretend that’s not a person.

So, whether a person acts the way we want them to or not, whether a person behaves morally and ethically or not, that person is still a real person. That person still deserves to be treated as a full and real human being.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s