On Racism and Linguistics

Richard Dawkins recently described the headline of an Independent article by Yasmin Alibhai Brown (“I like Corbyn, but let’s face it: we don’t need another white man at the head of a political party”) as “disgustingly racist & sexist.” Alibhai begins the article by sharing an anecdote about her assertion that “the politics of identity are as important as the politics of politics.” She then goes on to make a case for the rising importance of forwarding a minority candidate for the Labour party who can be a force for change in a time when the white male power structures are neglecting and marginalizing the value and importance of diversity. She points to the acknowledgement in American politics of the importance of race, religion, gender, class, etc., and then to the upturned noses of the British elite in the face of a similar demographic makeup:

The UK is the same but most of our deluded leaders – the majority of them white, middle-class men – push the myth of homogeneity and seem to think difference is inconsequential or a damned nuisance. They need to wake up.

The rest of the article discusses examples of how identity politics has influenced the UK and how things could move forward for the better.

Obviously the headline is intended to grab attention, and it was certainly successful in that regard. For Dr. Dawkins, though, it was “disgustingly racist & sexist” because it advocated for avoiding a candidate on the basis of his race and sex. For Dawkins, and for millions of angry white males around the Western world, racism and sexism refer generically to any and all prejudice based on race or sex. Little incites more rage and protest from this demographic than asserting these concepts have primarily to do with prejudices played out within structures of power and oppression, and when I pointed that out, Dawkins predictably appealed to the old “words have meanings” canard:

Setting aside the obviously brilliant tautology of “Duh, racism means racism,” “words have meanings” really means “I don’t understand linguistics, but feel very strongly about what this word can and can’t mean.” (In the interest of space, and because it was the way the discussion proceeded, this post will just address the usage of “racism.”) In subsequent responses to my concerns, he doubled down on his opposition to sound semantic principles:

Here Dawkins is using his celebrity and the authority over all disciplines that his degree in biology clearly affords him to enforce his understanding of the term “racism” over and against the conceptualization agreed upon and promoted by millions and millions of English-speaking people around the world. He demands this definition hold because it protects his position of privilege. If non-white women can be racist and sexist, then he has grounds for rejecting as “disgusting” a demand for minority candidates. Thus white candidates are not as threatened and the minorities are excoriated as racist and sexist troublemakers. Everything defaults to the white males already occupying the default power structures.

It serves the interests of these powerful groups to preclude oppressed minorities from objecting to their oppression on grounds of sex or race. If oppressed minorities are not permitted to single out the oppressing class for criticism because to do so is to discriminate on the grounds of race and/or sex, the oppressed classes can never fight back. We’ve actually found a way to keep oppressed classes in their place by framing their fight against oppression as an expression of the very tool of oppression we used against them in the first place!

So the definition Dawkins pushes is a tool of oppression wielded by powerful groups to maintain their positions of privilege. To confirm this, one need only look at the race and sex of the numerous defenders of Dawkins’ position that rushed to his side. They are overwhelmingly white males, and a disproportionate number of them are #GamerGate kids. In short, Dawkins is engaging in identity politics, even as he denigrates an article about the importance of identity politics for engaging in identity politics.

But what about that definition? All the white males who criticized me for daring to challenge Dawkins’ linguistic acumen immediately cited “The Dictionary” as defining “racism” as prejudice based on race. The Dictionary defines it as generic racial prejudice. Boom. QED. I pointed out that dictionaries do not adjudicate meaning but just try to describe it, and in response I got a lot of creative ways to say, “Nu-uh!” Dictionaries arrive at these descriptions by analyzing usage and trying to isolate the smallest possible set of conceptual features manifested in that usage that sets the concept apart. This is methodologically problematic not only because it presupposes underlying conceptual substructures govern usage (they don’t), but also because it is chasing after meaning, not establishing, governing, or adjudicating it. Appealing to a dictionary to prove what words do and don’t mean is middle school-level rhetoric. Words mean whatever people use and understand them to mean. Dictionaries follow behind trying to figure out what’s going on.

Now, Dawkins knows race is a social construct, but the relevance of that fact to this issue entirely escapes him. If race is a social construct, racism can only be a product of the same. Since that construct is governed by a society’s powerful groups and serves their interests, the entire concept of race is itself an agent of those power structures. Irish people were considered a different race in a period of American history, but through the acquisition and exercise of social power, particularly in relation to blacks, they became “white” and are no longer distinguished from other whites by our society’s conceptualization of race. Race itself, as a concept, structures power. Any prejudices based on that social construct are operating within that structured power; it is either aimed upstream or down. So when Dawkins says “some sociologists . . . have to have an additional polarity of ‘oppression’ & ‘privilege,'” he’s betraying his ignorance of how race and racism function. It is simply impossible to “keep these meanings separate,” and to insist that we do so makes use of that power structure while demanding everyone ignore it. It’s staring at the Wizard while he shrieks at you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s rank and unthinking racism, and it’s a devastating indictment of Dawkins’ humanity and intelligence.

So why insist racial prejudice aimed downstream is “racism” and is just “racial prejudice” when it’s aimed upstream? Because the former has vastly more destructive and harmful effects when it is aimed from a position of power toward a position of less power than when it is aimed the other way. Compare the way Dawkins’ followers brutalized Alibhai on Twitter (to the degree that Dawkins had to try to stem the tide) to the way Dawkins condescendingly scoffed at criticism. Who’s exercising a disproportionate amount of social power? The acknowledgement of that difference in effect has existed throughout the history of the usage of the word. All early usage occurs in the context of privilege and social power (for instance, see first known usage here). I challenged every one of Dawkins’ followers to show me an example of “racism” being used to refer to prejudice aimed from an oppressed class at an oppressing class prior to the last few decades. No one ever even acknowledged the challenge. Why was it necessary to coin the term “reverse racism” following the Civil Rights Movement to refer to putative racism on the part of minorities if “racism” didn’t always fundamentally refer to prejudice based on systemic power? Crickets.

To suggest our use of “racism” is not allowed to acknowledge the difference of those effects is simply to ignore them, and that’s precisely what Dawkins is doing. If racism does not refer to power and oppression, power and oppression are never discussed, and that’s just what white males would prefer. Dawkins wants all the negative rhetorical baggage that comes along with a powerful word like “racism,” but he doesn’t want the reasons for that baggage, since it undermines his use of it. It doesn’t adequately vilify and undermine and marginalize Alibhai to say she’s being “racially prejudiced.” No, he needs the full force of the word “racist,” but he refuses to accept the full semantic load of its usage. I responded with this tweet:

Obviously Dawkins couldn’t respond. He is interested precisely in reifying and legitimizing those structures, since they serve his interests. He’s not concerned with social responsibility, he’s concerned for maintaining his position of privilege and the structures in place that preserve it. He also doesn’t understand the concepts. All he can do is leverage his celebrity and privilege against the arguments of less privileged people like Alibhai and count on his enormous army of white male bootlickers to rush to his defense. Until he learns to check that privilege and take responsibility for the effect it has, his ignorant bigotry is going to continue to be called out while he expresses shock and outrage that anyone dare challenge his whiteness social and intellectual authority over everyone.


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