ists and isms

I have discovered yet another one of those “Brits and Americans use words in different ways” situations, but unlike many, this one is serious. “American” does not imply a race. Americans are of many races, and we getting more diverse all the time. “British” or “English” are similarly not races. These words related to countries refer to political and cultural distinctions, not heritable genetic factors (which is the defining feature of the concept of race, at least according to Wikipedia). Americans can be American either by birth or by naturalization, so clearly heritable traits are not part of the picture. Several times in the active discussion over the last few days, the word “racist” has appeared in the context of US-UK relations, both on this blog and elsewhere. And this really, really bothers me.

Racism in the US is very serious business, and this is a word that is not tossed around lightly, but said almost in hushed tones because even if true, the accusation is extremely serious as it could be damaging to the accused in the event that something was misapprehended. To accuse someone of being racist is more than just a criticism. This is a word that is used and should be used very carefully and most thoughtfully, and most importantly, correctly according to its definition.

This is not the first time I have noticed that this word is used sometimes differently (and much, much more frequently) in the UK than I am accustomed to from my American background, but I don’t like it and now that the word appeared here in the comments, it’s been on my mind. Speaking openly about the harsh realities of racial discrimination in any country is good and probably needed to start fixing the race-relation problems that exist; race-relations are a serious current issue in both the US and the UK (and that’s leaving aside immigration policy –add immigration issues and there’s yet another, very serious layer of discussion.) Tossing the word “racist” around in the context of trans-Atlantic cultural divides is inaccurate and inappropriate. Cross words between Americans and Brits about living here or there are not about race, this is at most about about culture but more likely about personal experience; equating personal or cultural disagreement with racially-motivated discrimination is simply “not on”.


15 responses to “ists and isms

  1. I agree that in Britain we tend to use the word “racism” in more contexts than purely connected to race. I hadn’t noticed that before. Interesting.

    What would you call prejudice against people from another culture or nation? Suppose Gordon Brown decided on a whim that he would allow Germans and Greeks to visit the UK, but not French or Italians? I would describe that policy as racist. I can see why you would think that it wasn’t racist, but how else would you describe it? “Nationalist” logically would be the right word, but that means a different thing.

    The trouble is, we in Britain DO use the word “racist” in that context. It’s like the word “pancake”. We use it to mean slightly different things on either side of the Atlantic.

    I don’t think you can therefore conclude that it’s “inappropriate”. You can conclude – as you do – that you don’t like it, and that it’s not how you personally (and your compatriots) use it. But you can’t say a whole nation of people gets a word wrong. No doubt over time the meaning will evolve, as the world becomes increasingly globalised, and spellings and word meanings are standardised. But at the moment, you can’t say that for a British person, using a word, whatever word, is inappropriate, if they use it to mean what 60 million other people understand by it.

    Who gets to say what a word means? I wouldn’t tell a college kid here that they’re at university, not at school, just because in England “school” only applies to people in primary or secondary education. I wouldn’t tell them that they can’t have biscuits with gravy because biscuits are sugary.

    Thanks to this post, I will be more aware of the American use of the word “racist”, and how it differs from the British use. The comments you refer to were, in my opinion, “not on” – but for reasons other than you not liking the British English usage of a word.

  2. PS I don’t know why I don’t just write my own post on this subject. I seem to have written whole posts in other people’s comments boxes!

  3. Iota, thanks for your perspective–it’s exactly this sort of dialogue that I would hope to promote with my post; if a whole nation of people uses a common word to mean something different that is very interesting! And we can go some ways towards bridging the cultural divide by understanding that the word doesn’t mean the same thing, although I stand by my dictionary definition of “race”

  4. BTW, I would call UK-US comments just “prejudiced” not racist. The words “nationalist” and “statist” are clearly stronger in meaning in Europe than in the US, but any general judgement made about a population based on their origin is obviously “something” — I just don’t think “racist” is the right word.

  5. Well, it IS the right word, but only for Europeans, not for Americans. Words come to have their meaning through usage, not the logic of their etymology. The pancake, for example, is no longer made in a pan, but we haven’t changed its name to a griddlecake. I see that “racist” should by logic mean solely “prejudiced because of race”, but it just doesn’t.

    It doesn’t mean something different. It means something different-to-what-it-means-in-America. It’s a relative judgement you’re making, not an absolute one.

    As for whether it’s a dictionary definition, well, I haven’t checked, but I guess it depends which dictionary you use. Just like if would if you looked up “biscuit”.

  6. Iota, this is where we part: the dictionary definition of race is not exactly ambiguous. I don’t understand h0w this term has become part of the British lexicon where “race” and “racist” are unrelated! It could have happened over a long period of time but it still doesn’t change the fundamental etymology which I think is not irrelevant in this context!

  7. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Of course historically, race and nationality used to be much more closely allied. Your race was tied up with your family, your culture, your location, your nation. Which is possibly why our vocabulary has been, and still is, lazy about separating it out.

    Interesting debate.

  8. NFAH, it isn’t by any chance my comment on your post of 6th March (the second one) that you are referring to when you say ‘Tossing the word “racist” around in the context of trans-Atlantic cultural divides is inaccurate and inappropriate’, is it?

    If this is the case, please may I beg you to re-read the comment I made there with very great care and attention?

  9. Howard, this post was not related to any single thing, it’s about the use of the word “racist” more generally, which I have found to differ substantially in the US and the UK as per this post.

  10. Iota, that’s a very good point and perhaps identifies the reason for the difference in usage: while America was pretty much ALWAYS a melting pot, other places had a stronger historical association between race and nationality.

  11. > this post was not related to any single thing, it’s about the use of the word “racist” more generally, which I have found to differ substantially in the US and the UK as per this post.

    Thank you for your clarification and reassurance, NFAH!

  12. I love a good debate… I came looking for people that could teach me about the cultural differences in the UK & US and have found so much more.
    I would like to interject a word we use in Eastern Kentucky, bigot (also spelled biggot). To us it means any person not open to the cultural differences of others. Race is not a cultural difference by itself. A person can be a bigot because they don’t like people from a region more than a race in that region. Either way, I try to understand a culture’s history and thoughts before I make a decision on how I will approach them and converse, so not to offend. I do my best to live by the golden rule “Do unto others…”

  13. Lance, I agree completely: it’s the fear of something that is “different” that is the problem, not the nature of the difference! I just object to the use of a word associated with one sort of difference to stand in for all the others, and that’s what motivated this post!

  14. Racism is not an accusation to be tossed around lightly in the UK either.

    In other recent news:
    The British National Party has pulled off a bit of a blinder by fronting an anti-immigration campaign with a poster featuring a Spitfire belonging to 303 Squadron of the RAF – the “most effective Polish squadron during the Second World War”, as the Telegraph puts it.

  15. Pingback: On Trains and Paris « Not From Around Here

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