“Subtle” racism: The argument from etymology

I was extremely interested in the conversation last week about Slate’s decision to stop referring to the Washington NFL team by its nickname. I like the recognition from the news agency that they don’t have to wait for the team’s owner – who is apparently rather adament in his refusal to see this as a cause for concern – to act before refusing to perpetuate the racism by themselves using the word. There are plenty of alternatives, though it may sometimes result in awkward constructions (“Washington’s NFL team”) or the inability to form pleasant parallels with the names of other teams (“the 49ers vs. Washington”). In this case, awkwardness strikes me as a bonus, since it creates an impact that reiterates the point being made in this announcement by calling attention to itself. (Mascots and symbols are a bit more difficult to work around without an actual change, since I can’t think of a way that someone other than the owner or team itself could consciously and conspicuously refuse to use the mascot — you can buy merchandise that avoids those images and uses others, for example, but no one will really notice the shift without that linguistic awkwardness).

As the title of this post indicates, though, there’s another part of the story that I find interesting in a different way. As I’ve seen others point out (like Erik Loomis at LGM), I don’t think the name is “subtle” in its racism at all.  Slate’s perspective on why it is subtle, however, is one that I’ve seen tossed around a lot in conversations about the appropriateness of various labels for minority or oppressed groups (including debates about in-group re-appropriation of hateful terms) — the ‘argument from etymology’. This argument gets used on both sides of the debate – here, it’s used to downplay the racism and make the case for a level of ‘subtlety’ based on the innocuous, possibly in-group, and descriptive origins of the expression. In other examples, a racist origin that has become relatively opaque (such as the expression ‘gypped’, derived from the offensive label for the Roma people) is used to inform people about the inappopriateness of the term. I’m not going  make a claim in favour of terms like the latter, but I find this reliance on etymology-as-arbiter-of-offensiveness very strange. My own perspective is that in the context of current race relations and semantic transparency, the name of the Washington football team is far more clearly racist than the swindling verb, partially because many users of the latter have to be informed about the relationship between the term and a marginalized group that has a relatively limited presence in North American communities and politics. This is not to say that Roma people in North America are not subject to racism, but that beliefs about this group do not carry a lot of symbolic power in the minds of most non-Roma, and they don’t make the connection about swindlers and cheaters coming from this group unless they are informed of the word’s origins. In the present moment, however, the Washington NFL team’s nickname is so obviously linked to a term that has become derogatory towards a group that people actually have to be informed that once upon a time, it was an innocent expression.

Like I said, I’m not trying to make an argument that an opaque origin automatically erases the racist connotations that emerge from a term, but I certainly want to make a claim that current semantic conditions are more relevant to determining the “subtelty” of an expression than etymology. I mean, seriously, if you have to cite several sources in your claim that something is subtle, despite the loud voices of everyone around you who are saying that they see the racism right in front of them, you might want to rethink your definition of “subtle”.


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