“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”.

Names and Power

I have come to find conversations about names and naming absolutely fasinating – the fact that this has not been mitigated by writing an entire dissertation chapter about state management of naming practices, or by doing the necessary background reading to produce said chapter, means that this is quite an intense interest, indeed. It seems to be a topic that allows a lot of language ideologies, mostly around beliefs about identity, to come to the surface and become a topic for heated conversation. Literally everybody has some type of opinion about names – how they should be chosen, who should have a say in it, how they will affect the life of the nam-ee, etc.

This last part is probably the most interesting aspect of Anglo-American naming conversations for me, as it seems to express a belief in a power that names have to shape and produce an identity in a way that, I suspect, would not be attributed to any other linguistic material. This GQ Guide to Naming captures a lot of those dominant themes, starting from the teaser:

If name is destiny (Destynee?), then judging from the dumb-ass, intentionally misspelled, needlessly apostrophe’d names we Americans are giving our kids nowadays—Jaxxon, Branlee, Scot’t—we’re raising a generation of meth heads

The main thing that the author seems to think parents want their child to become via the power of the name is special:

as if a uniquely horrible name serves as some kind of guarantee against little Aston Martin growing up to be merely ordinary

The whole point of sarcastic, funny, faux advice pieces like this one, though, is to point out the errors in this type of thinking. And in this case, it’s the illusion among parents that their intentions are the only ones that will be at work in the child’s life, as the passage of time will make the trendy and cool turn into stale and dated (“If you’re going to name your kid Ace, you might as well name him 1987”).

Which leads into another major element of this whole conversation about names and power, the one operating beneath the surface of the commentary about the futility and misguidedness of certain efforts to create an identity for your child – when we talk about names as markers of identity, the signals go way beyond establishing the individual we’re talking about. Names have everything to do with class (and dismissing certain names as “stripper names” or “meth head names” is all about reinforcing that relationship), with race (as some really good research has shown, otherwise identical resumés are treated very differently when they’re presented as belonging to candidates names “Jamal” vs candidates named “Peter”), and of course with sex/gender (I think there’s a reason that variations on names that are most closely associated with boys are reasonably popular with girls – like Bobbie, Billie, and Charlie – but not vice versa). The age reference is another addition to this, as certain names mark people as likely to belong to a certain generation (subversions of these expectations can expose those assumptions, like when I heard that my midwife’s name was “Frances” and I was very surprised to meet a Middle Eastern woman in her early 20s who would be attending the birth of my son).

All this is captured nicely in the Lingua Franca article about young Prince George. After discussing the use of some relatively unusual linguistic constructions describing his birth (without addressing the implications of these constructions, but that’s another topic, really), Yagoda makes the point:

If you’re interested—as how could you not be?—in the issues of self-definition, status, class, and taste, then first-name choices provide fascinating and endlessly rich data. Being free of charge and compulsory, they’re not constricted in the way most other markers are. Moreover, for many if not most people, a baby is a vessel for aspiration and social extrapolation, so the choice carries special meaning. The challenge is in the analysis, of course. It seems safe to observe that contemporary American naming customs suggest a longing for Colonial times. (If you remove outliers like Mia, Jayden and Aiden from the top-10 lists, and switch Madison from first name to last, then the people in a 2013 day care and a 1776 tea party have the same names.)  The Brits, meanwhile, seem to fancy hanging about with the blokes down at the local.

I don’t totally agree with the analysis of what aspirations are being expressed on each side of the pond  – he didn’t include the list of British favourites, so I’m not sure what names are associated with “blokes down at the local”, especially among the girls’ names, but I think there’s more to the conversation about how certain names take on the sense of being “classic” or “timeless” than a longing for colonial times. But the overall point is an important one – choosing a name for a baby is far from a neutral act, and any number of people, from relatives and friends to random strangers to bookmakers (when the baby is already predefined as an important one, anyway) will influence your decision and put thoughts in your head about who your baby will be with X name, and what their experiences will be like if it’s hard to spell, easily mockable, or too common.

I’m verging on turning this into another dissertation chapter, so I will let it go with the curiosity about whether this pre-identified-powerful George baby will contribute to an upswing in young Georges, despite this particular “classic” name being quite strongly out of fashion over the past few decades. I’m going to bet against it, but I’d need to think more to say why.