(updated 9/14 to include a little more nuance)
Yesterday I made a trip to the doughnut shop to look up words in old dictionaries.
Guess I’d better explain that. Our local doughnut shop, Top Pot Doughnuts, is decorated with four walls of bookshelves, holding gorgeous old books. Children’s classics, old encyclopedias, dictionaries . . . you name it. It looks like this:
The walls of a Top Pot Doughnut shop in Seattle
It’s a lovely place to sit and have a cup of coffee and a doughnut.
But yesterday, I had a question on my mind: how have the definitions of the words sexism and racism changed over time? That question came out of the frequent arguments over whether “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism” exist, which ultimately comes down to the meaning of the words themselves. And of course, people argue about that too.
Who’s the final authority on such things? Listen to what the Merriam Webster editors have to say in an entry on racism:
Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.
It makes sense when you think about it: a dictionary entry is not an authoritative answer but an attempt to define the actual usage of the word. But by whom? Everybody. So if there are multiple usages of a word, arguing over which usage is correct is foolhardy.
Or is it? When we argue over what a word means, do we change its usage? No one person changes it, but maybe our insistence of one definition over another is one little vote, to be added to the world’s constant project of language-making.
Context for the word “sexism”:
Here are two of many possible usages of the word “sexism”:
- “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex.”
- “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex–specifically discrimination against women; behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.”
Which definition is the correct one? Neither, of course. Both are in common usage these days.
A better question: which one should we use?
Hence, my interest in the dictionary. Here are some definitions, starting from today’s and going back in time to when sexism existed, but nobody had a word for it.
Merriam-Webster’s online definition, as of 9/12/2016:
prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women
behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex
Sexism [SEX + (racism)] discrimination against people on the basis of sex; specif. discrimination against and prejudicial stereotyping of women.
Webster’s 7th, 1967:
(entry not present)
Funk & Wagnalls, 1956:
(entry not present)
Well, of course it’s not present in 1967. It had only been coined two years previously, and it hadn’t made it out of feminist mimeographs. It wasn’t dictionary-worthy. Here’s some background from an online etymology dictionary:
sexist (adj.) 1965, from sex (n.) on model of racist, coined by Pauline M. Leet, director of special programs at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S., in a speech which was circulated in mimeograph among feminists. Popularized by use in print in Caroline Bird’s introduction to “Born Female” (1968).
And the definition in “Born Female” (from a Feminism 101 blog post) is:
There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter. Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism. Both have used to keep the powers that be in power.
The quotation goes on to say that women can also be sexists, but the definitions provided makes it clear that she’s talking about women being sexist against women, not men.
Of course, the usage of a word in the past doesn’t dictate how it should be used in the present. However, in any argument over definitions, it’s worth noting that feminists coined the term for a specific purpose, and are still using it for that same general purpose. It includes some important context. For example:
- there is widespread prejudice and discrimination specifically against women
- people stereotype women
- sexism is a tool for maintaining unbalanced power relations
When all that context is taken away from the term, something important is chipped away from the feminist movement too.
On the other hand, gender stereotyping and discrimination happens to men too. And to boys. This poster sums it up beautifully:
Another thing that might be changing about the term: its use to describe prejudice and discrimination faced by trans people. There’s definitely some argument about this. Within some feminist circles, people feel that trans women can use the word “sexism” but trans men should use “gender prejudice.” I don’t agree.
All in all, it’s an ongoing conversation, which is as it should be.
At the same time, there are anti-feminists who are using the word “sexism” to refer to slights made by feminists against men. That’s being advocated on ultra-conservative websites such as Breitbart as part of a feminist backlash. It sounds reasonable, but in reality, it’s a way of shutting us up when we talk about sexism.
For that reason, I propose that the moral right to define the word “sexism” belongs to feminists. (Of any gender.)
Context for the word “racism”:
The word “racism” came into popular use after the French word “racisme” was used, by people who were fighting the Nazis in the 1930s. Just to be clear, the Nazis were a group of white supremacists intent on killing off people they considered a lesser race.
There were two earlier words, “racialism” and “race hatred,” both of which were apparently less specific and could refer to racial prejudice against whites. But after Hitler’s rise to power, the use of the term “racism” supplanted both.
You can find out a lot about the word “racism” from a dictionary, but there’s another cool tool: Google Ngrams. It shows the relative frequency of words in all the books Google has scanned, so it’s a nifty little tool for watching the way our collective minds have processed words. It can also give you insights you won’t find in most etymologies – it shows when a word first became popular. It’s not exact science; this Wired article talks about its shortcomings. It also has the amazing ability of linking you to typical publications of the time.
Here are the terms “racialism” and “race hatred” up to 1930.
After about 1940, the term “racism” supplanted both, and then it really picked up during the Civil Rights Movement:
I could look at Google ngram for hours. Try it. It’s a bit addictive!
How about dictionary definitions of the word racism? Here’s something to consider: for most of Western publishing history, the people in charge have been white. So I’m taking their definitions with a grain of salt.
Funk and Wagnalls, 1956
Racism – An excessive and irrational belief in or advocacy of the superiority of a given group, people, or nation, on racial grounds alone; race hatred.
Websters 7th, 1967
Racism – 1) A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; 2) Racialism
Racialism – racial prejudice or discrimination
Racism – 1) A doctrine or teaching, without scientific support, that claims to find racial differences in character, intelligence, etc. that asserts the superiority of one race over another or others, and that seeks to maintain the supposed purity of a race or the races. 2) Any program or practice of racial discrimination, segregation, etc. based on such beliefs.
In conclusion . . .
It’s fascinating: you can see the hand of history all over these definitions!
The word sexism came specifically from feminists and was apparently once more radical. Once it came into common use, it began more often to refer generally to gender and less often specifically to women.
On the other hand, the word racism probably did not come from the actual targets of racism, but rather from people doing antiracist work (fighting the Nazis). The earlier dictionary definitions were unlikely to have been written by the actual targets of racism. Because, you know, prejudice and discrimination.
When did people of color start having the power not only to define the word racism for themselves, but also to get their definition into common usage? Do people of color have that power?
Another way to put the question: are white people listening when people of color define racism? And if not, why not?
I proposed that feminists have the moral right to define the word sexism. By that same token, I acknowledge the right of people of color, fighting racism, to define the word racism.
Of course, what actually happens to either of these words is under nobody’s control. It’s up to the hand of history to decide.
Meanwhile, I think I’ll go for a donut.