Race and Language

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The concept of race is connected to language we use which itself creates social differences. Race is a social construct that is more about power relations than biological difference. Race is a red herring, a signifier that accumulates meaning by a chain of deferral to other categories of difference such as gender, class, education. 

The concept of race is profoundly constituted by language. Racial differences will only emerge once they are noted and described. This chapter offers strategies to deconstruct the presence of language that generates violently antagonistic stereotypes and hostile responses to individual or group difference. 

While individuals manifest various qualities and markers of identity, these differences will only emerge once they are noted. For example, whiteness is often deemed not remarkable or notable. It seems natural and ideologically transparent. In contrast, people of color are often singled out for better or for worse.

Did Race Exist Historically?

The first challenge we face in studying race is chronology. Many studies trace the changing meanings of the term. But even if later meanings for the term race were not available, for example, in the early modern period, racism did exist, if under different labels. Historically, race has been one of the markers of identity used to define relationships between groups of people. Therefore, we gain a deeper understanding of the notion of race in our times by analyzing historical texts. 

Even though evidence of early modern racial hatred comes under different terminologies, it is still hatred. Reading histories of race enables us to develop a broader perspective involving the identification of the various ways in which racism operated under different guises.

Language of Illness

The pandemic of Covid-19 reminded us how important it is to use inclusive language. Anti-Asian racism during the global pandemic associated metaphors of illness with certain groups of people. Since “the body [is seen as] a model for political community” in the metonymic frame of understanding race, detractors used words about illness to describe an entire people. There is actually a long history.

In 1895, after China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), both Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Chinese scholar Yan Fu used the phrase yellow peril and the metaphor of a “sick man” (die gelbe Gefahr and bingfu) to describe East Asian and particularly Chinese people. In 1898, the concept became the title of British novelist M.P. Shiel’s short story Yellow Danger.

Resistance of this metaphor of an ill race took center stage in an anonymous poem in Chinese that was very widely circulated over the Internet in the months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Entitled “To the West,” the poem self-consciously comments on the contradiction behind the image of a threatening sick man: “When we were called the Sick Man of Asia, we were also called the yellow peril. Now when we are billed as the next superpower, we are called a threat.” The biopolitics and the colonial history of the metaphor continue to inform modern day encounters between Asian and Western epistemologies of race.

The Notion of Race Today

The terms race and racism, are now, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, bearers of particular denotations as a result of the more extensive analysis and research that has taken place during this period compared with preceding centuries. Some of the ways in which we now think about racism and the word “race” are all relatively newly developed.

Race as a concept is profoundly constituted by language, by narratives, and by attempts to codify what exactly the term includes and excludes. In medical science, race is a factor in the study of genetics, statistics, public health, and the calculation of the probability of vulnerability, as in the case of the susceptibility of a certain group to suffer from a particular disease. However, as Kim Hall argues, “the easy association of race with modern science ignores the fact that language itself creates social differences … and that race was then … a social construct that is fundamentally more about power and culture than about biological difference.”


Further Reading

Some of these resources may only be accessible with George Washington University credentials.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Chapter 4: Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Time.” Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.