How Our Discussion of Race Becomes Distorted

The other day, one of my daughters, who’s 9, asked me what diversity was. She’d picked it out as a common word in the stream of talk coming from the NPR station that we listen to in the car. I started to say something about folks valuing having a wide assortment of people involved in things, but I felt fake.

I decided to tell my daughter the truth, which is that in modern parlance, diversity refers to having not just white people around, and especially having Black and Latino people present, too, and not just one or two. She’ll grow into a more sophisticated understanding of these things. I didn’t want to waste time giving her Definition 1.0 of the word — plain old variety — when it is almost never what is meant by it anymore. Diversity has semantically narrowed.

If we were living in the 1950s, we would find the usage of certain words strange. People in those days referred not only to “male chauvinism” but also “white chauvinism,” alongside “racism.” By the 1970s, though, chauvinism was mainly associated with sexism and men, such that one barely needed to preface it with “male.” “Chauvinism” was once a general term for discrimination, but it narrowed into meaning male chauvinism and was later overtaken by “sexism.” By the same token, “meat” once referred to all food and “apple” used to signify all fruits other than berries.

“Semantic narrowing” isn’t exactly a household term beyond linguistics, but I am beginning to think it should be. Our discussion of race is especially distorted by this problem because we are having conversations with words that mean different things to different people — and we don’t even realize it. Not to be continually aware that semantic narrowing is common and constant — “a thing,” as we say — is to find modern discussions of race more confusing than they need be. To be more conscious of it might also lead people to be clearer about what they mean.

I am reminded of watching a university chancellor give a talk about 20 years ago in which she said that she was committed to diversity not only in terms of admitting as many brown students as possible, but also people of various other kinds, depending on factors such as geography, religion, political beliefs and others. She was venturing to approach “diversity” on the basis of its original meaning. But by that point, the word had been used in its narrowed way for so long that it seemed as if it were hard for the people listening to wrap their heads around the idea of an admissions policy based truly on simple variety — all of the audience questions about diversity that followed were built on our modern, narrowed usage of the word.

That understanding of the word “diversity” traces to 1978. Allan Bakke, a white man, sued the regents of the University of California after twice being rejected from the U.C. Davis School of Medicine, which set aside 16 percent of its seats for members of minorities. He claimed that his grades and test scores were better than some of these students who had been accepted. The school’s affirmative action policy amounted to “reverse discrimination,” he said. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the regents, arguing that racial preferences in university admissions were justifiable in creating diversity, though minority quotas were not. From there on, the term has been used as a kind of shorthand for a concern with those students specifically. Seventh-day Adventists and people from Kansas are considered much less important under this conception of diversity.

Many may hear universities voice support for diversity and chafe that there seems so much less concern for a representative number of Idahoans, English horn players or even financially strapped whites than of brown-skinned students. However, “diversity” has not referred to diversity per se for over 40 years now in these contexts. Universities themselves tend to use the word today — and its close cousins, “equity” and “inclusion” — in a semantically narrowed, shorthand fashion when referring to their own tabulations of racial breakdowns of student populations. It is taken as a given that the diversity in question is racial. This seems quite ordinary now but would throw the time traveler from 1920, for whom the word had not taken on this particular, limited meaning yet.

The term “discrimination” has narrowed in the same way and would equally baffle the person from a century ago in its modern usage, as it still confuses some people now. The person who feels that in our era, it can sometimes be a disadvantage to be white when applying for a certain kind of position — because of calls for diversity — may claim that they are being victimized. They might call this unlawful on the basis of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discriminating against people on the basis of, among other things, race.

But others will feel that the complainant has missed the point. To most who are especially concerned with race and racism, the proper commitment is to a specific kind of discrimination: against people whom whites have power over in this society, against those who have suffered as a group from this disproportion of power. Just as many claim that racism can only punch down — as in, it can come only from those in power — the idea is that white people can’t properly be “discriminated against.”

To wit, the more common usage of “discrimination” has semantically narrowed — in usage — regardless of what the facelessness of dictionary definitions, often initially penned eons ago, might indicate.

This is also true of “cultural appropriation.” I find it almost poignant to see how commonly people dismiss the concept by saying that without it, we wouldn’t have tomatoes (from South America), or that the alphabetical writing system that emerged in Egypt wouldn’t have spread to most of the world, etc. But what these people are missing is that this term is used in a semantically narrower fashion than these objections apply to.

It refers to appropriation by those on top from those below, especially where doing so involved profiting in a way that the latter was not able to.

If you feel that simply identifying these examples as semantic narrowing is a tad sterile, that it doesn’t capture the whole of the matter, you are correct. There is a degree of euphemism in the use of these terms.

For example, to say “diversity” and “discrimination” entails, even if unintentionally, that you avoid laying out why these policies in practice are to be aimed mainly at brown people. A part of you may not want to get into it — it’s too contentious, there’s too little time, and just maybe you’re not always completely sure you can defend the underpinnings 100 percent. To use “diversity” to refer to inclusion of brown people quietly steps around a possible question or dispute, with a tidy word standing in for explication.

If I could wave a magic wand, we would spend a year using terms like this in a less abbreviated fashion. In 1954, if you glided around with your highball referring just to “chauvinism,” eventually someone may have asked you, “Which kind?” because the word wasn’t yet shorthand for sexism only. These days, imagine if one had to say not “diversity” but “diversity of races ranging from white to brown,” and also “discrimination against brown people” and “cultural appropriation from nonwhite people.”

It would be a little clumsy. But conversations, even if no less heated, would at least hover closer to the genuine nut of disagreement. The fantasy is that people be aware of how semantic narrowing works and, with terms that have started to undergo it, stand athwart the process and spell out the narrowed meaning instead of using the older version. As we use them now, many terms allow an unspoken ambiguity between their earlier and more current meanings. Imagine if that were impossible and we just had to be clearer? And I mean beyond acrid verbal fisticuffs over the narrow issue of what Critical Race Theory is — although those fights are so nasty partly because terms such as “diversity” and “discrimination” can impede understanding.

The left might learn something by having to state underlying assumptions so clearly, getting some exercise in actually laying out why, for example, certain proscriptions and prescriptions are to apply mainly to brown as opposed to other people. The right might learn something in attempting to explain cogently why those assumptions are ill considered. Those in the middle would find the discussions easier to follow. The idealist in me imagines that the result would eventually be a centrist consensus, under which there would glower the coals of hurt feelings and the usual suspicions. But at least there would have been a shared sense of what we were all even talking about.

We also need new ways of talking about what is termed “systemic racism,” but that topic will have to wait for another day.

Please join me for a virtual event on Oct. 14, where I’ll be chatting with Jane Coaston, the host of “The Argument” podcast, and with the opera singer Angel Blue. We’ll talk about language, race and song — and we’ll discuss examples, submitted by readers, of words we have stopped using in everyday language. You can sign up here.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and “Woke Racism.”

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