Opinion | Talking About Race Is Tricky. Here’s One Reason Why.

    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.

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