The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The weight of a word

One curious thing about eliminating specific words -- symbols for concepts -- is that we seem to believe that eliminating the word magically also eliminates what is described by the word. (The corollory also holds a powerful place in our belief system: that only those things for which there are words can exist.) The word "race" makes a nice case in point.

It is no longer accepted among anthropologists -- has not been, for some time -- that "race" is a useful concept in any genetic sense. Between that consensus and the parallel rise of political correctness, the word "race" has gradually been purged from the vocabulary of the mass media. For some reason, we seemed to believe that this gradual elimination would also purge its derivative of racism, not as symbolic construct, but as an actuality.

How have we managed to completely forget that "race" was not originally a genetic construction but a societal one, and that society roots in the individual?

Removing the word only removes the symbol by which we recognise its existence. Without it, the actuality of racism continues -- but since we have consciously ceased to have a meaningful word to describe it, those of us who have not experienced it personally can no longer see it.


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