Have you ever read something and thought, “that’s prejudiced”, but without the ability to put your finger on exactly how? There are speeches and writings and quotes which seem sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic, yet there is no exact quote that can be pulled out and easily called out for what it is.
This is because there are subtle ways of using language, barely perceptible, which reflect stereotyping and prejudice. In spotting these, one can call out the speaker or writer and address the grubby prejudice that lies beneath.
Following the Civil Rights movement and the overturning of the openly bigoted Jim Crow laws, racism in the United States took a different form: symbolic racism. Symbolic racism is characterised by three markers: a belief that minorities are being too demanding, resentment about special favours for minorities and denial of continuing discrimination. This is probably one of the easiest forms of subtle prejudice to spot, and it applies far beyond its original conception in “modern racism” towards African Americans. Take, for example, the headline of this [clean linked] Daily Express article: “NOW MUSLIMS DEMAND FULL SHARIA LAW“. Ignoring the fact that the article is patently untrue waffle, the headline alone displays a belief that Muslims are too demanding with the phrase “demand” and the qualifier “now”. Apparently those pesky Muslims are constantly making demands.
For an example of belief in special favours, one needs to look no further than cries of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism”. It displays an alarming resentment for a push towards equality, constructed as a “special favour”. It abounds in discourse surrounding maternity leave and women-only spaces. It can also be seen in the standard right-wing battle cry that the outgroup du jour has more human rights than they do, presumably because of political correctness gone mad.
Denial of continuing discrimination is also rife. The justification goes that nominally, the law provides equality in the form of anti-discrimination laws (another “special favour” and often seen as an unreasonable demand). Therefore, everything is magically non-discriminatory. This phenomenon has been noticed by many, and is often seen for what it is. I will comment no further, therefore, and direct you to Privilege Denying Dude, which makes me smile.
Dehumanisation is an attempt to make a person or group of people appear less human by taking away their individuality. Much of the research into dehumanisation has focused on genocidal propaganda, where it is often fairly easy to spot: take, for example, this famous Nazi children’s book which compares Jews to a poisonous fungus, or use of the word “cockroach” to describe enemy combatants in the Rwandan genocide, or Morrissey’s description of Chinese people as “a subspecies“. The aim of dehumanisation is to turn an outgroup from people to a homogenous, subhuman mass, often by likening them to animals or machines.
As with symbolic racism, use of dehumanising language is often more subtle than describing every single person in the world’s most populous country as members of a subspecies. For example, sexual objectification of women is a form of dehumanisation: taking away the humanity and individuality of a woman and turning her into a pair of tits and a willingness to fuck. Words like “cougar” and “bitch” are also inherently dehumanising, with overt comparisons of a person to an animal. Concern about birth rates in immigration populations is also usually dehumanising. The word “breeding” invariably crops up somewhere.
A classic example of subtle, throwaway use of dehumanising language comes from the “bigoted woman” scandal. In a public event, an audience member asked Gordon Brown the question “all these eastern European what are coming in, where are they flocking from?”. Gordon Brown was later recorded bemoaning the fact that he had to answer a question from a “bigoted woman”. Notwithstanding the fact that the question is patently easy to answer–Eastern Europeans are clearly coming from Eastern Europe, the question did contain dehumanising language. The word “flocking” is typically applied to birds, usually migrating birds. It casts migrants as a mass of flapping creatures, rather than human beings. Much as it pains me to say it, I agree with Gordon Brown. The question reflected a degree of prejudice. She probably was a bigoted woman.
The Linguistic Intergroup Bias
Perhaps you have read through the piece, and you have managed to find none of the markers of symbolic prejudice, nor any language which ascribes unhuman characteristics to people? Look at the use of verbs.
The Linguistic Intergroup Bias is well-documented effect and crops up in the way people use words to describe an event. Consider two fictional scenarios: A, where a black man (Albert) punches a white man (Bob) and B, where Albert rescues Bob from a fire.
- Concrete verbs: A, Albert hit Bob; B, Albert rescued Bob
- Interpretive action verbs: A, Albert hurt Bob; B, Albert helped Bob
- State verbs: A, Albert hates Bob; B, Albert likes Bob
- General dispositional adjectives: A, Albert is violent; B, Albert is heroic
According to this model, were a white person to describe these scenarios, in scenario A, which reflects negatively on Albert, the describer would be more likely to use the more abstract types of description. To describe scenario B, which reflects positively on Albert, the white describer would be more likely to use the more concrete forms of description. If a black person were to describe the two scenarios the opposite is more likely to be true: more concrete verbs to describe the negative incident; more abstract for the positive incident.
The effect of this use of language is to imply how frequently such behaviour occurs: when one uses concrete verbs, it makes the behaviour seem as though it were a one-off. At a more abstract level, the behaviour seems to be something that person always does. As the different levels of abstraction vary by whether one is describing a member of the ingroup or a member of the outgroup, there is clearly an element of stereotyping going on here. It is thought that the effect emerges due to various expectations: because of the stereotype white people hold that black people are violent, they will use language that reflects this. There is also some evidence to show that these levels language use can help maintain stereotypes.
Furthermore, one [unfortunately paywalled] study noted that people who were more likely to use the Linguistic Intergroup Bias were also more likely to display implicit prejudice towards women or black people. While the participants did not express overt racism, they were more threatened by pictures of black faces. This experiment shows that this particular linguistic trick is related to prejudice. When reading a newspaper article or listening to a slightly racist friend speak, pay attention to the verbs they are using. It is a barely-perceptible marker of prejudice.
Prejudice is still going strong, but it is masked in linguistic gymnastics. When people deny discrimination against trans people or complain about a flock of immigrants, when they talk about unreasonable feminist demands or describe a disabled benefit claimant without using a single verb, they are being prejudiced. There is a vast body of research beneath this. From now on, if you do not appreciate their tone, you can call them out.