Re: 'race' and 'racism'

Sandy Hawk (HAWKS@CGS.EDU)
Sat, 22 Oct 1994 05:04:01 -0700

Michelle Golden and David Driscoll's posts made me
curious, so I went to the OED. In my 1971 compact edition,
the word 'racism' has no entry. There is an entry for
'race', and 'race' and 'racialism' are listed in the

'Race' seems to enter English from the Romance languages
-- French, Italian, Spanish, and Portugese. It first occurs
in poetic usage in 1570 in John Foxe's _Acts and
Monuments of these latter and perillous dayes_.

Its meaning, in the sense we have been using it in this
thread however, seems mostly to be a nineteenth century
development. Its early meanings are either general
--'genus' or 'species' seem to be non-poetic synonyms --
or specific -- referring to offspring from a single
progeniture. In both cases, humans, animals, or plants
may be the referent. The 'human race' is one of its older
usages. It could also be used to refer specifically to the
process of breeding -- both with respect to animals and
humans. [The last citation for this usage is Milton's
_Paradise Lost_ (1667), and it is now obsolete.] In
another early usage, 'race' seems simply to refer to a set
or a grouping with some shared characteristic/s.

In 1600, Sir John Wynn uses it in his _History of the
Gwydir Family_, in reference to the last of the "race" of
British royalty. Alexander Pope's translation of the
_Iliad_ (1715) applies it to the house/people of Troy.
And in 1768, Laurence Sterne uses it to refer to the
descendents of the house of Bourbon in _A Sentimental
Journey through France and England_.

It is first applied to a physically identifiable grouping of
humankind by Oliver Goldsmith in _A History of the Earth
and Animated Nature_ in 1774. There he says, "The
second great variety in the human species seem to be that
of the Tartar race."

A multitude of uses linked to ethnic or national identity
and/or observable physical differences linked to those
identities arise in the 19th century, including attributive
and combinatory usages: race-characteristic,
race-difference, race-distinction, race-hatred, race-
maintenance, race-poem, race-portrait, and race-skull,
among them.

Most of the citations under 'race' in the main entry of the
OED arise in what appears to be a religious/historical
(here these seem often to be wound together) or
scientific/technological context.

A second entry for 'race' occurs in the OED Supplement
that expands its usages into the social and political realm:
race-conflict (1880), race-conscious (1927), race feeling
(1907), race quarrel (1932), race-sense (1909), race
suicide (1901), race-type (1927).

The supplement also lists 'racialism' which is defined as,
"Tendency to racial feeling; antagonism between different
races of men." Its citations range from 1907-1925, and all
of them are from journalistic contexts.

I am intrigued by this, and wonder if others are also.

To me at least, the usage shifts are suggestive. They seem
to intersect with European expansion and colonization, and
the religious/scientific/and social shifts that accompanied
it. It also seems that in this case, shifts in the world lead
to shifts in the language, which lead to more shifts in the
world... It's like a peek at a hermeneutical cycle in action.

In effect the possibility for a reality/concept of
race/racism seems to emerge from the OED's tracing of
this thread of meaning spun through English history as
found in English letters. If this reflects reality, it also
seems to me to have deep ethical implications. Things like
Rushton's postings, and publication of the book that
occasions them are not then value neutral events. They
can impinge on society's patterns of lived meaning
whether science or pseudo-science, and insofar as they do
so they will produce additional societal effects.

Sandy Hawk