Beyond Words

This wasn’t the blog I was planning to write today. The blog I was turning over in my head was a rather rambly, navel-gazing essay on the Divergent series, mental illness, and ways to try and be a good person (and I bet you’re all just devastated that you’re missing out on that). However, a couple of hours ago I went on Twitter, and witnessed a conversation that led to a Last Straw Moment.

Last Straw Moments are something I’ve experienced a lot since I’ve got involved in online feminism and other anti-oppression, anti-general-douchebaggery movements. They happen when, for about the millionth time, you’re confronted with a wholly obvious and highly flawed “argument” from someone refusing to acknowledge their own privilege (or, even more irritatingly, “playing devil’s advocate” because they “don’t think you’ve considered this [I repeat, wholly obvious] perspective”).

My most memorable Last Straw Moments have included such gems as “But how can we live in a patriarchy when Loose Women exists?” (because of all the power structures favouring men over women, perhaps?), “Men get objectified in comic books too!” (yes – by male artists and writers, as male power fantasies), and the old favourite “Well, I’ve never seen/heard/experienced that, so it can’t be that much of a problem.”

Last Straw Moments, by their very nature, are completely infuriating. Explaining the same (simple) concept hundreds upon hundreds of times gets very, very tiring, and very, VERY annoying. As a result, this post may well end up sharp and spiky enough to jab you right through your computer screen. I make no apology for this. It’s okay to be angry when there’s something to be angry about.

The conversation that led to this particular Last Straw Moment was about racism, and the (simple) fact that, as racism refers to unequal social power structures rather than individual acts of bigotry, POC cannot be racist towards white people, and reverse racism does not exist. (Please, for the love of Batgirl, read/watch those links before coming into the comments to say “But actually!” I am not saying that no individual POC has ever done something nasty to an individual white person. No-one is. I’m saying that racism is systemic, because it is, and there is overwhelming evidence to support that fact. If you don’t believe me, get yourself to Google and start looking).

In this conversation, Auragasmic (who is awesome, follow her!) was posting about racism as systemic and the impossibility of ‘reverse racism’, when she was derailed by a guy who argued that it was totally possible for POC to be racist towards white people. Auragasmic and several others pointed out that no, this was not the case, for the same reasons as those detailed in the links above.

The derailer responded thusly: “The dictionary defines racism as being prejudiced against someone because of their race. No mention of power structures.”

Crack. Last Straw Moment.

I have seen the dictionary definition argument many, many times before. On the surface, it seems reasonable. The dictionary gives the impression of being an objective source of knowledge. After all, its sole purpose is to list what words mean. It doesn’t have to create a sense of atmosphere, like a poem or a novel. It doesn’t have to carry a voice, evoke a scene, provoke an emotional reaction in the reader. It just has to offer up an easily understandable definition of words.

This is the ideal. It is not the reality.

People making the dictionary definition argument treat the dictionary as if it is an objective, infallible source of truth. However, the dictionary didn’t blossom out of nature, nor was it carved in stone at the dawn of time, its truths uncovered by humanity generations later.

Dictionaries are texts. Texts have authors. Authors are human. Humans have biases. The dictionary might be written in an entirely different style to a novel, it might not have the rhyme of a poem or the rhythm of a song, but it is an authored text nonetheless. Dictionaries are written and edited by humans, commissioned by organisations run by humans, and they reflect the biases of those humans. And, because dictionaries are rarely produced within a hotbed of radical thought, they generally reflect a comfortable conservative mainstream, putting forward definitions that cosset rather than challenge the status quo. (As this petition indicates, transphobia is a very recent entry in the dictionary. Does this mean that transphobia didn’t exist before 2014? Of course not. It means that the people publishing dictionaries didn’t recognise it until this time.)

Dictionaries don’t lead language; they follow it as it develops. The fact that the dictionary definition of racism doesn’t correspond with the definition of racism by those who bear the brunt of this particular form of oppression – people of colour – doesn’t mean that POC have got it wrong. It means that the dictionary has not yet caught up to a definition of racism that is more grounded in people’s experiences and less in academic, one-step-removed thinking.

Which leads me to my final point. If your response to hearing about someone’s personal experiences of oppression is to pull out the dictionary definition to tell them why they’re wrong, then you’re not big, you’re not clever, and you’re certainly not more reasonable than the person you’re trying to make look small. You’re demonstrating beyond all doubt that, for you, this debate doesn’t matter – it’s just a thought experiment, something to pass your time. You’re showing that you don’t care in the slightest that, for the other person, this is their life, and for many people like them, has been their death. You are, in fact, being an arsehole.

That one’s in the dictionary. Look it up.


Ally has written a young adult fantasy novel, which is available at Amazon and Smashwords. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook. She uses a lot of words that aren’t in the dictionary. Some of them are rude.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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