Blogbook -- An Equation for Racist Discourse

Entry 14

So if racism is really racist discourse, at least as we might study it in a literacy or language classroom, then that field is made up of things we might identify and define. Things we can look for in and around texts with students. This will help us understand the racial politics of the languages and literatures we teach, and how those politics afford meaning and significance to those texts and their ideas. It can help us keep thinking about the racist discourses that any text participate in.  

What are the elements? You likely already know them, or could guess. Goldberg says that racist discourse has two aspects. The first aspect is a collection of “discursive representations.” He means “styles of reference,” “figures of speech,” and “metaphors” (note 88). Basically, one part of racism is the language we use to express it or enact it. It’s the tropes and styles of racism in language, like the raven as a symbol of Blacks and slavery, the “Yellow Peril” and Asians as dirty and rat-like, or the bust of Pallas as idealized White Western civilization. Today, given contemporary media, it’s important to add that there are embodied and symbolic ways racism is expressed through color, behaviors, symbols, sounds, perceived accents, clothing, references to geography and place, language, and the like.

We could also add to this the way media can leave out or maintain an absence of particular racialized bodies and over-crowd media spaces with mostly White bodies, and ones who speak a particular kind of English that is mostly used by White, middle-class groups from California or New England. For instance, I find most of the accounts (fictional or otherwise) of the “old West” to have a noticeable absence of diverse Asian bodies. And when they do offer representations of Asians, they are Chinese Opium dens, but usually, they’re only part of the scenery. They don’t speak or engage with any of the main characters, and of course, they are not a main character. In fact, the White main characters don’t normally talk to Asian characters in typical depictions of the old West. 

If we took our media representations as historical, we might think that there were hardly any Chinese in the nineteenth century U.S. But that isn’t true. The Chinese build most of the railroads from East to West in the U.S. The first Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. in 1815, and continued in increasing numbers until 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed (a racist policy). But by that time, there were hundreds of thousands of Chinese in the U.S., working and living. Of course, because of the Naturalization Act of 1790 (also racist policy) all Asian immigrants were ineligible for U.S. citizenship (note 89). 

Ignoring this history and the bodies, actions, and variation within those groups, is part of a common, normal racist discourse in U.S. media and Western storytelling. As Said reminds us about Orientalism, racist discourse doesn’t use history or facts, it makes those things by repeating particular representations in films and other media. Meanwhile, we think films and media, billboards and the euphemisms we use in our daily exchanges are harmless because they aren’t real, or just entertainment, just words and pictures, yet if repeated enough, it all gets taken as fact. 

Generally speaking, most people do not make decisions from explicit understandings of history. They make them from their common sense, a sense structured by the conditions we all live in, by the media, images, sounds, people, and language around us -- that is, our common sense is made from racist discourse. And this racist discourse, as you can hear in my examples are both explicitly racist and implicitly so. We might also say that some are intentionally racist and others unintentionally so. 

It’s easy to see why racism is accomplished without anyone needing to be racist. You just need to reproduce, for example, typical and dominant narratives of the old West -- movies, images, or stories that look and sound like the old West, or rather, they look and sound like the old West because our media and stories up to this point have limited the choices for such stories, and over-crowded them with White bodies and voices, relegated Asian bodies, for instance, as mostly female launderettes, prostitutes, or the purveyors of opium dens -- notice the proximity Asian bodies have to dirt and the dirty. Thus all we got today are good White cowboys, bad Red Indians, and bad brown Mexicans. No Asians speak of. We’re tricked into thinking in fast fashion that that was the limits of the old West of the nineteenth century. 

And who writes history again? Oh yeah, the victors. It seems from our common sense about the old West that White people won, and they wrote a history where they were right, where they were ordained by God. They were justified in the colonizing, in the taking and running of everything, in the killing, in all of it. And they wrote themselves as the good guys in white hats. Doesn’t that seem suspicious? 

So part of the language of racist discourse that needs investigating with students is our common sense about everything, especially the things we take for granted as good and right and neutral and harmless. Nothing is good, right, neutral, or harmless. Those things are always made by someone and some set of conditions that have been structured to benefit White people. 

Thus, it is in our investigations with students where we’ll find ways to root out racist discourse. These investigations into the silences, elisions, absences, and gaps in our common sense discourse require a vocabulary, terms and ideas that are historically informed -- the kind I’m trying to offer in this blogbook. It’s easy to see the explicit racist discourse, but much harder to examine the implicit racist discourse, the kind that is built structurally around and in us. 

In his book Racist Culture, Goldberg says that underneath the language of racist discourse, there is a racist “grammar” and set of “primitive terms,” or “a preconceptual plane” that supports the racist discourse (note 90). What exactly is the grammar and primitive terms of racist discourse? Well, these things amount to some familiar premises and logics that go back to Aristotle. Goldberg basically lists a number of these primitive terms or the preconceptual plane that informs his racist discourse. I’ll use his wording below but place it in list form: 
  • “hypothetical premises about human kinds (e.g., the ‘great chain of being,’ classificatory hierarchies, etc.) and about the differences between them (both metal and physical)”;
  • “a class of ethical choices (e.g., domination and subjugation, entitlement and restriction, disrespect and abuse)”;
  • “a set of institutional regulations, directions, and pedagogic models (e.g., apartheid, separate development, educational institutions, choice of educational and bureaucratic language, etc.)”;
  • “Norms or prescriptions for behavior [that are] . . . contextually circumscribed by specific hypotheses, ethical choices, regulations, and models. (note 91)
In his conceptual plane, Goldberg identifies practices and material structures (e.g. policies, regulations, pedagogical models, etc.) as much as logics that reinforce racist language. While he doesn’t say it, it seems justified to see Goldberg’s racist discourse as both language, logics, and grammars, and the conditions, contexts, and structures in which that language exists. He’s just focusing on the language and logics of racist discourse in the book, but the contexts that afford that language and its logics still operate. In other words, language is never used in a vacuum. All expressions of language are part of their contexts, which includes the people who make it and the structures and institutions that enable such expressions as valid.

And what drives and supports most of Goldberg’s primitive terms listed above? It’s the same things that created the conditions that made the idea of race possible: categorization and the logics of hierarchy and teleology. Goldberg lists the four guiding logics that unify all of the above as (again, I put Goldberg’s words into a list): 
  • “classification, order, value, and hierarchy;” 
  • “differentiation and identity, discrimination and identification;”
  • “exclusion, domination, suggestion, and subjugation; as well as”
  • “entitlement and restriction.” (note 92)
These four logics guide and determine the previous four primitive terms in how they are used in the world. Put together, the two sets of logics above boil down to the logics and grammars of classification and hierarchy that identify assumed “final causes” or teleologies. 

The bottom line that we might take from Goldberg’s ideas is a two-part equation. I’ll call it the equation for racist discourse. The equation offers ways to investigate and question common sense in order to understand its participation in racist discourse. 

Part one: The foundation of explicit and implicit racist discourses is the explicit or implicit use of logics and assumptions that accept or use hierarchies, orders of value, or ranking of things, ideas, languages, and people. (What hierarchies and orders of value are being used or assumed?)

Part two: The consequences of the use of these hierarchical logics and assumptions are to discriminate, exclude, subjugate or restrict BIPOC people, while entitling and privileging White people. (Who is discriminated against or restricted by the use of the hierarchical logic in question and who is privileged?

The consequences are never even, nor perfect, and they have nothing to do with individuals’ or institutions’ purposes or intentions for using such discourse. This equation focuses our attention on the logics that have historically made racism and White supremacy and those logics’ consequences in society and our classrooms. There are always exceptions that many use to defend such unjust logics, such as grading students against a standardized English. The practice is not explicitly about race, but race is implicated at every historical step. Racism happens.
Brave Work

Write for 10 minutes.

Consider a short text you’ve loved, or that you use in your classroom as a model for students, one that you may have used to teach something about writing or how to write or argue effectively. 

Use the equation for racist discourse to help you re-read critically this text. Have those questions in mind as you reread. First look for the hierarchical logics and assumptions in the text. What are they and where can find them in culture, history, and society? That is, how are they common sense already? Then consider how their strict adherence creates discriminations in their consequences. Which social groups will be most likely affected both positively and negatively?
So where does this leave us? As the equation for racist discourse shows, racist discourse for the literacy and language classroom is a way to describe a mutually reinforcing dialectic between two simultaneously acting historical forces, racist language and racist materials and contexts. The first points to language and symbols that explain our world to us. This language works from the logics of categorization, hierarchy, and teleology or final causes, all of which reference the essences of people and their languaging, and all of which historically have placed White Europeans above all others. 

The second part of the dialectic refers to the consequences, outcomes, structures, and material experiences in the world. This is the material and economic part of our lives. It is the contexts, situations, and institutions that we operate in and that present choices to us, usually limited in uneven (and often invisible) ways, which we may not be completely aware of. 

This unevenness is always explained in other non-racial terms. It’s not racism; its merit, merit decided by the use of a dominant White, middle-class English language, a language that is gotten by being born into a particular kind of family in a particular kind of area. It is beauty decided by a White European standard that is not named as such. Together as a dialectic, racist discourse, encapsulated in the equation for racist discourse above, offers us a way to talk about racism as simultaneously languages, logics, grammars, judgements, structures, outcomes, and material consequences and conditions in the world. 

Because all these things reinforce each other, they overdetermine racism. And they often lead us to a false consciousness about ourselves and the world, or rather a White supremacist consciousness. Our common sense often tricks us into things we would not agree to if we knew them more plainly. To think of racism as racist discourse that is embedded in our common sense provides a more comprehensive and coherent way to investigate it with students and learn how we all participate in it all the time. This also provides room not just for critique but resistance and countering.


This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.