Blogbook -- Chapter 1: Racist Discourse as a Field

Entry 10

At the heart of racist discourse is the logic of categorization. It structures and produces power and unequal outcomes in racialized groups in schools. For instance, grading in the literacy classroom, because it categorizes instances of language (and students) then sorts those instances and students into hierarchies, creates power relations among people and groups of people. It creates haves and have-nots. These power relations are based on language by being based on the language standard used to dispense grades. So, because language always travels with groups of people who have fallen within racialized patterns in communities, categorizing by language categorizes by race. The group of people who make language standards in schools -- that is, elite Whites -- also make the privileges that flow to people like them, or who come from similar places as they do. The bottom line is: Grading by a single standard of language is racist. It’s a good example of racist discourse and how racist discourse maintains its dominance. 

If you want to group people by race, socioeconomic status, or geographic habitation (where they are from), group them by how they talk. If you want to create an unfair system that privileges one group over others without naming any group, make one group’s ways of talking the standard by which privileges and opportunities are dolled out in the system. If you want that system to not look racist, then ignore the connections between racial groups and the languages they use. Ignore the fact that one group made the language standards and their language is racialized, as all languages are. 

In schools too, racist discourse is overdetermined. It’s never just one thing, never just a single test, or standard, or rubric, or book. It’s all over the place. And it’s never just school, just our grading practices, just our lessons or texts. It’s also the economic and other systems that make our schools possible, and that form our students’ living conditions, entertainment, and desires. When we read and study literature, like Poe’s “The Raven,” (note 67) it may be useful to understand such literature next to contemporary racialized artifacts, like the TV show “Raven’s Home,” or a meme or tweet from the official Twitter account of the NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens. All these things and systems can be connected by race. They can be understood as aspects of racist discourse.

Previously, I referred to the way the early race pseudo-scientists like Bernier, Linneaus, Buffon, and Blumenbach used categorical methods to create hierarchical and teleological racial groups. These groupings were based on superficial observations that to them indicated Aristotelian “final causes.” These racial projects about understanding the various kinds of people on the planet became racist discourse. Racial groupings came to indicate the essences of the groups of people being described. Those essences or attributes had inherent values and preferences -- that is, an inherent order, even if that order was binary with a preferred term, such as good vs. bad, white vs. black, master vs. slave, citizen vs. non-citizen, or civilized vs. barbarous. 

The historical conditions in Europe in which Hobbes, Bacon, and Locke dictated much of the logics of science and meaning-making helped make this racial discourse possible. Thus, these race pseudo-scientists made a racial language, a field of expressions and claims about race, which were taken as truth or scientific knowledge. This racial language was then used and acted upon in the world. These uses and acts reinforced the language, producing uneven power relations among people, nations, and communities. All the material conditions around the racist language that aided and abetted it became a part of it. It now validates it. It’s like if you created a standard for good communication based on the way you communicate, then used your ability to match that standard as a way to prove how good of a communicator you are. Racist discourse not only self validates but is more than words and more than policies and unjust outcomes. It is a field of activities, terms, actions, policies, and practices. 

Two scholars help explain racist discourse as a field. They also reveal its historical nature and why a classroom might use a range of cultural and other artifacts to read literature such as “The Raven.” The first, David Theo Goldberg, discusses racist culture, mostly from a European center. The second, Edward Said, explains Orientalism, a particular kind of racist discourse, and he’s equally instructive. Goldberg explains that the discourse of racism springs out of historical conditions that the discourse of race creates. He says: 

I have argued elsewhere that racism itself is a discourse; here I am widening that claim, taking the broader position that the field of discourse at issue is made up of all racialized expressions. As a theoretical construct, the discursive field is sufficiently broad to incorporate the various expressions constitutive of racialized discourse. These expressions include beliefs and verbal outbursts (epithets, slurs, etc.), acts and their consequences, and the principles upon which racialized institutions are based. In addition, the “field of racialized discourse” is a designation wide enough to include the racialized expressions that arise in analyzing and explaining the historical formations and logics of racial thinking and reference, as well as of racisms. The field of racialized discourse accordingly consists of all the expressions that make up the discourse, that are and can be expressions of this discursive formation. (note 68)

I take two things from Goldberg, even though he isn’t exactly saying the second. As a field, racist and racialized discourse amounts to: (1) the words we use to identify and explain race, which includes the logics and habits that go along with that vocabulary and that operate underneath or around the language; and (2) the social and material fields around racist or racial language from which it springs or circulates, such as historical occurrences and inherited policies and practices (i.e. traditions and other structures we take for granted as normal or “the way we do things”).

Brave Work

Write for 5 minutes. 

Think of an important concept or term that you often use with students. Maybe it’s a term that helps you teach literature or argumentation. 

What’s the term and how do you explain it to your students? What examples do you use? Where did you get this term and where do you find your examples? What actions, circumstances, and other things are necessary in your life to have had access to this term and those examples? That is, what is the social and material fields that have been present in your life that afforded you that term and those examples? How might those social and material fields be racialized?

Twenty years before Goldberg, Edward Said offered his history of European colonial thought, which he termed “Orientalism,” and it illustrates what I’m saying. Orientalism is really a well-defined racist discourse that posed as a neutral and scientific discourse of race during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a discourse about the Orient and those living there, which today would be the Middle East and parts of North Africa. But it is also a field of discourse and other things. Said explains: 

The Orient that appears in Orientialism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire . . . [It] is a school of interpretations whose material happens to be the Orient, its civilizations, peoples, and localities. Its objective discoveries -- the work of innumerable devoted scholars who edited texts and translated them, codified grammars, wrote dictionaries, reconstructed dead epochs, produced positivistically verifiable learning -- are and always have been conditioned by the fact that its truths, like any truths delivered by language, are embodied in language.” (note 69)

Like all racist discourse, the discourse of Orientialism creates the Orient and the Oriental. It frames and organizes what European “experts” see and understand as “exotic,” as well as different from them, the White authorities. Orientialism, like all racist discourse, works from the logics of identification, classification, containment (of the subject, in this case, the Oriental), and representation. That is, Orientalism identifies, classifies, contains, and represents people, things, places, behaviors, languages, and ideas as Oriental, and is situated in a social hierarchy already. It also works from other industries that make it possible, like academic publishing, travel literature, and leisure and vacationing industries. 

Like Nast’s illustration from the last blog post (entry 9), the Orient and the Oriental of Orientalism are not real, or material. They are discursive fabrications of White European experts. They are explanations or representations from White Europeans who experienced “other” places and people -- or think they did. The “other” is only exotic and different because it is far away from the White, European center, and is populated by bodies of color who appear and talk differently from the White expert -- recall the way Bourdain was framed as a White traveler in his show (blog post entry 4). But once these experts’ writings circulated in the world, their discourse acted in the world. It became a structure or force itself. It became material, and so seems to be real to those who interact with it as if it is neutral, objective, and authoritative. Orientalism, then, created power, the power to create choices from which others could make decisions and judgements.


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.