Soon after the Brexit vote, I started writing a blog post about the different usage of the term racial in AmE and BrE. This followed an incident that the UK press had label(l)ed 'racial abuse' against a North American in Manchester. I thought it odd that being abusive to an American counted as 'racial abuse'. I then abandoned the post when I discovered that I'd had it wrong: the abuse was related to the colo(u)r of the person's skin. (There was a "go back to Africa" that I hadn't heard the first time I'd seen the recording.) I still had a feeling that I sometimes heard racial and racist being used differently in BrE than in AmE, but that wasn't an example of it.

But one thing I did find was that one hears the word abuse in such contexts a lot more in the UK. In the green you can see which adjective+abuse combinations are particularly American (left column) and particularly British (right). (Pink means the opposite—much more typical of the other country.)

Click picture to enlarge.
Much of the 'abuse' in the right column (after anti-semitic, racist, homophobic) can be understood to be verbal in nature. (Worth noting: the word abuse is no more common in BrE than in AmE--it's just has more of these green phrases associated with it.) Part of the reason for more occurrences of abuse phrases in BrE is that UK has more policing of verbal actions than the US does—historically in more restrictive libel laws and more recently in greater use of hate-speech laws and anti-social behavio(u)r orders. (In the US, such laws are more apt to be challenged on constitutional grounds due to the First Amendment right of free speech.) So, verbal abuse is going to make it into the news more.

But back to racial and related words: What pushed me to think about the matter again was this tweet from a fellow American linguist in Britain.

This is not the academic analysis that Lauren was looking for, but just more reflection on the differences in how race (in the 'type of people' sense) and words derived from it (racial, racist) are used and interpreted.

There's little that's more culture-dependent than our notions of how many and which races there are among humans and who can belong to which one. And what counts as a race differs a lot depending on why one's asking. The US Census's list of races you can choose from is a strange mix of colo(u)rs, ethnicities, nationalities at different levels of specificity. If all your grandparents came from Tokyo, your race is a nationality, but if they were ethnic Germans, your race is a colo(u)r.

From https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/2010questionnaire.pdf
Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin in this case is not counted as a race, but as an ethnic or linguistic group, and people are expected to have a race as well as status as Hispanic/Latinx/Spanish "origin".

But when it comes to talking about racism in America, it's not uncommon for people to talk about racism against Hispanic/Latinx people (on the basis of their membership of that group, not another "racial" group). You can see, for example anti-Latino racism in the US column of line 16 here:

click to enlarge

Look at the dark blue boxes in the GB column, and you see the kind of thing Lauren was alluding to in her tweet: line 3: anti-Muslim racism and line 6, anti-Jewish racism (and later on in the list, smaller numbers of anti-Semitic racism and anti-Islamic racism) are found in much greater numbers in UK than in US. (The US anti-Arab examples were mostly from one source, so I'm not going to make much of Arab being a 'national/ethnic' alternative to the 'religious' British phrasings.) The Irish column is interesting too--where Irish and Welsh are treated as "races" in the British "racism" context--but perhaps not other British contexts. (Though I just checked and there are 74 hits for "the Irish race" in the Ireland data.) (The "immigrant" numbers there are interesting, but that's the word I talk about in The Prodigal Tongue, so I won't repeat myself here.)

Both US and UK have plenty of hits for "the Jewish race" (a phrase used much historically, so not surprising), but none for "the Muslim race" or "the Islamic race". So, in that case it looks like you can be subjected to racism without being a race. Here's a great example of it in a recent (well, recent when I re-started this post) tweet:


Now, religion is not part of the legal definition of race in terms of most UK discrimination law (but religion may well be another category of discrimination in other laws). The Citizens Advice Bureau advises that you may have a case of racial discrimination if you belong to or are perceived to belong to a category under this definition of race:

What is ‘race’?  Race means being part of a group of people who are identified by their race, colour, nationality, citizenship, or ethnic or national origins.
Muslims make up less than 5% of the British population, but are the largest non-Christian religion. Islam mainly came to the UK through immigration from South Asia; about 6% of the population identifies as of South Asian descent (the largest 'racial' minority in Britain). Many British South Asians will have other religious backgrounds, but there about three times as many Muslims as Hindus in the UK, and about 6 times as many Muslims as Sikhs. So, while not all British Muslims are South Asian and not all British South Asians are Muslim, there may be a strong association between being Muslim and being part of a particular ethnic group. Maybe that's why the connection between Islamophobia and racial abuse seems so easy to make in the UK. And perhaps this follows on from the sectarian divisions within and between Britain and Ireland, where discrimination was (and is) not on the basis of skin colour but on the basis of tribalism defined by religion and ethnicity—and where, as we've seen, people do talk about belonging and discrimination in racial terms. 

Muslims are only 1.1% of the US population. Civil rights movements to do with 'race' in the US have concerned much bigger populations: over 12% of the population are Black/African-American and 17% Hispanic/Latinx (more than half of whom ticked 'white' on their census forms). It's not that religion and race are unconnected in the US. The Ku Klux Klan famously has it in for Jews and (historically, at least) Catholics as well as African-Americans. But perhaps since racism in the US has such deep roots and affects so much of the population, it's harder for that word to be extended to other kinds of discrimination.

There may also be something to the idea that religious discrimination is more of its own category in the US, where religion is much more widely and variably practi{c/s}ed. The country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, but not on any principle of racial equality. That said, it's kind of surprising we don't have a widely used single word for religious discrimination, like religionism or faithism. But we don't seem to.

The moral of the story is: races are different in different cultures because (a) those cultures have different histories involving different peoples, and (b) the categori{s/z}ation of people is made up to serve (the power-holders in) those cultures. If you're interested in these kinds of things, I talk about some of them in chapter 7 of The Prodigal Tongue, but also I've written a few blog posts here about race and ethnicity.


  1. Perhaps related: "Asian" in the UK seems to refer to people from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and so on, but doesn't seem to be used much for people from China, Korea, Japan, and so on. The opposite seems to be true in US English.

    (I mean this from an anecdotal perspective, rather than an academic one; as a Brit that lived in the US for a few years, I remember being confused when I first encountered the difference, but I don't know how widespread it is.)

    1. If you click on the last link in the post, you'll get to a blogpost about that topic.

  2. The KKK and their ilk are definitely still anti-Catholic: they are the descendants of the American Native Party (better known as the Know-Nothings) from before the Civil War, which was opposed to all "new" (i.e. non-WASP such as Irish, Italian, and Polish) immigration.

    A group of Jews who were experiencing discrimination attempted to prove that they were a race in U.S. law (and therefore a category requiring strict scrutiny -- which almost never happens -- to pass constitutional muster) by showing that their enemies considered them a separate race. It didn't fly.

    1. I guess I can't speak for the entirety of the American Jewry, but from my experience at least, I wouldn't consider us Jews to be a religious group/religious minority, because religion is probably our least unifying trait as a group. I know very few Jews who actually consider themselves religiously Jewish as opposed to culturally Jewish; our commonality is our history, culture, and genetics. I would say we're an ethnicity with a commonly associated religion. That's my experience at least, perhaps people who follow the religion would see things differently, though that kind of proves my point that religion isn't what unites us.

  3. A phrase that comes up fairly often in the US, in reference to derogatory talk about various religions, is "hate speech." We also have "hate crimes," which are regular crimes compounded by some sort of (usually verbal) abuse. I'm on the fence about whether hate crime laws are a good thing -- there is something Orwellian about the whole idea -- but I wonder whether the concept gets around the difficulty that you find in British English of describing speech that is discriminatory again certain religions.

    1. 'Hate crime' is used more in BrE than in AmE. The laws are easier to use on speech in UK than US (as mentioned in the post). 'Hate speech' is used less than in US, but still used quite a bit. Since it's more often an actual crime in the UK, it's likely that the 'crime' is being used in UK where you'd have to refer to 'speech' in US.

    2. Thanks. I didn't know that 'hate crime' was a thing in the UK. I think of it as an American invention but perhaps that's my parochial perspective.

  4. "there about three times as many Muslims as Hindus in the UK, and about 6 times as many Sikhs..."
    ...so there are twice as many Sikhs as Muslims? Really?

    1. That didn't sound quite right when I wrote it, but I carried on anyway. Will correct, thanks.

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  6. Lynne

    it's kind of surprising we don't have a widely used single word for religious discrimination, like religionism or faithism. But we don't seem to.

    I think the usual word is persecution if you're on the receiving end or bigotry if you're not yourself the victim. When those words are too highly charged, people say intolerance.

    Of curse, all these words have broader denotations, but in context they fit the 'religionist' bill.

    And the word sectarian frequently matches the concept.

    At the end of the Raj we used the term communal for conflict between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, but I think this has become a historic term.

  7. I would be confused by the US Census. My mother was Spanish and I spoke Spanish and English as a child. I consider myself to be European but the census seems to separate Spanish people from other Europeans.

    1. I was confused by this at first, but an American friend explained that "Hispanic", in a US context, refers to people from South America and/or Puerto Rico more than it does to people from Spain. So in US terms you'd be European.

    2. And this has to do with Latin-Americans being a group of people who often experience discrimination. (I use the term Latin-American instead of Hispanic-American because there are people in the US who have no idea that part of South America came from Portugal and doesn't speak Spanish.) I believe Latinos are currently the fastest growing minority in the US population, and when people talk about immigrants taking away jobs, today they really mean Latin-American immigrants from south of the U.S-Mexican border. Consider where Donald Trump and his administration wants to build his wall, and where his administration was separating families -- they weren't doing this at the Canadian border, or at airports where people came from Europe or Asia.

  8. When I first started hearing people get into a flap about Polish immigrants in the UK, it was talked about as racism and I had more or less the same reaction as you: That's not about race. But since race isn't a workable scientific category when we're talking about humans, maybe extending it this way makes as much sense as thinking there's a dividing line between colors.

  9. I have seen some evidence that the meaning of "racist" is starting to generalize a bit in American English as well. There's a YouTube channel where clips of a movie are shown while the narrator humorously points out purported flaws. Frequently he will say "that's racist" when some character or the movie itself appears to accept some stereotype, or to tolerate some kind of discrimination, but often it isn't really based on race at all. Sometimes it's nationality, or religion, or what kind of alien the character is. Of course, the effect is intended to be humorous, but I wonder if it is a vanguard of a trend.

    1. From my personal experience as an American, I would believe that this is the case. I use "racist"this way, and everyone I know (who's younger than like 40, at least) does too. It's happened alot that we would just naturally call something racist, then after a few moments either stop ourselves to think of a more specific word for the category of person being discriminated against, or some old person or pedant listening will ask us to figure out the "correct" terminology.

      I wonder whether it has anything to do with the increasing understanding of the depth and subtleties of racism and how those things are applicable to the lived experience of other minority groups.

  10. I think maybe the piece that's missing here is the notion of "racialization". Races as we use the term today are entirely social constructs, they have nothing to do with zoological sense of the word, which means that different groups, and different *kinds* of groups, can _become_ races over time, while other distinctive attributes that define a group of people can lose salience to the point where they are deracialized. This happened in the 20th c. to Italians, Irish, and other groups of European immigrants to the United States; a century and a half ago, "white" encompassed English, Scottish, German, northern French, and Scandinavian immigrants, who were viewed as cultured and industrious, and excluded other (equally fair-skinned) people like Poles and Greeks who were regarded as "lazy" and "degenerate".

    Particularly in the anti-racism activist community, there are many people on the lookout for incipient racialization of new groups, and one of the telltales is when an identifiable minority group is denigrated _as if_ it were one of the classically recognized races, particularly when the minority status is (putatively) biologically determined.

    1. Quite. "Racism" and "racist" in the UK is often used as a proxy for the whole process of "othering", almost irrespective of whether the "other" aimed at might be described as a nationality/ethnicity or religion or whatever social characteristic might be used to define an "outgroup". The most common forms of hostile othering do tend to be aimed at groups where both religion and race/ethnicity may be involved; but there is also the habit of stereotyping people by some perceived group identity, not necessarily with consciously hostile intent (for an official report on social care needs among ethnic minorities, the authors identified an underlying problem in the phrase they often heard among social workers - "They look after their own, don't they?" - and then there was the Macpherson Report establishing the concept of "institutional racism").

    2. Yes and no, Autolycus.

      Yes, racism has extended to 'othering' of a wider variety of groups.

      But no, the link with race in the sense of 'breeding population' has not been entirely lost.

      If a police force were found to allow stereotypical views of bankers or estate agents or actors to interfere with fair treatment, that could and should be called prejudice — but hardly 'institutional racism'.

      It's not whatever social characteristic might be used to define an "outgroup". It's those characteristics that — in the mind of the person doing the othering — identify the group as self-perpetuating and therefore dangerous.

      In this mindset, Poles will continue to be Poles generations after leaving Poland. And, of course, skin colour is seen to persists indefinitely. (This assumes no out-breeding, and even then is not entirely true.)

      Of the many religious groups that exist, those few that are 'othered' are those that are perceived to marry exclusively among themselves, and therefore threaten to outbreed the group to which the 'otherer' belongs.

      Just as we don't speak of institutional racism against accountants, I don't think unthinking criticism of Jains or Parsees is likely to be called racist.

      Things which look very different to an observer can feel pretty well identical to someone on the receiving end. That's why institutional racism is actually a very useful term. It dramatises the effect and thus challenges members of bodies like the police force to examine how their words and actions contribute — however unintentionally. Yes, it's difficult to see how the term is linguistically justified, but it's beneficial to think through that difficulty.

  11. There are tribes and tribes. Many true-blue Tory parents would be upset if their son or daughter wanted to marry someone from a staunch Labour family — and similarly if the parents were Labour and the prospective son/daughter-in-law Tory. But few would speak of a mixed marriage. This, I think, is the key to distinguishing those tribal conflicts which really disturb people's sense of identity.

    If you see something as a mixed marriage, you're expressing a fear that your tribe will lose some of its identity. This is, I suggest, essentially a cultural fear. Ideologies of 'pure' bloodlines may be overlaid, but I don't believe that this is the driving force in present-day prejudices — not in Britain, anyway.

    There is, I suggest, an important similarity between what was called 'colour prejudice' when i was a small boy and present-day antagonism to East European immigrants. There's an empty semantic niche for a term that covers both. Cultural xenophobia would partly cover it, thought doesn't convey the sense of group destruction by interbreeding. No wonder that racism and racist are so frequently used as cover-all.

    The drawback is that the essential difference between the two allows an easy defence to modern xenophobes. The old term colour prejudice was well chosen. Skin colour is a visible index of inbreeding and mixed breeding over generations. The grandchildren of, say, Polish immigrants may display no outward signs of foreign origin other than their names — which can easily be changed. Members of disadvantaged indigenous communities may feel threatened by new Polish immigrants, but not by black and brown-skinned neighbours. So they feel righteous anger when accused of 'racism'. Part of the Brexit argument was the argument that 'ordinary decent working-class people' were being victimised by the 'metropolitan elite' with this false accusation

    Another group that felt falsely accused were rank-and-file officers in police forces found guilty of institutional racism. This was not an accusation that each and every officer felt classic colour prejudice, but it was perceived as such. Clearly there's a need for a term for the way that unchallenged stereotypes lead organisations to treat individuals less than fairly because of their ethnic identity. But institutional racism is heard as a personal criticism rather than one of institutional culture. As with anti-Polish xenophobia, there's a semantic niche with no better word than racism to fill it.

    All in all, I think we're stuck with the term racism. The way to achieve precision is not to restrict its connotation but to qualify it with wording such as a form of racism or racist in the sense that...

  12. Back to abuse, for me (AmE) the word (at least when referring to abuse of a person) implies some sort of physical action against a person. "Verbal abuse" is meant to contrast with regular abuse, and "verbal" is not optional when talking about it.

    But "racial abuse" sounds wrong to me even if there was a physical action. In constructions like "[adjective] abuse" the adjective is usually the method of abuse (sexual abuse, verbal abuse, etc) or the degree of abuse (horrible abuse, severe abuse). Certain nouns (or maybe they act as adjectives here?) can occupy this slot as well, usually referring to either the perpetrator (boyfriend abuse) or the victim (child abuse, elder abuse), these cannot be generalized (husband abuse? sister abuse?). Obviously there are exceptions, "domestic abuse" and "workplace abuse" refer to the location of abuse, for example, but I cannot think of any acceptable examples where the adjective describes the reason for abuse, so most of the top 7 BrE examples (save 3 and 5) sound wrong to me. (and I cannot even imagine "suffering abuse" where "suffering" is an adjective in any dialect of English).

    Incidentally, I don't recall ever seeing "male abuse". I had to Google it to see that it refers to abuse, usually of women, of men rather than vice versa ("female abuse" in the same sense is out there too, but even less common).

  13. Boris

    I cannot even imagine "suffering abuse" where "suffering" is an adjective in any dialect of English

    Suffering is a particle. And since suffer is a transitive verb the noun abuse corresponds to its object.

    Those suffering abuse means 'Those who suffer abuse'.

    In my BrE abuse is just as likely — perhaps more likely — to refer to verbal abuse. Oxford Dictionaries only offers these example sentences:
    ‘waving his fists and hurling abuse at the driver’
    ‘Sometimes it will be a term of endearment, sometimes a term of abuse.’
    ‘There are no prizes for guessing what value he places on each: bourgeois is always a term of abuse, revolutionary almost always a term of approbation.’
    ‘My use of ‘Yanks’ recently triggered a barrage of criticism from readers suggesting the word was a term of abuse.’
    ‘Yobs have thrown eggs and stones at the new library in Brewery Street while hurling abuse at readers.’
    ‘Now imagine all these fans hurling abuse at you.’
    ‘Two weeks ago, we reported how hordes of rowdy teenagers were congregating in the library entrance hall, causing mayhem and hurling abuse at users.’
    ‘Monday night's meeting was dominated by members hurling abuse at the directors, including climbing on stage in an effort to shout them down.’
    ‘Since then, we have regularly been subjected to abuse and threats have been made to kill us.’
    ‘They had long used ‘star quality’ as a term of abuse.’
    ‘It went okay but as soon as I said I had to go he began hurling abuse at me.’
    ‘The incident happened at about 2.35 am when a group of drunks began hurling abuse at a handful of firefighters.’
    ‘We tend to forget pop itself was once a term of abuse and these worthies were as close to the cutting edge as it was possible to get.’
    ‘The word ‘liberal’ was confirmed as a term of abuse.’
    ‘If somebody's hurling abuse at you, it may be better to just walk away from the situation.’
    ‘These complaints were not the normal tirade of abuse and insults we receive but seemed genuine.’
    ‘In 1992 he was prosecuted by the council in the magistrates court after hurling abuse at a member of the public.’
    ‘A group of 20 teenagers went on a Halloween rampage in Hockley, smashing windows, tearing down fences and hurling abuse at homeowners.’
    ‘An alcoholic veterinary surgeon from Yorkshire who turned up to work drunk and hurled abuse at animal lovers will now hear his fate in the New Year.’
    ‘As a driver you suffer verbal abuse on a regular basis from drunks, druggies and even schoolchildren.’
    ‘The sight of grown men hurling abuse at someone who had voluntarily given up a Saturday morning to referee a kids match is truly disheartening for everyone involved.’


    Oxford Dictionaries online offers these example sentences...


    Suffering is a participle.

  16. I am perfectly fine with the phrase "suffering abuse". It's quite common AmE. It just feels strange to refer to "suffering" as an adjective here. I guess these search results can't be perfect.

    As far as those OED examples, I have to admit they sound a lot better in sentences than I would think. Some of them would still make me pause for a second once I encountered them, but not all.

    I doubt any sort of sentence will make "racial abuse" etc sound like an ok construction, though.

  17. Suffering is a participle.

    Alternatively it can be a verbal noun (some would call it a gerund).

    Years of suffering abuse means 'years of being one who suffers abuse'.

  18. Boris

    As far as those OED examples, I have to admit they sound a lot better in sentences than I would think.

    The examples are from OUP's online popular dictionary of present-day English ± a very different animal from the OED, which shows the history of a word — insofar as the evidence allows.

    What the OED shows is that all the earliest uses of abuse were variations on 'improper use'. It's only in the sixteenth century that it came to apply to speech. The OED definition reads

    5. Contemptuous or insulting language; reviling, scurrility. Formerly also: a verbal insult.

    The COUNTABLE insult sense is seen in the second-earliest (1616) but most eloquent quote from Shakespeare:

    Harke how the villaine would close now, after his treasonable abuses .

    This COUNTABLE sense persisted until the late eighteenth century, when it a acquired the abstract sense which is uppermost in the minds of many BrE speakers. Again, the second-earliest quote (1807) is the most eloquent

    Unlimited abuse of private characters is another characteristic of the American press.

    The sense of abuse in a physical sense came later — first in the sense of sexual violence, then more generally but in legalistic language. What you see as the standard present-day AmE use emerges in non-legal prose in 1791:

    The constant ill usage and violent abuse of horses.

  19. I pressed Publish too soon. What I'd omitted was definition of sense 6b from the OED:

    Physical or mental maltreatment; the inflicting of physical or emotional harm or damage.

    For Boris, this is the prime meaning of abuse. For men, the prime meaning is 5.

  20. Since Lynne first started the thread, I've been struggling with how religious prejudice squares with the idea of racism.

    And I'm not alone. John Cowan reports an unsuccessful effort of a Jewish group to establish the status in law of race for Jews. There have been similar attempts in Britain to have Muslims recognised as being covered by the Race Relations Act.

    Both antisemitism and islamophobia differ from other forms of prejudice in that they ostensibly stem from perceived fear of actions by certain individuals in the alien group. In one mindset, the danger comes in everyday life from unscrupulous Jewish businessmen, and in the political sphere by fabulously wealthy Jewish financiers. In a comparable mindset, the danger comes from the omnipresence of Muslim fanatics dedicated to destroy Western civilisation.

    I almost persuaded myself that neither antisemitism nor islamophobia should be classified as racism. But then I realised that they both involve the fear of support for individuals by the wider Jewish and Muslim communities.

    Few people believe that each and every Muslim is a potential terrorist, but distressingly many believe that all Muslims are potential supporters of terrorists. Few believe that a Jewish woman or child presents a financial or political threat, but all too many believe that they lend family support to those that do.

    Outside the Arab world, there's scant belief in the old myth of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, but among some left-wingers the conspiracy has been re-imagined as an alliance between Jewish money, capitalism and imperialism, culminating in the creation of the State of Israel. It follows that any Jewish people who show any sympathy for Israel are complicit in the Zionist conspiracy. The Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has allowed himself to be identified with these zealots. He tries to dissociate himself from the vitriol and from the most extreme positions. And he's convinced that he can't possibly be antisemitic because he's passionately anti-racist.

    The trouble is that when he declares himself agains 'antisemitism and all other forms of racism', he fails to see the important difference between prejudice directed at the clearly weak and prejudice directed at those perceived to be strong. But he persists in defending himself against the charge that nobody is making — the change of racism.

    The other British politician accused of some form of racism is Boris Johnson. While arguing against proposals for a legal ban on islamic face veils in public, he made a remark on the appearance of one such form that some Muslims have found offensive. As I see it, the only valid charge to be laid is that he should have known that his worlds would cause needless offence, and so he shouldn't have written them. This may well be a serious charge, but I can't see how it amounts to racism.

  21. As a UK-to-US immigrant, I found the various conceptions of "race" here very hard to understand at first. It started to make sense when someone told me that "being of X race" means, effectively, "racist people will discriminate against you as an X".

  22. VP, I think that's a wonderfully concise explanation of it, and explains why it varies from both place to place and from time period to time period, even in the same location.

    Going back to some of the original discussion of race as opposed to what I would call ethnicity, and the use of the word racial in this context, I am reminded of the news stories about the French woman who was subjected to verbal abuse on a bus in Australia a number of years ago. The Australian news services called it a racist attack, specifically "Melbourne racist bus attack victim speaks out" (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/22/racist-bus-attack-victim-australia) and "Melbourne man jailed over 'misogynist, racist' tirade against French tourist" (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-20/melbourne-man-jailed-over-racist-bus-tirade-against-french-tour/5334106). This led me originally, as an American, to assume she was a black Frenchwoman. But when you actually see pictures of her, she is what I would take to be white (this being one of the only articles I can currently find with a photo of her: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4035288/Man-abused-French-woman-Melbourne-bus-prison-mode-abused-drugs-cope-shame-rant-went-viral.html). The conflict developed because she and her friends were singing in French, and part of it included "speak English!" While admittedly there is a secondary discussion to be had about others misidentifying people based on looks who self-identify as part of a racial group, and therefore this woman herself may self-identify as part of a racial minority, on the surface this attack seemed to be much more based on her nationality and use of a foreign language than on the color of her skin. As an American, I would certainly call it an attack motivated by prejudice and hatred of foreigners, but racial isn't the adjective I'd use because that implies something else. I'm not sure what terms I would use, but Nativist and Jingoistic come to mind.

    1. For me (I'm British, and specifically English, by the way), that is a racist attack, even though it is her nationality rather than her actual race that is being attacked. Probably lazy use of language!

      I think I'd mostly use racist in that context, unless it was a question of two different tribes occupying the same land, as in Northern Ireland - but then, the inter-tribal hatred is sort-of racist.... or is it?

    2. I don't think there can be a 'lazy' use of a term which doesn't have any real application — that is to say no link to any real-world objectively observable entity corresponding to the notion race.

      For me, that Melbourne incident is one where some people might use the word racist. Others wouldn't. Neither are right — or wrong.

      Personally, I'd probably say something like form of racist or xenophobic bordering on racist. The terms Nativist or jingoistic don't feel strong enough as condemnation.

      Actually, the Australian news service can be forgiven to choose a single punchy epithet — especially in a headline. Anyway, the Guardian report makes clear that the offensive term used wasn't froggy or cheese-eating surrender monkey or anything as country-specific but f*cking ding — which is apparently a term for migrants.

    3. I would view it that way too, but an awful lot of Americans call things like this "racist" without a second thought. I recall that attorney in New York whose giant hissy fit over the fact that a store employee was speaking Spanish was filmed and uploaded to YouTube. Every single internet comment and description that I saw regarding the guy labelled him a "racist lawyer". And I wouldn't be surprised if he IS
      in fact a racist, but I don't see how wanting restaurant employees to speak English automatically makes one a racist. A jerk maybe, but not necessarily a racist.

  23. The OED Third Edition has thoughtful entries for racial and race

    Of, relating to, comprising, or characteristic of, a (particular) race or ethnic group.
    Since the mid 20th cent. – and particularly since the advent of ideas of multiculturalism – social and cultural factors have played an increasing role in concepts of racial identity. Membership of a racial group is often considered to involve such factors as shared history, cultural traditions and language, a shared religion, and a common geographic origin or descent (cf. quot. 2007). However, while this wider meaning is common in usage of racial, the term race is often avoided in such contexts (cf. race n.6 1).

    [The 2007 quote referred to is from a work called Racism: Very Short Introduction:
    In a landmark ruling [in the House of Lords in 1983], it was deemed that Sikhs were a racial group because they had a long shared history; cultural traditions of their own; a common geographical origin (or descent from a small number of common ancestors); a common language; a common literature; a common religion; and they were a minority or a majority within a larger community.]

    The reference to race n.6.1 is to the entry for race as referring to a group of people with a common descent. The earliest uses applied to lineage rather than classification. The word sense they we worry about seems to have taken over in the eighteenth century

    race n 6
    1. d.
    According to various more or less formal attempted systems of classification: any of the (putative) major groupings of mankind, usually defined in terms of distinct physical features or shared ethnicity, and sometimes (more controversially) considered to encompass common biological or genetic characteristics.

    In smaller print they continue

    In early use usually applied to groups of people with obviously distinct physical characteristics such as skin colour, etc. An influential early system was that of J. F. Blumenbach De Generis Humani Varietati Nativa (1775), which, on the basis of skin colour and conformation of the head, divided the human species into five races, the American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian, and assigned them qualitative ranking. A similar division into six was proposed by Goldsmith (cf. quot. 1774). In particular contexts (e.g. former European colonies or areas of the United States) adherents of a theory of race have frequently applied only a simple two-term distinction (such as ‘black’ and ‘white’).

    [The reference to the 1774 quote reads
    The second great variety, in the human species, seems to be that of the Tartar race.]
    Now often used more generally to denote groups of different cultural or ethnic origin (esp. as forming part of a larger national community), in which context it frequently overlaps with, and can be difficult to distinguish from, senses 1b   and 1c; examples have been placed at this sense where distinct physical features play an important role in how race is conceptualized. In recent years, the associations of race with the ideologies and theories that grew out of the work of 19th-cent. anthropologists and physiologists have led to the word often being avoided with reference to specific ethnic groups. Although it is still used in general contexts, it is now often replaced by terms such as people(s), community, etc.

    [The other senses referred to are
    1b more or less the same as nation
    1c (roughly) groups sharing a continent
    Sense 1b is an old sense that never went away — hence Dark Star's anecdote about the French tourist insulted in Melbourne,]

  24. It is proposed that race be more specific, by giving examples, in the US 2020 Census.

  25. Here in Britain the BBC is currently serialising a reading of a new novel Middle England, much of it about Brexit. It's described as a satire, but I'm not laughing, and it's directed me back to the semantics of this thread.

    Digesting the 'satire', I've come to conclude that in Britain (or at least in England) the term racism is applied to various composite products of more basic prejudices.

    The foundation prejudice which waxes and wanes but never goes away entirely is a form of xenophobia which says Here is best and Incomers are a threat. The prejudice can be localised and petty, even quaint, but is easily turned nasty by increases in incomers and increases in locations. Beyond a critical point, people who are not at all affected by incomers can be persuaded that they are a threat.

    Worse, the basic xenophobia may interact with other prejudices — not necessarily the same prejudices at the same times.

    1. When the incomers share an identity with individuals who resort to terrorism, British people are apt to turn against everyone with that identity. And when individuals bring there terror to Britain, then the prejudice is intensified. This happened more than once with the Irish and is currently happening with Muslims.

    2. When the incomers were Jewish, it tied in with a prejudice that Jewish businessmen were cheating on a small scale — and on a larger scale conspiring to rule the world.

    3. When the incomers were from former colonies and with black brown or yellow skin colour, it tied in with the colour prejudice that had allowed us to carve out our empire — and even to engage in in slavery — with a clear conscience.

    In recent years Britain has seen a large influx of incomers to whom we can attach no prejudice stronger than that basic xenophobia Here is best and Incomers are a threat. It's not as if these were from countries that we might remember as old enemies — such as the French or the Germans. (Though, as the novel point out, it's possible to represent the EC as being run by hostile Germany.)

    • Clearly xenophobia + colour prejudice can be called racism

    • Arguably xenophobia + antisemitism may be called racism as Jews may be seen as a 'racial' group.

    • Xenophobia + islamophobia is not in principle directed at a 'racial' group

    • Xenophobia + fear of terror-sympathy is a better explanation of most forms of islamophobia — along with periodic anti-Irish panic

    • Xenophobia directed at East European of working age may be just as intense and just as irrational as all of the above.

    So, in a loose use of the term racism is xenophobia directed at a specific group. the forms are different when you analyse them, but they feel the same.

    I can see that this may sound strange to Americans. People there may direct racism there may be at people whose ancestors were brought there by their ancestors. Our eighteenth-century slaves were sent abroad or freed. Yes, we had colour prejudice (especially in our colonies), but we didn't feel the need for words like racism or racist until we were aware of nation-wide antagonism between indigenous and immigrant groups.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)