“The dictionary was written by White people” is an argument that comes up when talking about racism and sexism, particularly when someone brings up the dictionary definition of racism. Since White people benefit from racism, their definitions concerning such things are assumed to be worthless at best, self-serving at worst.
I use the Oxford dictionary, so I will take it as an example. Its Chief Editor, just like James Bond and Doctor Who, is always a White man. There have been eight so far:
Likewise, in pictures I could find of people who worked on the Oxford dictionary, everyone seems to be White. For example, this one from 1976 (click to enlarge):
But even before I looked up any of that, I could tell it was mainly White: words from Black American English, for example, only make it into the dictionary after they cross over to White American use. Australian English words, meanwhile, are listed – even though Australian English has half as many speakers.
But the Whiteness of the Oxford dictionary goes far deeper than that. The English language itself has been, to date, largely by and for White people.
Eurocentrism and racism have become part of English itself: not just, say, the N-word, but also words like “terrorist”,”heathen” and “sub-Saharan Africa”, even seemingly innocent ones like “history”, “doctor” and “God”, which are conceived in a Western way.
If the next Chief Editor is, say, Nigerian, Pakistani or Singaporean, the dictionary might give more attention to non-White sorts of English. But the main meanings of the main words will still necessarily be the ones created by hundreds of years of White-majority use.
A good dictionary holds up a mirror to the language. It is based on a corpus, a large written sample, recording how words are used in practice. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not say how words should be used, but how they are used, like it or not.
English on the Internet is by far the biggest sample of written English. And that sample is (still) mainly White. It goes something like this:
- 74% European/White
- 16% Asian
- 7% African/Black
- 1% Native (Americas, Australia, Pacific)
- 2% Other
That is based on the the racial make-up of the top 25 countries that edited the English Wikipedia from 2009 to 2013. Countries that account for at least 1% of those edits:
- 36.3% US
- 16.2% Britain
- 6.2% Canada
- 5.1% India
- 4.1% Australia
- 1.8% Germany
- 1.5% Philippines
- 1.2% Netherlands
- 1.2% Italy
- 1.1% Ireland
- 1.0% Brazil
Mostly White-majority countries.
Is the Oxford dictionary racist? Yes! But most of that racism comes from the English language itself, not those who write it. A Black-made dictionary would have many of the same issues – like a Confederate flag made in China.
To think and express yourself in English, you need to see the rocks of its racism and avoid them as best you can. Yet, like it or not, you still have get your points across through a racist medium.
– Abagond, 2016.
- style guide: racial language
- Should Africans use English?
- racism = prejudice + power?
- The word “racist”