Argumentum ad dictionary, may you die a quick death

A friend on Facebook reposted this Tumblr meme today. As I read it, I nodded along, thinking “yup, pretty much”. Racism and sexism in the United States are systems of oppression that discriminate against and marginalize People of Color and women.  There’s nothing controversial there. A group of individuals holding prejudiced or bigoted beliefs who have the ability and resources to see their beliefs preserved in the cultural fabric, leading to the oppression of specific social groups at all levels of society-that’s what makes something a system of oppression. It is that system that makes racism and sexism so awful. A no-brainer, eh? To *some* of us it is. To others, all of that is highly controversial.

That’s a complete load of bullshit. Read the definitions of the terms. They aren’t exclusive.

The above is a comment from someone who doesn’t understand how racism and sexism manifest in society. To him (yes, it was a guy, and I suspect a white one at that) the meme is incorrect because [INSERT FUCKING HEAVY SIGH] it doesn’t comport with the dictionary definitions of racism and sexism.  If you google ‘racism‘, the first definition that comes up is:

  1. the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
    • prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
      “a program to combat racism”


Google ‘sexism‘, and here is the first result:

  1. prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.

But there’s a problem when playing the “my dictionary says this is the meaning of racism (or sexism) and that’s what we have to utilize” game :

That middle sentence there? Let me highlight that:

Most modern dictionaries depict language as it is commonly used.

What that means is that dictionaries mostly reflect how words are typically used. So yes, the way many people understand racism and sexism fits with the dictionary definition. But. And yeah, there’s a but. The dictionary definitions fail to account for the ways People of Color and women (as classes of marginalized people) have been affected by racism and sexism. People of Color have been impacted by racism in a host of ways. Here are several:

  • slavery
  • lynchings
  • the disproportionate application of force by police against PoC
  • separate, but equal laws
  • genocide of Indigenous peoples
  • forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples
  • internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII
  • the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans
  • the exclusion of PoC from institutions of higher learning
  • redlining

Likewise, women have been impacted by sexism in a wide variety of ways, including:

  • denial of the right to vote
  • denial of the right to own property
  • denial of bodily autonomy
  • the glass ceiling
  • exclusion from institutions of higher learning
  • exclusion from politics
  • predominately the victims of sexual assault and rape
  • predominately the victims of intimate partner violence
  • exclusion from high positions in religious organizations
  • expected to be subservient to husbands

Racism and sexism have affected (and continue to affect) People of Color and women in substantial ways and have resulted in the oppression of both groups at all levels of society. In other words, both groups experience systemic oppression. In looking at the dictionary definitions of racism and sexism, it becomes apparent that neither definition is sufficient in scope to accommodate the myriad ways both groups have been disenfranchised.  So what to do? Retain the definitions of each word and find separate words to describe the systemic oppression they experience? Or expand the meanings of both words so that their dictionary definitions also account for the system wide discrimination and marginalization faced by both groups? The latter makes more sense to my mind bc the dictionary definitions barely scratch the surface of the oppression PoC and women face in USAmerican society (oppression that very much is racist and sexist). We can and should expand the meaning of racism and sexism bc dictionaries define how words are used. They are not the final authority on how words *must* be used.

To dictionary definition advocates, however, a dictionary is the final authority on the meaning of words. The use of such limited meanings often lead dictionary definition advocates to make the claim that reverse racism or reverse sexism is a thing. Every person I’ve encountered who has pulled the dictionary card has tried to say something along the lines of “well a black person called me honky, and that’s racist” or “a woman said ‘men all suck’, and that’s sexist”. When you look at the dictionary definitions, then sure, such comments are racist and sexist bc they’re belie a prejudicial attitude. But when you actually look at the effect of a white person being called a honky or a man being told all men suck, there’s no institutional, systemic oppression. The rights of that white person and that man are not constrained, nor have either of them lost any rights. They are not marginalized. Simply put, being called a honky or being told that all men suck is pretty much only going to hurt your feelings. Meanwhile, PoC and women have had to deal with quite a bit more than hurt feelings as a result of racism and sexism. They’ve had to put up with their bodily autonomy violated, with being treated as second-class citizens, with being denied equal opportunities in a host of areas, and so much more. And that’s due to systemic oppression.  There is no similar society-wide oppression of white people and men bc PoC and women lack the institutional power to oppress them. Since current dictionary definitions of racism and sexism fail to account for systemic oppression-and systemic oppression is key to defining both social ills-they should not be used when attempting to argue how racism and sexism are defined.

There is, however, an easy fix for the companies that make dictionaries. They really just need to be updated to include an essential component of both racism and sexism- POWER:

A running theme in a lot of feminist theory is that of institutional power: men as a class have it, women as a class don’t. Obviously the power dynamics do shift around depending on the culture and the time period (not to mention the individual, the other privileges that the person does/does not have, etc etc), but ultimately the scales remain tipped in favor of men in general (if you disagree with that statement, please go read the Why do we still need feminism? FAQ entry first before proceeding).

What this imbalance of power translates to on an individual level is a difference in the impact of a man being prejudiced towards a woman and a woman being prejudiced towards a man. While both parties are human, and therefore have the same capacity to be hurt by the prejudice, whether they like it or not, the men have a whole system of history, traditions, assumptions, and in some cases legal systems and “scientific” evidence giving their words a weight that the women don’t have access to.

The above refers to sexism in society and how the dynamics of power in our culture mean that men possess institutional power and by extension, are the group that benefits from and perpetuates sexism. With only minor changes, it can also apply to racism and the fact that white people as a group benefit from and perpetuate racism. As the oppressor groups, men and white folks possess the social, political, and economic power to marginalize and disenfranchise women and PoC, which leads to sexism and racism. The inclusion of power in defining both terms is absolutely essential bc without power, you don’t have oppressor groups or systemic oppression, and without those, all you have is hurt feelings. While they can make people feel sad, hurt feelings aren’t likely to lead to anyone losing rights or being held as property.

So now that folks understand A) that dictionaries don’t get the final say on the meaning of words and B) that social ills like racism and sexism require power on the part of the dominant social group (which enables them to impose their beliefs and prejudices upon oppressed groups), I hope to see a reduction in argumentum ad dictionary. Because I swear to Gaia, I’m ready to pull my fucking hair out in frustration at continually seeing that shitty argument.


Incidentally, those dictionaries were written by the people in power, not the victims of oppression. If black people got to write the definition of racism in dictionaries for instance, it sure as fuck would look a lot different than “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”. The real harm against black people hasn’t been “hey, there’s a N*gger”. It’s been “hey, there’s a N*gger, let’s get him, tie him to our truck, drive him through a gravel parking lot to a tree in the forest and sling him up. Then we can invite the whole town to a public evisceration and let the townsfolk-including children-toast marshmallows while we maim, torture, and kill this N*gger”. All of that was possible for decades because the people in power at all levels of society allowed this to happen. And the people in power were white. The same people who have long been creating dictionaries and defining what constitutes racism.

Argumentum ad dictionary, may you die a quick death