Metaphors Matter

Following the horrific death of George Floyd, we have witnessed yet another wave of anger and protest. With this some have said that racism is ‘a disease, like Covid 19’. Linguist Elena Semino rightly commented on Twitter: ‘This metaphor may have useful rhetorical functions in context (e.g. to highlight that both kill and are very hard to eliminate), but it backgrounds a central aspect of racism: power.’ Indeed, put simply, racism is about one group of people using race to justify having power over another group. Unlike diseases, there is intention behind acts of racism, whether these thoughts rest in unconscious bias, follow the insidiousness norms of institutions or worse, fester in the venom of white supremacists.

Reading and listening to the anti-racism protesters and news commentators, worthy metaphors have been a bit lacking. The slogan Black Lives Matter, is merely elliptical, short for ‘Black lives matter too.’ The calling out ‘I can’t breathe’ is powerful, a direct reminder of Floyd’s dying words, but it’s not a metaphor. This paucity of metaphors bothers me because firstly because metaphors are powerful tools of communication. Good metaphors, original and sometimes a bit weird, stick with us. Secondly, I’m annoyed that so much of the language of racists is hinged on metaphors – describing the other as ‘vermin,’ ‘invaders,’ ‘pests,’ ‘animals’ etc. Why hasn’t the language of anti-racism these days shown more figurative flare?

In the last century, we had ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,’ Langston Hughes’s dream deferred that stunk ‘like rotten meat’ and sagged ‘like a heavy load’ and the plethora of extended analogies in the oration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Why do we need metaphors to capture the anti-racist experience today?

metaphrs matter 2
Langston Hughes

It is no longer enough to call someone a fascist, a white supremacist or even a racist. These labels are threadbare from their overuse and in some circles worn as badges of honour. No longer are people hiding behind the phrase ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ Even our world leaders are getting away with this. Prime Minister Johnson opposes taking down statues symbolic of Britain’s colonial past and its role in the slave trade. This should be no surprise coming from the man who in 2002 wrote in The Spectator about Africa, ‘The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,’ he wrote. ‘The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore’ (cited from The Independent, 13/06/20). Johnson has in more recent years been quoted as referring to black people as ‘piccaninnies.’ Sadly, I don’t believe Johnson won the last election despite his racist rhetoric – I believe it helped to get him elected.

And then there’s Tr*mp. No, I’m not going there. No need to really.

Metaphors are a way of thinking about our world and expressing the way that we think at the same time. I do wonder if the anti-racist movement has not truly internalised into our thinking enough to give us the metaphors we need. Of course, as a linguist, I could take the counter argument for a moment and tell you that metaphors are ubiquitous in our language, in our lives. But many of these metaphors are used so often they have lost that ability to inspire. Others, like ‘racism is a disease’ miss the mark, and others still lack that stickability to bring about action. Speaking non-metaphorically, I’m weary and worn from viewing scenes of black men dying at the hands of white police followed by angry protests only to see the same scenes again with different people.

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