In last week’s blockbuster multimedia story about the shameful history of the Smithsonian’s “racial brain collection” — an assemblage of hundreds of brains immorally harvested for the purpose of proving the superiority of white people — the Washington Post revealed more than just the racist history of science.
It also put on grand display the way in which racist language shaped and was shaped by that racist history.
What’s more, some of the racially questionable writings from a century ago look eerily similar to language issues we’re still grappling with today.
When a doctor contacted the museum in 1933 to see if it was interested in his recently deceased patient’s brain, the collection’s curator, Ales Hrdlicka, responded via telegram: “If the subject full-blood brain desirable” (just like that — with no period and no verb).
First, this buttresses my hypothesis that language historians haven’t sufficiently covered the similarities between terrible modern text-message grammar and terrible old-timey telegram grammar.
Second, it’s a shining example of how casually scientists — along with, you know, everyone — used racist language to put a technical sheen on abhorrent ideas. Today, we shudder at the term full-blood in such a context, but at the time, it was commonplace.
This isn’t ancient history: Hrdlicka sent that telegram in May 1933, just a month after Willie Nelson was born. In fact, the racial use of full-blood is a relatively recent one. Though the term had been around since the 17th century to refer to parentage and, later, animals, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that English speakers began using it to refer to race and ethnicity. This was a big and important leap that would pave the way for harmful eugenics laws worldwide.
Similarly, mixblood — another term used in the Smithsonian’s archives — also arose in the early 1800s as the country was grappling with what to do about slavery and the Native Americans who were living on the land that new, white Americans manifestly saw as their destiny to conquer.
It would take a holocaust and Jim Crow for those terms to finally fall out of favor. Both full-blood and mixblood saw big jumps in usage throughout the first half of the 20th century, finally peaking in the mid-1950s — just as the Jim Crow era was ending.
But as tempting as it might be to ascribe the Smithsonian doctors’ crimes against humanity to antiquated thinking, the museum’s documents suggest we still haven’t resolved all the questions those abominable anthropologists had.
Scientists typically prize precision, but the primary documents that the Post story included lacked any consistency about whether the words white (as a race) or negro (which was commonplace where we would say Black or African American) were capitalized.
This editing challenge vexes writers even today. Until recently, most news outlets lowercased both black and white. But after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in 2020, many publications decided to solve all racism not by diversifying their newsrooms and their coverage but by … capitalizing the word Black. Some (like the Washington Post) also now capitalize White, but many others don’t, leading readers — scores of whom end up in my inbox — to question this inconsistency.
Until we get our own linguistic house in order, is our language usage really so much better than those crusty old racists who couldn’t compose a proper telegram?