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The Intersection of Synecdoche and Racism


The headlines dominated the entire front page of the daily newspaper. 'Seattle Wins Championship.' Actually, Seattle didn't win anything. A Seattle professional sports team won the championship. The team players and coaches were responsible for the win, but they did so, representing the owners, supporters everywhere, and the citizens of the city. The headline is actually a figure of speech called a 'synecdoche.'

It is pronounced 'səˈnekdəkē,' and it is a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.

Another example might be when someone says they work for the 'Pentagon.' The Pentagon has come to mean folks that work for a defense-related entity headquartered in a building called the Pentagon. There is no actual department or entity called the Pentagon, and it is impossible to work for a building.

It appears that 'synecdoche' is used when precision is not necessary or when a shortcut will do. It is also useful when writing headlines for clicks. Big bold headlines benefit from fewer words. If you are a reader of the local daily newspaper, you knew exactly what was meant when it reported with great big black block letters that 'Seattle won.' By extension, we're all champions... at least for that day. And you also knew that when someone asked you to 'give them a hand,' they likely meant your muscles or possibly your brain.

Images can have a similar effect. Depending on interpretation, a single image can appear to show all there is to know about something. But experience encourages a certain skepticism because seldom are things as they appear- at least not at first glance or without some context.

When the world was presented with a clip of a single police officer with a knee on a black man's neck, many came to see that picture as a complete vista into the pit of our racial dysfunction. That single picture became a synecdoche. It proved that cops, some would say 'all' cops, are racist and corrupt. The picture was all that was necessary to call for the demonizing and the defunding of police departments. That picture would soon motivate the 'locked-down' and the 'bored' to take to the streets. Soon whole streets and buildings were spray painted with F--- cops or worse. The image was proof positive that black lives do not matter. One picture was turned into an entire narrative of white racism. Seattle Wins Championship! Whites Are Racist!

For many others, the picture of a dying Mr. Floyd under the knee of an officer in blue was a horrific example of bad policing (let us not forget that we still live in a country that one is considered innocent unless found guilty by a jury of peers). Some attempted to understand the context by asking questions. Why was Mr. Floyd in trouble with the police? Had he been in trouble with the law before? But we were soon told that 'white silence is violence.'

As soon as the coast was clear, some started asking questions again. Is it true that the leading cause of death of young black men die is at the hands of police officers? Do police officers kill more blacks than other races? Does the data find that black and non-black crime to be exactly proportional to the population percentages? That information actually exists and is discoverable (for an outstanding explanation of the data on police racism and violence in America, watch Heather Mac Donald in this youTube clip).


You may not have come across the word 'synecdoche' before and may never again, for it is just one of the tens of thousands of words in our language that are seldom used. But each word has a vocabulary meaning which gets passed down from generation to generation in dictionaries. There are now dozens of 'dictionaries' online.

From decade to decade, the meaning of words change little from their original definition. Why should they? Occasionally, words and their meanings take a back seat to our temporary passions. The most uttered and written word today is likely 'racist,' and all of its variations. It is also possibly the most misunderstood word today. Some confuse any number of 'biases' and 'stereotypes' with racism. I have seen grown college-educated TV pundits nearly come to fisty cuffs debating the meaning of 'racism,' and for good reason; the dictionaries printers and associated websites are amending the meaning nearly continuously. Not because you or I asked them too... but others have.

Recently, the 'big-dog' of dictionaries, Merriam-Webster admitted that it changed the definition of 'racism' due to pressure from an advocate of critical justice theory. The advocate wanted the definition expanded beyond what an individual might harbor in their heart (a belief that one race is inferior or superior to another), but to include notions of systemic racism that is 'ingrained into the fabric of America.' Naturally, progressive websites like Vox and CNN cheered the revisions.

If you ask Bing, the Internet search engine, what the definition of racist is, this is what you'll get; a person who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.

The Bing definition represents a progressive definition, and we'll likely see others soon follow. It comes very close to suggesting that racism is mostly a problem of the majority race which gives credence to the notion that 'only whites are racists.'

The Cambridge Dictionary definition of 'racist' is the most interesting and perplexing. Racist ...someone who believes that their race makes them better, more intelligent, more moral, etc. than people of other races and who does or says unfair or harmful things as a result.

By adding 'moral' to the definition, any accuser under this definition comes dangerously close to being a racist. A smidgen of logic says a claim of another's racism suggests your own racial moral superiority making you a racist. With this definition, one might want to 'check' their racism when saying all whites are racist.

Two words: Synecdoche, an old Greek word, hasn't changed in a thousand years. The other, racist, a new word as far as words go (around 1900 is the first recorded use), is amid a revision. But then what isn't?


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