At the 2020 Corpora and Discourse International Conference, I was very honoured to receive an award for the conference paper “showing the greatest methodological innovation or reflexivity by a student researcher”. The award was sponsored by the Applied Corpus Linguistics journal and included a prize of £250. This year’s online conference, hosted by the University of Sussex, featured a wide variety of brilliant research from students around the world. That I was nominated for the award makes me truly humble and I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Professor Paul Baker, for all his support and guidance during my doctoral research. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you a summary of my talk which is titled: “Black or gay or Jewish or whatever”: A diachronic corpus-based discourse analysis of how the UK’s LGBTQI population came to be represented as secular, cisgender, gay, white and male (available to watch here: https://corporadiscourse.com/language-gender-sexuality-videos/).
This talk emerged from my PhD research in which I aim to map how The Times has used language to discursively construct LGBTQI identities in the UK over the past 60 years. I’m particularly interested in the histories of identity and this is why I’ve chosen to take a diachronic approach, collecting many decades of language data from one of the UK’s most influential broadsheets. This focus on history is based on the assumption adapted from post-structuralist discourse theory (Laclau & Mouffe 1985) that all identities are partially the result of consistent choices in representation made over a sustained period of time.
In order to garner a sense of which discourses have been consistent, I decided to look at both consistent keywords and consistent collocates. This revealed several currents running through the corpus. First, in spite of the fact that the search terms used to build the corpus reflected the inherent diversity within the LGBTQI population, the majority of key terms pertained to gay men. This indicates that the history of queer representation in The Times is primarily their history while the histories of lesbian, bisexual, trans and gender non-conforming people have been largely erased or obfuscated. Second, an analysis of consistent collocates for the word gay showed that additional identifications such as Black and Jewish were statistically significant from the 1980s onward. A closer analysis of the newspaper articles that featured this usage showed that such terms were used in one of two ways. First, Black and Jewish were often used as marked terms which implied that such intersecting identities were exceptional. I would therefore argue that this markedness implies the presumed whiteness and non-Jewishness of the archetypal gay man as presumed by The Times. Secondly, the terms Black and gay as well as Jewish and gay were often presented as mutually exclusive categories. In other words, individuals were represented as being either black or gay, but never both. Cumulatively, it was argued that the history of LGBTQI representation in The Times suggests that through consistent choices in representation over a sustained period of time, the queer population of the UK came to be represented as secular, cisgender, gay, white and male. But, as there was never any use of the term white, how could I make this claim?
Drawing on the intellectual tradition of critical race theory (Baldwin 1963; Crenshaw 1990; Morrison 1992; Hall 1997), I argued that ‘race’ – while certainly a lived experience with material consequences – is not simply a neutral taxonomy of phenotypical differences between people, but is rather an ideological construct that functions as a structuring force in society such that certain bodies are given more value than others. Within this racialised matrix, whiteness is not only privileged, but is passed off as neutral and universal – an unmarked category that functions largely by ‘erasing its own tracks’ (Trechter and Bucholtz 2001:10). From a linguistic perspective then, whiteness functions ‘much like a linguistic sign, taking its meaning from those surrounding categories to which it is structurally opposed’ (Trechter and Bucholtz 2001:5). Therefore, in the data from The Times, the racialisation of gay men as Black, necessarily implies that the whiteness of all other gay men is indeed the implied universal.
In conclusion, it was argued that these cumulative processes are not benign, but rather indicate how the power of language can erase entire groups of people from popular discourse. Furthermore, the combination of corpus data with theories from both within and beyond linguistics is essential in mapping the discursive construction and representation of identities.
Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press.
Crenshaw, K., (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43, p.1241.
Hall, S. (1997). ‘The spectacle of ‘the other’’. In Hall, S. (ed) (1997) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics. London: Verso.
Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Trechter, S. and Bucholtz, M. (2001). ‘Introduction: White noise: Bringing language into whiteness studies’. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 11(1), pp.3-21.