Unmarked categories

by John Quiggin on September 1, 2020

Following on from the discussion between Chris and Kenan Malik, I thought I would take another look at this post from last year, where I used the term “default identity”. Since then, I’ve seen that this idea is more usually phrased as the “unmarked category” a term originating in linguistics[2]. An example, where both the linguistic and social senses are present is that of the distinction between “hyphenated Americans” and the unmarked category of Americans in general. This post by Paul Campos at LGM makes the point that much of the support for Trump comes from white men who were once the unmarked category and are now marked as a distinct category.

Being in the unmarked category represents more than “not being discriminated against”. For example, we might consider a situation where one religious group is subject to discrimination, but others are not. That does not, in itself, make the other groups privileged. Now think about the case when one group, say Christians, is taken as the unmarked category whenever religion is discussed – for example, by using the word “church” to cover religious meeting places in general. That group is privileged even if there is no active discrimination against others, or if some groups are given (implicitly, given by the dominant group) apparently equal status, as in formations like Judaeo-Christian[2]. Even where members of the marked categories receive equal treatment, it is always provisional. Conversely, a situation where discrimination is unthinkable (say, discrimination based on shoe size) is one where there is no unmarked category.

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