‘Ha, ha,’ said my husband, as though he’d made a joke. ‘Here’s one for you.’ He waved a page of the Guardian. A piece by Afua Hirsch about Archie Mountbatten-Windsor called him ‘a child who will have to navigate for themselves the madness of all the ways in which we have been taught to essentialise and fetishise race’.
The plural pronoun as a gender-neutral device, ‘navigate for themselves’, makes Mountbatten-Windsor sound more like a firm of solicitors than a single baby. But what I want to focus on is essentialise.
When Justin Webb asked Rachel Shabi on Today last week whether it was fair to call her a Jewish supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, she replied: ‘If I had to be essentialised in that way, yes.’
Essentialise as it was used, quite rarely, in the past had a different meaning. An example in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from The Court of the Gentiles written in the 1670s by Theophilus Gale, a dissenter, whose big idea was that Platonism, Zoroastrianism and even Buddhism garbled the earlier wisdom of the Hebrew people. Gale says that, by God’s effective word, all things were essentializ’d. He means ‘given their essence’ at the time of their creation. The word took on another meaning in the 20th century, when artists and poets were praised for ‘expressing the essential form’ of something. In Dante, said the Times Literary Supplement in 1922, the ‘cultural movements of his time were essentialized and ennobled’.
How, then, has essentialise become a boo-word? Once the notion of things really having essences became unfashionable, twin hunting dogs — anti-colonialism and gender studies — sniffed out signs of essentialism for destruction. Colonialists essentialised foreigners to make them seem inferior, it is said, and enemies of gender fluidity essentialised the roles of men and women, as though based on biological sex. That’s what it boils down to, even though identity politics depends on categories of people being essentialised as victims.
Now, in smart conversation, the complaint of being pigeonholed or stereotyped has become that of being essentialised.