By Riyad A. Shahjahan
When someone calls me “lazy” or I am identified as “being lazy”, I feel tremendous guilt. I also feel morally inferior. The word “lazy” hits me at the core of my body. But, why does such a word have so much power?
An etymological and historical perspective offers some insight to my feelings. If you check a dictionary to find out what “lazy” means, you will get the following definitions:
“unwilling to work or use energy”
Not very inspiring, is it?
If you check for synonyms, you will also find words like:
In other words, the meaning of “lazy” is underpinned by particular notions of work and time. It is tied to having deficit notions of work or implies low productivity. But, I wondered: when did this word emerge? Whose definitions of work and time underlie this idea of “lazy”? A quick search on the internet reveals that “lazy” comes from Low German “lasich” for languid or idle and enters the language in 1540.
It is important to understand that “lazy” was also tied to the exploitation of labor (i.e. one group using force or coercion to extract labor from another group). Throughout history, the word (and label) “lazy” has been applied to various minoritized groups (due to their race, gender, and class) by dominant groups in order to extract labor. This labor logic continues to linger in our contemporary language.
“Lazy” also has a racist colonial history in that it was often applied to the colonized by European colonizers. For instance, in a recent popular twitter, Savage Nupe stated:
Similarly, Indigenous peoples around the world have been labelled “lazy” by White settlers, when they resisted European settler work ethics. Linear Eurocentric notions of time were used to sort individuals into opposing categories such as intelligent/slow, lazy/ industrious, saved/unsaved, believer/heathen, developed/undeveloped, and civilized/ primitive; in the process, most of the world’s people and their knowledge came to stand outside of history (Fabian, 2002). A Maori scholar, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001), argues that colonizers justified their projects by portraying ‘others’ as having ‘deficit models’ of time. She states:
The connection between time and work became more important after the arrival of missionaries in the development of more systematic colonization. The belief that natives did not value work or have a sense of time provided ideological justification for exclusionary practices which reached across such areas as education, land development and employment.… It was hard work to get to heaven and savages were expected to work extra hard to qualify to get into the queue. (p.54)
“Lazy” is thus not an innocent word, but has racist connotations. Given how “lazy” has been applied historically and religiously, no wonder we have a very visceral feeling for those of us who get labelled with this word, particularly when we are members of minoritized groups (due to our race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and/or nationality).
Beyond it racist connotations, “lazy” is tied to a work ethic that is underpinned by outcome-oriented time. As Weber (1958) has reminded us, the ways in which the intersections of capitalism, religion, and morality, have given time a particular value: it is something that can be ‘wasted’. To this end, the idea that if we do not use time properly, then we would remiss salvation in heaven—hence the ideas we have today such as ‘waste of time’.
No wonder, we don’t want to “be lazy” or feel guilty “being lazy”! So, next time you feel guilty “being lazy,” perhaps reframe it by asking yourself: how am I defining “time”? Are my definitions of time and work preventing me from listening to my body? Finally, how do I move from this colonial stereotype, and reclaim “lazy” for an anti-oppressive purpose? I suggest elsewhere (Shahjahan, 2015), that we replace and decolonize the meaning of being lazy as “emptying the need for a result with the passage of time.”
Well hopefully, now we know some of the colonial historical reasons for my guilty feelings of “being lazy.” It is so pervasive in our history and contemporary society, that it is time to heal and reclaim a new meaning of “being lazy.” I welcome you to join us in this effort.
Fabian, J. (2002). Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.
Shahjahan, R. (2015). Being lazy and slowing down: Toward decolonizing time, our body, and pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 47 (5) 488-501.
Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2001). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London:Zed Books.
Weber, M. (1958). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: C. Scribner.