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I will give you a phrase cookie if you stop being racist
August 6, 2012 11:12 AM   Subscribe

What are some "home-spun" phrases that someone might not think are racist, but actually have racist origins? Or phrases that originated in a non-racist fashion, but are now considered racist? (Like "call a spade a spade" or "free, white, and twenty-one") Bonus points if you can give me non-racist substitutes I can offer an older relative.

Part of my family is stuck in the 1940s or earlier when it comes to home-spun "more American" phrases. Despite the fact that they weren't here then, or that they're, you know, not white. Some of these include "mighty white of you," "Free, white, and twenty-one," "Call a spade a spade" and others.

I have called out racist phrases when I've been aware of them, but I worry that there are more phrases that I'm simply not aware of and don't know how to correct, as I am really not aware of the origins of "country Americanisms." Please give me some more, so I can know what absolutely has to stop!

In addition, if you could give me an answer to the inevitable "Well then what do we say instead?" that is better than my "I don't know, just don't say it," that would be helpful too.
posted by corb to Human Relations (97 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
The word "niggardly" immediately comes to mind. Not exactly homespun, but one of those things that's become perceived as racist despite non-racist origins.
posted by straw at 11:16 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are you looking for words, as well as phrases? Shonky, slang for 'poor quality' in the UK and Australia, is apparently of antisemitic origin.
posted by randomination at 11:17 AM on August 6, 2012


"Gypped" comes from the idea that Gypsies (a.k.a. Romani) will steal from you. Try "conned" or "stole."
posted by Etrigan at 11:19 AM on August 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


'Call a spade a spade' does not have racist origins.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:19 AM on August 6, 2012 [27 favorites]


What about "gyp", a slur for "gypsy" or "romani", which has entered into general usage as meaning to "cheat" or "swindle" someone?

Another one that comes to mind is "indian-giver", meaning to rescind an offer or gift.
posted by dotgirl at 11:20 AM on August 6, 2012


"Gypped" and "jewed" come immediately to mind. Notably, though, neither niggardly nor calling a spade a spade appear to have bona fide racist origins.
posted by pullayup at 11:21 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jimmies
posted by unreasonable at 11:21 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


This Cracked.com article may help, though the language may not be up to some relatives' liking.
posted by lily_bart at 11:21 AM on August 6, 2012


Some folks will think you're a racist if you use the term "tar baby," so you might not want to do that.
posted by BurntHombre at 11:21 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


there is a word (can not recall it) used a number of times in the novel "Caine." Thje word is used by Blacks as a put down of Blacks who act or are perecieved as acting White, Middle Class.
ah, DICTY
posted by Postroad at 11:21 AM on August 6, 2012


It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize what "cotton-picking hands" was based in.
posted by coupdefoudre at 11:21 AM on August 6, 2012 [10 favorites]


Indian giver came up in MetaTalk recently.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:21 AM on August 6, 2012


"Catch a tiger by its toe"
posted by French Fry at 11:22 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to hear my grandparents (now in their 70's, both from Youngstown OH if that helps at all) say "cotton-pickin" a lot. Like, "Oh, this cotton-pickin' broken window never opens when you want it to!" Didn't occur to me as a child but as I got older, it eventually dawned on me that the expression could have racist undertones. Just now googled it and the internet seems divided.

I have never and would never say it, though. Just don't like the sound of it from the way they said it...
posted by hegemone at 11:23 AM on August 6, 2012


I still hear people talking about someone "jewing them down." "Haggled," among other possibilities, is a better choice.
posted by ubiquity at 11:23 AM on August 6, 2012


Anyone who uses the word "jewed" is totally aware of its racist implications.
posted by The Lamplighter at 11:26 AM on August 6, 2012 [22 favorites]


I never knew the "peanut gallery" was racist, imported by American relatives into my British household - it lost all racial context across the Atlantic.

I also had relatives that called the tallying of check books with bank statements the "Jew's March Past", which went right over my 8 year old head.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:27 AM on August 6, 2012


I've learned on Metafilter that "the peanut gallery" might have racist origins. Or it might not.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:28 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Catch a tiger by its toe"

...that word ending in "er" used to be another word ending in "er" and beginning with "n."


What are properly called Brazil nuts were once called "n---er toes."
posted by scratch at 11:38 AM on August 6, 2012


I don't know if "the pot calling the kettle black" started out as racist, but sounds racist nowadays. I substitute "the pot calling the kettle hot". (Or else I just say "hypocritical").
posted by windykites at 11:39 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


The "pot calling the kettle black" does not have racist origins, but some people find it racially offensive.
posted by BobbyVan at 11:40 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been told that "pot calling the kettle black" is racist (because the pot wouldn't call the kettle black as an insult if being black wasn't insulting) -- I just always thought it was a way of saying, you're the same // you're doing the thing you're calling out other people for.

The internet does not think it's racist and I agree.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:40 AM on August 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


"Shyster", right? I do not want to google it at work, but IIRC it's either actually anti-semitic or anti-semitic as used by gentiles.
posted by Frowner at 11:41 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Welshing" or "welching" on a deal (making one a "welcher") is akin to "gyp" or "Indian giver," with the Welsh being the target group.
posted by jedicus at 11:42 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Mighty fine of you" is a good substitute for the first, at least.

The novel Postroad is referring to is Cane by Jean Toomer. It has lots of examples of racial/ethnic slang designators and slurs. My impression, though, is that "dicty" was used by both black and white people in the early 20th century southern US as a synonym for "snobby" or "pretentious".
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:43 AM on August 6, 2012


I was once overheard by a colleague talking about a picnic I'd attended. Later that day the colleague posted a heartfelt plea to our mailing list that people should become more sensitive about using the term 'picnic' because of its racist derivation.

Now, it seems pretty clear that the term in fact doesn't have racist origins, but this colleague believed very strongly that it did and went so far as to defend her belief with citations from others who shared her conviction. So.
posted by carterk at 11:43 AM on August 6, 2012


As for the "spade" thing, Black people have been called "spades" as a derogatory term in the past. So yeah, it is remotely racist.
posted by windykites at 11:45 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are a whole range of expressions I picked up from books as a kid that hinge on "fair" as a conflation of white and good/beautiful: "He's the department's fair-haired boy so of course he'll get that section"; "fair-skinned"; obviously, "fairest of them all". Then there's "blue-eyed" as a positive: "he's the department's blue-eyed boy [etc]".

I don't think those are quite as sensitive as some things or carry as much intent, but I think that they are deprecated and I do not use them.

I also try to be thoughtful about use of the word "lady", as I am reliably informed that it has been used to distinguish between working class women or women of color, who were just "women" and white women, who were "ladies".
posted by Frowner at 11:48 AM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Actually, I've heard "calling a spade a spade" used both ways, with spade from cards and subbing spade for n---er.

Like white on rice was treated as a bad phrase in my youth, on the list of things to never say. I find no internet support for that being specifically racist.

Indian Giver and Indian Rubs/Burns I never heard after a smack and a lecture for sure.

We also used Chinese Firedrill till we were taught better (almost said "until we were learned up" but that woulda earned a smack, too - my folks were particular about correct, educated grammar). Now we just would holler "change places" ala the Mad Hatter Tea Party.

I'm trying to find an appropriate word to substitute for "silly", myself. My kids are silly but not in the "what an idiot, you'll never amount to anything ever" way - and they're at the age where that seems to be the intent when used by others.
posted by tilde at 11:51 AM on August 6, 2012


Cake Walk
posted by traco at 11:52 AM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


The terms 'dutch treat' (to have a meal and each pays their own) and 'dutch oven' (to fart in bed and huddle under the covers) refer to Dutch frugality.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:52 AM on August 6, 2012


Oh, I learned the expression you reference in the OP as "that's mighty big of you", as in 'big-hearted'. But I feel weird using it since it still carries the echo of the other one.

"Like white on rice" is one that I never thought about until recently, ditto for "dutch treat".
posted by Frowner at 11:55 AM on August 6, 2012


Also, "easy-peasy", aka "easy-peasy-Japanesey" seems questionable at best.
posted by windykites at 11:58 AM on August 6, 2012


How is the neologic use of "dutch oven" a reference to frugality? Are we to associate the conservation of flatus with the Dutch? That seems to be a stretch.
posted by BobbyVan at 11:58 AM on August 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Cotton-pickin' hands" can be any color.
The insult is to low-paid agricultural labor, which in the South included slaves, of course, but also many poor whites.
posted by LonnieK at 11:59 AM on August 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


I was once overheard by a colleague talking about a picnic I'd attended. Later that day the colleague posted a heartfelt plea to our mailing list that people should become more sensitive about using the term 'picnic' because of its racist derivation.

You're correct that the word "picnic" does not in fact have racist origins. Snopes.
posted by BobbyVan at 12:04 PM on August 6, 2012


BobbyVan: sorry, I should have specified. It's to keep warm. (And I got both of those tidbits from a Dutch guy.)
posted by 8dot3 at 12:05 PM on August 6, 2012


(A Dutch guy who is totally not cheap and hates those phrases because they reference Dutch cheapness.)
posted by 8dot3 at 12:05 PM on August 6, 2012


The only example of "spade" used as a reference to black people I've ever encountered is in the phrase, "as black as the ace of spades," which was something I used to hear from my grandparents.
posted by emelenjr at 12:06 PM on August 6, 2012


Anyone who uses the word "jewed" is totally aware of its racist implications.

I disagree- it's possible to have absolutely no racist intentions and still use words ignorantly and naively because you learned them from other people who were similarly ignorant or actually racist. "Jewed" may seem more obvious than others, but people often don't think through the etymology of words that they use, especially if they don't have much personal experience with the racist stereotype.
For instance, I have never in my life considered the racial implications of "cotton-picking", though now that it's pointed out, it seems blatantly obvious and I'm ashamed that I may have used that in the past.
posted by aabbbiee at 12:06 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are a whole range of expressions I picked up from books as a kid that hinge on "fair" as a conflation of white and good/beautiful. ....... obviously, "fairest of them all".

In the case of "fairest of them all the word fair means beautiful or handsome. It doesn't refer to coloring at all.
posted by fshgrl at 12:06 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


The impression I get is that the poster wants to avoid offensive speech. People arguing "but it's not originally racist!!!" seem to be missing the point that those expressions offend people, and that the point here is to discern what some offensive expressions might be in order to avoid them.

Or maybe I'm wrong and the point of the question was to have a debate over the origins of various phrases, regardless of how their use effects people now.
posted by windykites at 12:06 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


[Folks, thread is not for having a debate about these topics, please answer the question and don't turn this thread into a debate about specific words.]
posted by jessamyn at 12:09 PM on August 6, 2012


Yeah, I'm interested in both things that started out as racist terminology and also in things that could be or are interpreted as racist. The history of a racist phrase is incredibly helpful as it lets me actually explain, though, so if you have history, please do include it.

(Some of these are new even to me, though they seem obvious in retrospect (such as cotton-picking), this is proving incredibly helpful!)
posted by corb at 12:22 PM on August 6, 2012


"Going Dutch" / Split the bill, pay our own way "Dutch Courage" / drink till you're sozzled and can do whatever "it" is.

With Dutch it's also, I think, aligned with "Scotch" - as in disturbingly unethically cheap.

Indian Burns turned into "Hertz Donuts" - Inflict the pain, reply "Hurts, don't it?"

I also remember from reading Cheaper by the Dozen (and some use by older relatives) the word Eskimo - as in something being Eskimo aka something uncultured uneducated people would do/be. Not sure of a substitute.

And not exactly racist, but terms like mongoloid (a person with Down Syndrome) or gimp/y (someone with a disability, usually an injured or missing limb) were used by the early 20th century generation and shooshed in our earshot.
posted by tilde at 12:24 PM on August 6, 2012


"Fair-haired boy" and "blue-eyed boy" absolutely refer to coloring.

Not crazy about "red-headed stepchild" either.

Whether or not "yellow streak" was originally coined as a racist term, it was associated with racist perceptions of East and Southeast Asian people as cowardly as early as 1926, when Somerset Maugham published a short story collection including the story "The Yellow Streak" which depicts a group of Europeans attributing the cowardice of a companion to his multiracial background.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:25 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It took me an embarrassingly long time (especially since I was raised in the Detroit area) to realize the racist meaning of the phrase "there goes the neighborhood." It's been used as a punchline and newspaper headline so often that it can seem a little bit neutered.
posted by twoporedomain at 12:26 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"In the woodpile." As in, looks like that kid has an English teacher in the woodpile, is descended from an English teacher, but originally it was n----, sadly, as I learned only when older.

My relatives always used "white trash" to mean that these people are so trashy, they are even worse than the (long list of non-white ethnicities). While it is a dumb phrase, I find that people on the East Coast have no idea of the "even worse than the other kinds of trash" implication.
posted by skbw at 12:33 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I learned from Metafilter about Paddy Wagons
I had thought it was because they were PADlocked. Worse - I have a lot of Irish heritage. oops.
posted by pointystick at 12:46 PM on August 6, 2012


Answering the "what to day instead" question: as an alternative to "the pot calling the kettle black," I remember a character in one of Brian Jacques' Redwall books refer to the "leaf calling the grass green."
posted by bettafish at 12:46 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


In the case of "fairest of them all the word fair means beautiful or handsome. It doesn't refer to coloring at all.

Here is an article from The Beheld about the origins of "fair" - apparently it originally meant "good-looking" only, so anyone could be "fair", but by the 16th century it seems to have accrued a meaning of "pale" and then "white". In its use in the US, it seems to have been used to imply whiteness. There's also some stuff on how "the fair sex" was used to imply white womanhood.

My fantasy-novel-nerd self has found this a little hard to get my head around, but I have never once read anyone to use "fair" to describe a person who was not pale-skinned, and I don't think I've heard it used to describe, say, an Iranian person with pale skin or someone else who is not WASPy but is light-skinned. It seems pretty clear that the term conflates 'white' and beautiful'.
posted by Frowner at 12:49 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Spic and span (clean and tidy) has an interesting story dating back to 16th century England. Though the etomology isn't racist, the cleaner has been boycotted for including the derogatory term in its name.
posted by carmicha at 12:51 PM on August 6, 2012


These used to be Chinese Fingercuffs, now we just call them finger traps.

More on Eskimo.

Here's more on Dutch - in this context "mean" is "cheap" not "get off my lawn/crotchety/mean girl". Interesting discussion about government pushing derogatory information/perceptions. This gives more details and links as well as discusses Dutch Oven (the pot, not the farts under the bedcovers - new one to me).

Plus there's the usual "How do you keep a [nationality/race] busy? Turn over." bit, written on both sides of a paper. A Swedish friend of mine and I used to tell Norwegian jokes along the same vein and joked about fauxing up an invasion to Norway (which we dropped after 9/11).

Ah - retard. That's another one. Sub out idiot or something because right now retard still is a medical term and you will piss off a lot of people for using it in a non medical context. I'd link the discussion on FB where he basically told a bunch of objectioners to STFU, but it's not a public link that I can link to (and I don't like linking to Facebook).

Holey Guacamole - just read the "cakewalk" link ... !!!! my grade school used to run a fundraiser called that, though it was just basically roulette with cakes.

More from my growing up years - "Mexican barbed wire" - basically broken glass cemented to an exterior wall/fence. I'd hear "Mexican [item]" used as a cheap way to do something, usually with scraps or scavenged garbage. Though I heard the terms used both ways - derogatory and positively as ingenuity.
posted by tilde at 12:58 PM on August 6, 2012


Pickaninny is insanely problematic.
posted by batmonkey at 1:17 PM on August 6, 2012


I wouldn't worry about stuff like "pot calling the kettle black", "going Dutch", or "peanut gallery" if the concern is that your ignorant relatives are actually being racist/offensive towards others.

Like, if you've got family who are prone to saying "n***** rigged" for "hastily cobbled together/homespun", you've got much bigger fish to fry than whether the word "picnic" is racist.

Start with the obvious stuff that contains real slurs that are noticeable to the general mainstream and pertain to groups who are actually marginalized in the modern world: N rigged, jew him down, gypped, Indian giver, pussy-whipped, Chinese fire-drill, Polish suitcase, "that's so gay", etc.
posted by Sara C. at 1:33 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Calling someone a 'dirty Arab' was something that existed when I was little, usually said by old folk if the child had a grubby face.

'throwing a paddy' - throwing a temper tantrum. There's also the nursery rhyme with 'nick, nack, paddywhack'.

Not racist, but 'spaz' means something different in the UK than it does in the US so it's a bit of a surprise to see it online.
posted by mippy at 1:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Shyster", right? I do not want to google it at work, but IIRC it's either actually anti-semitic or anti-semitic as used by gentiles.

I was about to suggest this one, but its etymology appears to be unknown, and there is no good proof for it having anti-Semitic origins. People are probably mistaking "shyster" for "Shylock."

More on the etymology of "shyster."
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:49 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've always said "Gerry rigged" instead of the other one. My connotation (or misconception) is the phrase came from WWII and meant the Germans had rigged something together in a feat of engineering that they're known for. Still racist, but not as looked down upon.

Also, the phrase, "were you raised in a barn?" I've always thought to be at the very least, classist.
posted by patheral at 1:51 PM on August 6, 2012


I've always said "Gerry rigged" instead of the other one. My connotation (or misconception) is the phrase came from WWII and meant the Germans had rigged something together in a feat of engineering that they're known for.

It's a nautical term. A "jury rig" is kind of a spare mast which can be deployed if the original is destroyed.
posted by pullayup at 1:55 PM on August 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's sexist instead of being racist, but the word "hysterical" has very nasty origins.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:55 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Welsh on a deal/bet" definitely refers to stereotypes about people from Wales. Also the children's ditty "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief" which was in my second-grade music book.

"Jerry rigged" apparently refers to stereotypes about Irish, not German, builders from the early 18th century. It became conflated with the nautical term "jury rig" which existed independently.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:10 PM on August 6, 2012


Another sexist one along the lines of picnic and "calling a spade a spade" is seminal (as in "important" or "canonical", not as in "seminal discharge" or the like), which carries with it an implication that semen is more important than the entire female contribution to the reproductive process.
posted by Sara C. at 2:11 PM on August 6, 2012


"Uppity." Doesn't contain any slurs in itself, but it's been used so long in the context of how-dare-black-people-think-they're-human that I doubt it's salvageable, at least by white people.
posted by ostro at 2:12 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoops, "Jerry-built" refers to (maybe) shoddy Irish workmanship. It became conflated with "jury-rigged" and thus "jerry-rigged." It long predates any attested print reference to Germans as "Jerries".
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:14 PM on August 6, 2012


Sidhedevil, do you have a reference for the idea that jerry-built referring to Irish workmanship? I'm not seeing this in what I'm seeing.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:19 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think "uppity" straddles the line between overt racism and dogwhistle racism - "articulate" is on the far side of the line. But dogwhistles are really a different, and also interesting, question.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:19 PM on August 6, 2012


The dogwhistle issue is especially interesting with regard to "shyster," because while it's probably not true that the word itself derived from any anti-Semitic reference, its similarity to "Shylock" has probably given it some post hoc anti-Semitic connotations. I'd say that the word itself occupies a gray area similar to that of "niggardly," where while it's a little "unfair" that the word is not appropriate for everyday use, nonetheless it's probably best to avoid it, if only to avoid being misinterpreted.

(That said, people in my Jewish household used the phrase "shyster" around the house without much thought.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:28 PM on August 6, 2012


I don't know if this phrasing is exactly what you're looking for, but I once had the misfortune of observing this conversation between my friend and his husband:

Husband: Hey, honey, would you mind taking the trash out?
Friend:Do I look black to you?

or

Friend: What color is my skin again?

As for alternatives, this one seems like a construction with no good substitutes.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 2:36 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Squaw is considered offensive.
posted by scratch at 2:58 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I always thought that uppity was from people (servant or peasant stock) trying to rise up or above their station... Long before the Americas were a nation. Still a slur, but more classist than racist.
posted by patheral at 3:03 PM on August 6, 2012


Stitcherbeast, my Google is failing me. I remember reading it in a print book, where the argument was that other slang like "Jerry-sneak" and "Jerrymumbled" referred to 18th century English stereotypes of Irishmen, but nobody seems to be promulgating this view currently. I need to catch up!
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:05 PM on August 6, 2012


right now retard still is a medical term...

I'm a doctor. Retard is not a medical term, it is an insult, as in "you retard!"

"Mental retardation" is a medical term, as in "The patient has a history of mental retardation." It doesn't sound great, but then again a lot of medical terms are not very appealing when you try to use them in a lay conversation.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 3:05 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


"...n***** rigged" for "hastily cobbled together/homespun..."

I'd always heard "Afro-engineering."

I had to Urban Dictionary "Polish suitcase"....funny!
posted by BostonTerrier at 3:40 PM on August 6, 2012


In word and deed, a fashion & news faux pas comes to mind that is so racist and colonialist and imperialist: vaguely calling things "tribal" or exotic when they are about or from non-English-speaking or non-WESTERN-European-derived peoples' cultures.


Getting people in the South born before 1960 to stop saying "Oriental" for people is a thankless endeavor...sigh.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 4:08 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


I always thought that uppity was from people (servant or peasant stock) trying to rise up or above their station... Long before the Americas were a nation. Still a slur, but more classist than racist.

I think "uppity" used in reference to a Black person by a non-Black person is a special case and is definitely racist. I'd put it in the same neighborhood as "articulate" being used in reference to a Black person who seems to be able to speak grammatical English.

Also, "gal" used in reference to an African American female can be considered racist. Some African American women don't have a problem with it (or aren't aware of its derisive roots in slavery times) and others only have a problem with it when used in certain contexts.
posted by fuse theorem at 4:58 PM on August 6, 2012


Tarred and feathered.
posted by freshwater at 6:51 PM on August 6, 2012


and I don't think I've heard it used to describe, say, an Iranian person with pale skin or someone else who is not WASPy but is light-skinned.

Definitely it is used this way nowadays in English-speaking Malaysia/Singapore for paler skin among non Euro people, "Fair & Lovely" being a big cosmetics brand locally for example.
posted by BinGregory at 6:51 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


How weird, I always thought "Shyster" evolved from "Scheisse", the German word for "shit" which used in all sorts of interesting permutations. Given the mainstreaming of other Yiddish words I'd also encountered in German (mensch, schlep), I just figured it was an innocent adoption. I had no idea about the Shylock folk etymology.
posted by Phire at 6:55 PM on August 6, 2012


Also, "easy-peasy", aka "easy-peasy-Japanesey" seems questionable at best.

I know easy peasy + as "easy peasy, lemon squeezy," and had never heard the "Japanesey" variant until just now. I expect "easy peasy" remains safe (as does lemon squeezy).
posted by kmennie at 7:13 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Neely O'Hara , I've heard that one go both ways. That is, I've heard people use both "what am I, black?", and "what am I, white?" (come to think of it, the same person- go figure) in the same kinds of situations.

I think it could easily be replaced with "what am I, a servant?" (Or garbage-person, or whatever).

I also wonder about yellow-bellied. It seems like it could offend, so I avoid it, and say coward.

Another insulting one is people referring to themselves or to things as being "so white", usually in reference to liking intellectual pursuits, as if intellectualism is the sole domain of white people. It's done in a self-deprecating tone of voice, but it's still offensive. (Or they'll say it because they have a specific taste in food, or music, or clothes, or even to imply that they're very standard, ordinary people. Like "oh, that's so crazy, I would never do something like that, I'm so white, ha-ha.) I usually call them out by way of questions. "What do you mean? I don't understand..." etc.

Honestly, even people saying "I'm so white" when they're talking about a lack of tan at the start of summer kind of gets on my nerves. If you're white, it is obvious that you are white by the colour of your skin. That one could just be me being sensitive; I've certainly never called anyone out on it. Instead, I just stand there, awkward, mumbling "um? oh... yeah, that's... great?". I mean seriously, how is someone supposed to respond to that? It feels like othering, even if that's not what's happening.

It's the worst being the only non-white in a group of white people and they all start comparing whiteness. Like seriously. What the fuck. Not talking unneccesarily about skin colour just seems like a general "being culture sensitive in the 21st century" best practise to me. (I'm not saying don't ever talk about it, I'm saying gratuitous blathering about skin colour or race. If I were in a group of black folks with one white person, I wouldn't start talking about how black we were.)

Similarly, insisting on stating the race or colour of every (non-WASP) person that you're talking about, even when it's not relevant to the conversation, is obnoxious and unneccessary and far too common. I usually follow that one up with a gentle "And why does it matter that so-and-so is ____?"
posted by windykites at 7:17 PM on August 6, 2012


"Great White Hope" is one I've definitely heard in everyday conversation. The term was originally coined by some sports writer to refer to a theoretical white challenger who could take down Jack Johnson in the boxing ring. I'm always surprised to hear it, but I think (since Jack Johnson's been out of the spotlight for nearly a century) that the original meaning has been long since forgotten.
posted by sidi hamet at 7:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Tarred and feathered.

Other than the potential for conflation with "tar baby" I don't think that tarring and feathering has any specific racist connotation: the earliest reference dates all the way back to the Crusades, and, while African Americans have certainly tarred and feathered1, so were Wobblies, British agents in colonial America, and Joseph Smith.


1 Wikipedia: This was a relatively rare form of mob punishment for Republican African Americans in the post-bellum U.S. South, as its goal is typically pain and humiliation rather than death (as in the more common lynching and burning alive)
posted by pullayup at 7:49 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, does no one realize "Turkey in the Straw" is just "Jump Jim Crow" with the lyrics omitted? Not exactly what you're referring to, I'm aware, but it's still a jolt to hear this as someone's ringtone, one that they probably wouldn't select if they realized its origins.
posted by sidi hamet at 7:50 PM on August 6, 2012


denigrate
posted by theora55 at 8:08 PM on August 6, 2012


The phrase master/slave, with reference to computing technology, is increasingly considered offensive. "Parent/child" and "client/server" are considered acceptable alternatives.
posted by tully_monster at 10:56 PM on August 6, 2012


Off the reservation.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:51 AM on August 7, 2012


Sorry, treehorn+bunny - got it third hand and can't find a non-facebook reference. Although the term SVD (just the name, not the description as I found that later) is pretty funny to me - makes childbirth sound so easy. :)

Back to the topic, though - use of Indian names, imagery for cars (some still in use), or terms in mascots (here's an interesting bit defending some uses - I like the part where the author calls out folks for having no rights to complain as they "left the area" 200 years ago - so bizarre!). I know that some folks born closer to the start of the last century seem to use the word "Chief" in a semi-derogatory way towards Native Americans.
posted by tilde at 6:14 AM on August 7, 2012


denigrate

This one's connected to the more general idea of darkness=bad, but it's not directly related to race. It's no more racist in and of itself than "never darken my doorstep again" or "it's always darkest before the dawn."

I know that some folks born closer to the start of the last century seem to use the word "Chief" in a semi-derogatory way towards Native Americans.

In that vein, "too many Chiefs, not enough Indians."
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:26 AM on August 7, 2012


"China doll." The reference is to the pale white faces of porcelain dolls, and the usual use is akin to, "Pretty as a..."

That's already kind of racist (and sexist), but it gets really racist (and really sexist) when people use it to refer to Asian women.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:15 PM on August 7, 2012


[stop arguing.]
posted by jessamyn at 6:17 PM on August 7, 2012


Ah, Sys Rq brings up another good one - "They all look alike to me" - I've heard it used to reference most non-Anglos (can't use minority as numerically not so much any more, depending on where you're counting ...). I can't think of a non snarky response "need glasses? how about a class in facial recognition?" or an alternative, as its used very lazily when not derogatorily.
posted by tilde at 6:00 AM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I usually come back with my anecdote about the time I worked on an Indian movie, and the crew kept confusing me and the three or four other white girls. "So apparently white people all look alike, too."
posted by Sara C. at 12:22 PM on August 8, 2012


The mister used to get, as a kid, black licorice baby-shaped candies called N----- Babies. It wasn't until he was in his teens and met black people for the first time that he really realized that the "n-word" was a derogatory name for black people. (He grew up in a small northern Canada town in the 1950s and 60s.)

In my family the saying was "just call the spade a fucking shovel". I had no idea that some people thought it referred to black people.

My family also called anyone trashy "white trash" no matter what race they appeared to be. I don't know why the "white" part wasn't just dropped.

"Wetback" is/was used for people of Mexican descent in southern California. It refers to crossing the Rio Grande river illegally from Mexico into the US.

And yes! I still hear/read people using "gypped" and "jewed". It's hard for me to believe they don't know, but anyone I've mentioned it to seems truly shocked to find out what they mean, are contrite and promise to quit using the term.
posted by deborah at 2:40 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


doubt anyone's still following, but this relevant article popped up on my facebook today.
posted by windykites at 8:26 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or phrases that originated in a non-racist fashion, but are now considered racist?

Perhaps, "illegals" as a way to refer to exclusively immigrants in the United States who are of latino origin.

It's definitely being intentionally used by some people as an ethnic slur, and alos perceived by some of the people it's being directed at as such a slur.
posted by andoatnp at 7:07 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Working in Korea, I've had co-workers and Korean friends tell me that all white people look the same.
posted by nile_red at 7:59 PM on September 15, 2012


There is a charming, witty piece for piano by Debussy called "Golliwogg's Cake Walk." When I was young and learning this piece I always envisioned a golliwogg as a frog (it sounded like "pollywog") doing an anthropomorphic strut in fancy dress, but years later I discovered the reality--ugh.

That Wikipedia entry also mentions that the Golliwogg was the inspiration for Raggedy Ann and Andy. Sigh...
posted by tully_monster at 9:01 PM on September 16, 2012


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