12 Terms You Didn't Realize Were Racist


The English language can be full of words that have dubious backgrounds.

As anti-apartheid and human rights activist Desmond Tutu says

“Language is very powerful. Language does not describe reality. Language creates the reality that it describes.”

That in mind, here's a look at the history of some English words and phrases you may not realize have racist roots or undertones.

1. “Peanut Gallery”

“Quiet in the peanut gallery!” was used to refer to Black people who were sitting in the cheap seats in vaudeville theaters and would throw peanuts on stage if they didn’t like a performance rather than throwing tomatoes. Some say that “the peanut gallery” is more of a classist disparagement, but “The ‘peanut gallery’ was the cheapest and worst part of the theater, and the only option for Black attendees.”

2. “Grandfathered In” or “Grandfather Clause”

Post-Civil War attempts to undercut the voting power of newly free Black people by creating strict requirements for new voters, that did not apply to the descendants of those who voted prior to (usually) 1867. On paper, they were “grandfathered in” to vote.

3. “Gyp,” “Gypped,” “Jip” and “Jipped”

When we feel shortchanged, cheated or swindled, we might say we’re been “gypped” out of something. This one is racist because it’s tied to the term “gypsy,” used to refer to the Romani people, who’ve long faced discrimination because of their darker skin.

4. “Uppity”

Thandiwe Dee Watts-Jones, a psychologist and social justice advocate says,

“It’s used to disparage a Black person who does not know his or her place,” she said. “‘Uppity’ is a term used by White people to refer to Black people who have the audacity to think well of themselves, to assert unapologetically an opinion that may be outside a white person’s comfort zone or thinking.”

5. “Articulate”

To call a Black person articulate or “well-spoken” is to suggest that you expect the opposite to be true.

6. “Spirit Animal”

These days, “spirit animal” is a term of endearment, a phrase used colloquially to describe any person or thing the speaker deeply relates to or loves.

For many Indigenous people, though, the phrase refers to spirits who “help guide or protect a person on a journey and whose characteristics that person shares or embodies.”

7. “Paddy Wagon”

“Paddy wagon” has been called the last surviving Irish American slur.

The term “Paddy Wagon” goes back to when Irish immigrants were arrested and carted away in Black Marias. Soon the Marias had a new name—Paddy Wagons!

8. “Long Time No See” and “No Can Do”

“No can do” originally emerged in the 19th century to mocked Chinese immigrants’ speech patterns in English. As for “long time no see,” it’s debated whether the phrase originally mimicked and denigrated Chinese or Native Americans.

9. “Sold Down The River”

The phrase “sold down the river” means to be betrayed to a huge degree. The origin lies in those who were “sold down the river” were enslaved people, separated from their families.

10. “Blacklist,” “Blackball,” “Black Mark,” and on and on.

The symbolism of white as positive and black as negative.

11. “Off The Reservation”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “off the reservation” as a metaphor meaning “to deviate from what is expected or customary; to behave unexpectedly or independently.”

The phrase is rooted in the forced relocation of Native Americans leaving the reservation land to which they had been confined.

12. “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe”

The nursery rhyme is innocent enough these days: Eeny, meeny, miney, moe. Catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.

Kids in the U.S. in the late 1800s chanted it, “the object of the ‘catch’ wasn’t a tiger but a n****.”

It just goes to show: If little kids can phase out racist parts of their language, adults can put a little more effort into their accidentally racist vocabulary today.

Photos by Getty Images


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