Common Words and Phrases Steeped in Racism to Remove From Your Vocabulary

SWAN of the Week, Number 155
Sign up for these weekly emails here.

UPDATE: thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts about how this post was helpful, and also pushed me on adding terms, switching sources, clarifying meaning, etc. I ended up moving thug/riot/looter terms to their own “Loaded Language” section, as these words weren’t originally steeped in racism but definitely are being used in racist ways today. Keep that feedback coming! And sign up for my weekly email! :)

As we’re spending energy unlearning, relearning, and educating ourselves about racism, there are many racially insensitive words we should remove from our vocabulary immediately.

Common Words and Phrases Steeped in Racism We Should Not Say

  • uppity: during Segregation racist southerners used “uppity” to describe Black people “who didn’t know their place,” socioeconomically speaking. (source)
  • peanut gallery: this term names a section in theaters, usually the cheapest and worst, where many Black people sat during the era of Vaudeville. If it’s not directly racist, it’s classist and rude at the very least. (source)
  • call a spade a spade: “spade” started being used as a slang term, and then a derogatory slur, for a black person. This racist shift in the phrase’s meaning also lead to the equally offensive phrase “black as the ace of spades.” (source)
  • eenie, meenie, miny, moe: the meaning of this rhyme is rooted in the slave trade. There’s an idea that it comes from slave selection or a description of what white slave owners would do if they caught a runaway slave. (source)
  • sold down the river: “River” was a literal reference to the Mississippi or Ohio rivers. For much of the first half of the 19th century, Louisville, Ky., was one of the largest slave-trading marketplaces in the country. Slaves would be taken to Louisville to be “sold down the river” and transported to the cotton plantations in states further south…the threat of being ‘sold down the river’ was seen as tantamount to a death sentence. (source)
  • tipping point: when tipping point first began to be employed in general use, it was almost entirely in reference to the propensity of white families to move out of an area when a certain percentage of the neighborhood was composed of black families. It served as a precursor of sorts to the phenomenon of white flight. (source)
  • grandfather clause, grandfathered in: the term itself started in the wake of Reconstruction in the American South to allow potential white voters to circumvent literacy tests, poll taxes, and other tactics designed to disenfranchise Southern blacks after a brief period of relatively open voting. (source)
  • whitelist, blacklist: replace with “allowlist” and “denylist” (source)
  • white hat, black hat: replace with “ethical” and “unethical.” (source)
  • master, slave: replace with ‘main/default/primary’ and ‘secondary.’ (source)
  • ghetto: when ghetto is used as an adjective, meaning that something is “unrefined, low-class, cheap, or inferior,” the word is considered derogatory. After all, you’re using a descriptor for someone’s neighborhood in a negative sense. It’s also considered derogatory to refer to someone’s neighborhood in this way. (source)
  • mumbo jumbo: The phrase probably originated from the Mandingo name Maamajomboo, which was a masked dancer that took part in religious ceremonies. In the 18th century Mumbo-jumbo referred to a West African god. In the racist children’s book Little Black Sambo, the boy’s parents are named Mumbo and Jumbo. (source)
  • nitty gritty: it has been alleged that ‘nitty-gritty’ is a derogatory reference to the English slave trade of the 18th century (source)
  • moron: the term is attributed to psychologist and eugenicist Henry H. Goddard, who used it to describe “feeble-minded” individuals. It is closely tied to the United States’s involvement in eugenics, a scientific term, meaning “well-born,” that describes the belief that the human population can be controlled by breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. It focuses on eliminating “undesirable” individuals, singling out unmarried mothers, people of color, the poor, and those with disabilities. (source)
  • tribe: this word promotes misleading stereotypes. Your group of friends is not your “tribe.” (source)
  • gyp: most likely evolved as a shortened version of “gypsy” — more correctly known as the Romani, a dark-skinned, ethnic group who traveled a lot and made their money by selling goods. Business disputes naturally arose, and the masses started thinking of Romani as swindlers. Gyp has now become synonymous with cheating someone. (source)
  • guru: comes from Buddhist and Hindu religions and refers to a spiritual guide or leader who is held in high esteem. Throwing the term around casually—as in referring to yourself as a marketing/love/business guru—is disrespectful because it diminishes the importance of the title and its origins. (source)
  • ninja: calling someone a “fill-in-the-skill ninja” strips the word of its meaning and its cultural roots, for the purpose of being funny, grabbing attention, or worse, turning a profit. (source)
  • open the kimono: popularized by Microsoft in the 1980s, this term for radical transparency is rooted in sexism, racism and cultural appropriation (source)
  • chop chop: the phrase originates from the Cantonese word kap, which means “make haste” and converted to pidgin English… would also become closely associated with class over time, and was almost always said by someone powerful to someone below. (source)
  • no can do: The phrase dates from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, an era when Western attitudes toward the Chinese were markedly racist (source)
  • long time no see: this is a form of pidgin English, adapted from Native American origins. “Long time no see was originally meant as a humorous interpretation of a Native American greeting, used after a prolonged separation. (source)
  • scalp: using this word to to say someone ripped you off or to infer that you got robbed is making light of what was a very gruesome act involving “a part of [the] integument [of the upper part of the head] with the accompanying hair, severed from the head of an enemy as a sign of victory, as by some North American Indians and others during the colonial and frontier periods in the US.” (source)
  • savage: for Indigenous people, this word is their N-word (source)
  • hold down the fort; circle the wagons: these phrases are meant to refer to the period when American colonists fought various Native American communities (source)
  • powwow: these are enormous celebrations that celebrate Native heritage, art, and community. The idea of taking a powwow and reducing it to a “cute” way to refer to your 10-minute conference call with Jeff from corporate just makes no sense. (source)
  • low man on the totem pole: totem poles are very sacred items to the people who carve and display them. Figures carved on totem poles represent familial legends, clan lineages or notable events. In some First Nation communities, being low on the totem pole is actually a higher honor than being on the top. (source)
  • off the reservation: Native American peoples were restricted to reservations created by the U.S. government, and their freedom was severely limited by the terms of the treaties they were often forced to sign. (source)
  • too many chiefs, and not enough Indians: this colloquialism trivializes both Native American chiefs, as well as applies these labels to (typically) white people in an appropriating way (source)
  • Hey, Chief: this salutation has the potential to trivialize both the hereditary chief who has the power passed down from one generation to the next along blood lines or other cultural protocols and the elected chief who is chosen by band members. Don’t call people Chief who aren’t chiefs. (source)
  • send up smoke signals: this is a stereotyped behavior based on Hollywood movies about Native Americans (I couldn’t find a source – have a good one? please send!)
  • spirit animal: spirit animals are not granted by online quizzes. For the tribes that do have this belief there is ritual and tradition that goes with it. Once it has been discovered, that spirit serves a specific function in their belief system. And Rihanna says don’t say it. (source)
    • thug: although the background of this word wasn’t racist, using the word thug today is “a nominally polite way of using the N-word. It is a sly way of saying there go those Black people ruining things again.” (source)
    • riot: although the word itself isn’t racist, using it today is loaded language and unhelpful. “Riot vs. rebellion/uprising is all in the eye of the beholder. This country was founded on acts of vandalism and property destruction,” says Genetta Adams, The Root’s managing editor. “See the Boston Tea Party. This was a fight for ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’ Who decides what these acts are called? Unfortunately, today, all too often it’s all-white or majority-white newsrooms.”” (source)
    • looters: although the word itself isn’t racist, using it today is loaded language and unhelpful. “To focus on the damage and looting misses the point. Were it not for the killing of Floyd, and the history of police behavior, there would have been no protests.” (source)
    • All Lives Matter: this is a slogan that has come to be associated with criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and communicates you don’t believe Black people have been oppressed or have a right to equality and equity. If you use this language, you need to really investigate your own privilege and why you are so triggered by people who don’t look like you and don’t live like like you mattering. (no source needed; this is a common fact).

This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a start. But don’t just remove each word from your vocabulary. Instead, memorize them and be ready to use your privilege to point out when they are used.

Let’s hold each other accountable. There’s unfortunately a lot to unlearn, and we’re just getting started.

Get Stuff Like This in your Inbox Every Week:


6 thoughts on “Common Words and Phrases Steeped in Racism to Remove From Your Vocabulary

  1. “Long time no see” is from Chinese (Hao jiu bu jian). There are many phrases like this in English, stemming from interactions between British and Chinese-speakers, and American and Chinese-speakers and development of pidgin languages.
    “Jew” someone, like “gyp” or “welsh” from ethnic stereotyping.
    “Paddywagon” Irish, stereotyping.
    “Redneck” stereotyping

    Lots of phrases, in every culture, towards any “other.”

  2. This post had some fake name/anonymous comments shouting “All Lives Matter.” If that’s your knee-jerk reaction to a post about trying not to say racist words, I encourage you to check your bias and privilege. All lives won’t matter until Black lives matter to catch up with the rest of us. Commenting “All Lives Matter” anonymously on a post about racist terms isn’t where I recommend you spend your energy right now. Feel free to DM me privately. I would love to chat with you.

  3. On the origin of “scalp”; it is doubly worse as I learned in history class, that leading up to the “French and Indian war” between England and France over control of western territories in colonial North America, the French put a bounty on English scalps that was paid to native Americans in the form of guns and ammunition, like any other pelt. This went on to inflame existing internal conflict between separate Native American nations as well as fuel the blood shed on the frontier. This is compound oppressive behavior by so called civilized white people. Prior to that time scalping, if it existed was below the radar of documentation.

Comments are closed.