12 Everyday Expressions That Are Actually Racist
Next time you catch yourself about to drop any of the following phrases, think again. There are far more racially neutral ways to express yourself.
Words can hurt
Contrary to the popular nursery rhyme, words, like sticks and stones, can indeed hurt us. Many of the ones we use in daily life have racist connotations and origins, and we might not even be aware of it. We’ve spent decades focused on the N-word, and more recently, “All lives matter” is giving it a run for its inherent white supremacy, but the English language is loaded with things that would be better left unsaid. You should also think twice before starting a sentence with any of these 10 phrases.
This phrase is meant to demean white people of a certain socioeconomic class, but it inadvertently demeans black people of every socioeconomic class. According to Matthew Wray, author of Not Quite White: White Trash And The Boundaries Of Whiteness, “They live in trailer parks and ramshackle cabins in the woods. And they are rude and crude and obnoxious.” The problem is that it’s used as an oxymoron: The fact that trash has to be qualified by “white” implies that white, unlike black, is generally the opposite of trashy. “This is a term that really has white supremacy baked into it because it’s kind of like it’s understood that if you’re not white, you’re trash,” Wray told NPR in 2018. As a general rule, it’s probably best to refrain from referring to anyone as “trash,” regardless of race. Not all insults are so obvious, some are actually disguised as compliments.
“Black sheep” may seem like an innocent enough phrase, even if it’s describing something that is not particularly aspirational. But it’s just an example of how racism is so subtly built into the English language that most of us don’t notice. Think about it, though: Why can’t the outcast be the white sheep? Answer: Because white represents all that is pure and good. “The English language is in bed with racism, even though most of us are usually unaware of that fact,” therapist Dee Watts-Jones wrote in 2004. “Everyday language reminds African Americans in matter-of-fact ways that our color is related to extortion (blackmail), disrepute (black mark), rejection (blackball), banishment (blacklist), impurity (not the driven snow), illicitness (black market), and death. Casting aspersions on black or darkness while praising white or light isn’t universal, and regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such usage colludes with racism.” Watch out for these other phrases smart people never say.
“Sold down the river”
When someone says you “sold them down the river,” they mean you’ve screwed them over. It’s not a particularly pleasant phrase in any situation, but if you were enslaved in 19th-century America, it was exponentially more chilling. The phrase referred to the practice of enslavers sending their problematic enslaved captives down the Mississippi River to be sold to cruel people who claimed Black humans as property and would make their lives even more of a living hell. As betrayals go, the contemporary meaning kind of pales in comparison. Writer Patrick Allan astutely wrote in 2018, “When you say ‘You sold me down the river!’ you’re saying ‘You’re treating me like a misbehaving slave,’ which is most certainly not accurate.” This self-liberated person sent his enslaver a bill for services rendered.
When we talk about the “peanut gallery,” we’re usually referring to the uninformed and unintelligent armchair critics who always seem to have an opinion about everything, usually negative. The origin of the phrase, though, is as biting and nasty as any insult a so-called peanut gallery might hurl. It was coined to refer to the cheap seats where blacks used to sit during the Vaudeville era. If the audience in this area didn’t like a performance, instead of throwing tomatoes, they’d toss peanuts, so basically, they were the equivalent of modern-day protesters, only they focused on the theater experience. It’s a phrase covered with the fingerprints of Jim Crow and segregation. “Hecklers” is a neutral alternative. Check out our list of 11 words and phrases that used to be insults and are now compliments.
If you’re talking about the inner-city of a metropolitan area, “urban” will do. The word, however, should never refer to any form of music predominantly created by Black artists. Republic Records had the right idea when they announced on June 5 that they were removing “‘urban’ from the label’s verbiage in describing departments, employee titles, and music genres” because “over time the meaning and connotations of ‘urban’ have shifted and it developed into a generalization of Black people in many sectors of the music industry, including employees and music by Black artists.” The Recording Academy followed suit on June 10, declaring the word “urban” henceforth banished from the name of Grammy categories. “It’s time to stop using this hackneyed term for black music,” the headline of an article in The Guardian by Kehinde Andrews declared in 2015. Five years later, it seems to be finally happening. In the original sense of the term, “urban” wasn’t race-specific. Find out some of the largest cities in the world.
Technically, the word itself isn’t racist. It’s literally Latin for “before the war.” But no one speaks Latin anymore, and context is everything. In everyday American usage, “antebellum” refers specifically to the period before the Civil War when boys were boys, girls were girls, and black people were enslaved. Even antebellum architecture generally refers to the style of those grand Southern plantations, the mansions rich white people lived in before the war that was built by slave labor. The country music group Lady Antebellum, whose name conjures images of Scarlett O’Hara and her beloved Tara, got the memo and on June 11 announced they were changing their name to Lady A. “We’ve watched and listened more than ever these last few weeks, and our hearts have been stirred with conviction, our eyes opened wide to injustices, inequality, and biases black women and men have always faced and continue to face every day [stet],” the band wrote in a statement to fans. “Now, blindspots [stet] we didn’t even know existed have been revealed.” If you’re white with Black friends and you what to help fight against racism, here’s what you need to know.
Another famous country group might want to reconsider their name as well. To some, Dixie Chicks might be simply a cute geographical reference to a region celebrated in the title of one of President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite songs. The problem with using the word as a synonym for the Deep South is that it’s not only dripping with Confederate pride, but it generally excludes the demographic that remains so pivotal to the song of the South: Black people. “Mysteriously, although black people can be found in vast numbers in Southern states and arguably have more collective sweat equity in the region than anybody, whenever pundits say ‘Dixie’ they are always talking exclusively about white people,” Tracy Thompson wrote in a 2015 essay on The Bitter Southerner called “Dixie Is Dead.” As Thompson pointed out, “It’s shorthand for White People South of I-64 Who Vote Republican.” (Interstate-64 is an interstate that connects the St. Louis Metropolitan area with the coast of Virginia.) On your next car ride, instead of music you should try out one of these 12 podcasts about race everyone needs to hear.
“Black don’t crack”
This is one that Black people often use as a point of pride, but there is a problem with white people using it. When a white person ages well, it’s considered an individual accomplishment, but when a black person does the same thing, it’s not because of any personal effort or achievement. It’s just a given for their race. It’s another way white people lump Black people together, even if there is some scientific evidence to support the idea that Black people get a natural boost in aging gracefully (it’s all about the melanin). That said, the colloquialism might create the same sort of unrealistic expectations for Black women that mainstream fashion publications do for white women. “It feels like another way Black women aren’t allowed to be fully human,” Refinery29 writer Patia Braithwaite wrote in 2019. “We are ‘girls’ forever, filled with an endless stream of magic. Or we’re ‘angry women’ who terrify everyone around us. We are ‘strong’ and therefore never allowed to be seen as tender. And on top of that, we don’t get to wrinkle, shrivel, and shrink? The pressure is unfair.” Believe it or not, some countries actually age better than others.
“You’re so articulate”
Most Black people have probably heard this—usually coming out of the mouth of an impressed white person. It’s meant as a compliment typically reserved for a Black person who uses excellent grammar and soothing cadences when speaking. But it often comes across more like an insult because it’s so patronizing. Few people would commend a white person for speaking grammatically, so why is it necessary to point out when a Black person does? “When whites use the word in reference to Blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment,” Lynette Clemetson wrote in the New York Times in 2007. “It is similar to praising a female executive or politician by calling her ‘tough’ or ‘a rational decision-maker.'” Want to be a better ally? Try one of these 14 small ways you can fight racism every day.
“Thug” conjures images of a little old and terrified white lady going up in an elevator with a Black man who isn’t wearing a suit. Perhaps the word wouldn’t be so racially charged if it weren’t typically used to describe Black men. “Well, the truth is that ‘thug’ today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word,” John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, told NPR in 2015. “Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again.” You should also avoid using these 10 most annoying phrases in the English language.
In the old South, white people used this word to describe Black people who weren’t deferential enough, the ones who didn’t know their supposed place. Although the word is now used to insult people of any race, it’s often still reserved for Blacks, like in 2011 when Rush Limbaugh accused First Lady Michelle Obama of exhibiting, “uppity-ism.” Back in the day, the word “uppity” usually would have been followed by the N-word, according to the Urban Dictionary. Limbaugh also described President Barack Obama as “uppity.” Of course, he easily could have called him a “snob,” but that, apparently, is a dishonor reserved for non-Blacks who think they are smarter and better than everyone else. Even if you aren’t a snob, here’s how you can look smarter than the average person.
“Eenie Meenie Miney Mo”
It may seem like the opening line to a harmless nursery rhyme, followed by “Catch a tiger by the toe,” but the lyrics have evolved over time. In an earlier version of the song, used as recently as the ’90s in Australia, the N-word was used instead of “tiger.” In reality, the nursery rhyme is tied to the slave trade, describing what a white enslaver would do after catching a self-emancipated Black person: “Catch a n—– by his toe/If he hollers make him pay/Twenty dollars every day.” We recommend a less historically inflammatory way to choose between two or more things. Next, grab some popcorn and make it a movie night with one of these 12 documentaries about race everyone needs to see.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.