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10 common phrases that are actually racist AF

All language has a history.

10 common phrases that are actually racist AF




As much as we'd like to pretend every phrase we utter is a lone star suspended in the space of our own genius, all language has a history. Unfortunately, given humanity's aptitude for treating each other like shit, etymology is fraught with reminders of our very racist world.

Since I have faith that most of you reading want to navigate the world with intelligence and empathy, I figured it'd be useful to share some of the everyday phrases rooted in racist etymology.

Knowledge is power, and the way we use and contextualize our words can make a huge difference in the atmospheres we create.


1. Thug

According to Meriam-Webster's dictionary definition, a thug is "a violent criminal." Obviously, this definition leaves the word open to define people of all ethnicities.

However, given the frequent ways this word has been used to describe Black Lives Matter protesters, the 17-year-old murder victim Trayvon Martin, and sadly, almost every black victim of police brutality — there is an undeniable racial charge to the word.

When you consider the people who are called thugs — groups of black protesters, victims of racist violence, teenagers minding their own business, and flip the racial element, you'd be hard-pressed to find examples of white people being called thugs in earnest by the media (or really by anyone).

Several prominent activists and black writers have written about the phenomenon of thug replacing the n-word in modern culture. In a popular press conference back in 2014, the Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman explained his feelings about the word.

"The reason it bothers me is because it seems like it's an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now. It's like everybody else said the N-word and then they say 'thug' and that's fine. It kind of takes me aback and it's kind of disappointing because they know," Sherman said.

If you're talking about an actual criminal, there are so many descriptive words to invoke besides "thug." Given its current use as a negative, racially-coded word, avoiding its use seems like an easy and obvious move.

2. Grandfather Clause

When most of us hear the term "grandfather clause" we just think of the generalized description: a person or entity that is allowed to continue operating over now expired rules. But the literal meaning reveals the "grandfather clause" was a racist post-Reconstruction political strategy.

This is the historical definition, according to Encyclopedia Britannica:

"Grandfather clause, statutory or constitutional device enacted by seven Southern states between 1895 and 1910 to deny suffrage to African Americans. It provided that those who had enjoyed the right to vote prior to 1866 or 1867, or their lineal descendants, would be exempt from educational, property, or tax requirements for voting. Because the former slaves had not been granted the franchise until the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, those clauses worked effectively to exclude black people from the vote but assured the franchise to many impoverished and illiterate whites."

In modern speak, this basically meant the Grandfather Clause let white people off the hook for new voting requirements because their ancestors were already registered voters. Meanwhile, black people were required to fill out impossible literacy tests and pay exorbitant poll taxes to vote. This in turn, meant many black people were unable to vote, while white people weren't held to the same standard.

3. Gypsy or "Gyp"

The word "Gypsy" was (and is) a racial slur referring to the Roma people. The Roma people are descendants of Northern India who, due to severe marginalization and threats of violence by others, lived a nomadic lifestyle of forced migration for centuries.

During a fraught history, Roma people were taken as slaves in Romania and were targeted for genocide by the Nazis.

The word "Gypsy" is a slang word perpetuating stereotypes of Roma people as "thieves, rowdies, dirty, immoral, con-men, asocials, and work-shy" according to the Council of Europe.

In a similar vein, the term "Gyp" or "getting gypped" means to cheat or get conned, and many connect this meaning as another racist extension of Gypsy.

4. No Can Do

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the very common phrase "no can do" was originally made popular as a way to make fun of Chinese immigrants.

"The widespread use of the phrase in English today has obscured its origin: what might seem like folksy, abbreviated version of I can’t do it is actually an imitation of Chinese Pidgin English. The phrase dates from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, an era when Western attitudes towards the Chinese were markedly racist."

5. Sold Down The River

Upon first hearing, many people associate the phrase "sold down the river" with the notion of being betrayed, lied to, or otherwise screwed over. While these definitions all technically apply to the origin, the root of this phrase is much more bleak.

According to a report from NPR, being "sold down the river" was a literal reference to slavery, and the families that were torn apart in the south.

"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.

This heavy connotation sadly makes sense, but also makes casual use of the phrase feel way more cringe-inducing.

6. Welfare Queen

The term "welfare queen" was first popularized by Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign in which he repeatedly painted a picture of a Cadillac-driving welfare queen.

This straw woman in Reagan's campaign served as a racially-charged exaggeration of one minor case of real welfare fraud used to pedal his platform for welfare reform.

Needless to say, the term has sadly lived on as a racially-charged vehicle used to undermine the importance of welfare programs, while peddling gross stereotypes about black women.

On top of all the other offenses, this stereotype is of course ignoring the fact that poor white Americans receive the most welfare out of any economically-disadvantaged demographic.

7. Shuck And Jive

The term shuck and jive is both common and very obviously rooted in the language of slavery.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase shuck and jive refers to:

"The fact that black slaves sang and shouted gleefully during corn-shucking season, and this behavior, along with lying and teasing, became a part of the protective and evasive behavior normally adopted towards white people in ' traditional' race relations."

Likewise, the modern usage of this phrase refers to pandering, selling out, or instances in which black people go along with racist white people's wishes. Again, not a phrase to be thrown around lightly.

8. Long Time No See

The very commonly used greeting "long time no see" first became popular as a way to make fun of Native Americans. The phrase was used as a way to mock a traditional greeting exchanged between Native Americans.

This is the official definition, according to the Oxford Dictionary:

"Long Time No See was originally meant as a humorous interpretation of a Native American greeting, used after a prolonged separation. The current earliest citation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comes from W.F. Drannan’s book Thirty-one Years on Plains (1901): ‘When we rode up to him [sc. an American Indian] he said: ‘Good mornin. Long time no see you’."

The act of committing genocide is not limited to human lives, but also translates to a normalized cultural violence. Deconstructing, mocking, and erasing someone's language contributes to this pattern of colonialism.

9. The Peanut Gallery

Most modern uses of the term "the peanut gallery" is in reference to a group of people who needlessly criticize or mocking another person. However, the historical roots of this term are much more racist and painful.

Originally, this term referred to the balconies in segregated theaters where black people were forced to sit. The nickname "peanut" was given due to the fact that peanuts were introduced to America at the same time as the slave trade. Because of this, there was a connection drawn between black people and peanuts.

10. Uppity

As of now, the word "uppity" is often used as a synonym for "stuck up" or "pretentious" or "conceited." But the roots of the word are far more specific and racist.

The word Uppity was first used by Southerners to refer to slaves who did not fall into line, or acted as if they "didn't know their place."

So, basically, any black person who overtly stood up to racism. Given the heaviness of this origin, it seems best to leave this word at home when looking to describe a pretentious acquaintance.

Sadly, given our ugly history, there are many more words and phrases I could add to this list. In the meantime, hopefully this list is helpful for navigating the racism innate in our language.

The article was originally published by our partners at someecards and was written by Bronwyn Isacc.


This article originally appeared on 02.04.19

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Scientists tested 3 popular bottled water brands for nanoplastics using new tech, and yikes

The results were alarming—an average of 240,000 nanoplastics per 1 liter bottle—but what does it mean for our health?

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Columbia University researchers tested bottled water for nanoplastics and found hundreds of thousands of them.

Evian, Fiji, Voss, SmartWater, Aquafina, Dasani—it's impressive how many brands we have for something humans have been consuming for millennia. Despite years of studies showing that bottled water is no safer to drink than tap water, Americans are more consuming more bottled water than ever, to the tune of billions of dollars in bottled water sales.

People cite convenience and taste in addition to perceived safety for reasons they prefer bottle to tap, but the fear factor surrounding tap water is still a driving force. It doesn't help when emergencies like floods cause tap water contamination or when investigations reveal issues with lead pipes in some communities, but municipal water supplies are tested regularly, and in the vast majority of the U.S., you can safely grab a glass of water from a tap.

And now, a new study on nanoplastics found in three popular bottled water brands is throwing more data into the bottled vs. tap water choice.

Researchers from Columbia University used a new laser-guided technology to detect nanoplastics that had previously evaded detection due to their miniscule size. The new technology can detect, count and analyze and chemical structure of nanoparticles, and they found seven different major types of plastic: polyamide, polypropylene, polyethylene, polymethyl methacrylate, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, and polyethylene terephthalate.

In contrast to a 2018 study that found around 300 plastic particles in an average liter of bottled water, the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January of 2024 found 240,000 nanoplastic particles per liter bottle on average between the three brands studied. (The name of the brands were not indicated in the study.)

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“Micro and nanoplastics have been found in the human placenta at this point. They’ve been found in human lung tissues. They’ve been found in human feces; they’ve been found in human blood,” study coauthor Phoebe Stapleton, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers University’s Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy told CNN Health,

We know that nanoplastics are making their way into our bodies. We just don't have enough research yet on what that means for our health, and we still have more questions than answers. How many nanoplastics does it take to do damage and/or cause disease? What kinds of damage or disease might they cause? Is whatever effect they might have cumulative? We simply don't have answers to these questions yet.

That's not to say there's no cause for concern. We do know that certain levels of microplastic exposure have been shown to adversely affect the viability of cells. Nanoplastics are even smaller—does that mean they are more likely to cause cellular damage? Science is still working that out.

According to Dr. Sara Benedé of the Spanish National Research Council’s Institute of Food Science Research, it's not just the plastics themselves that might cause damage, but what they may bring along with them. “[Microparticles and nanoparticles] have the ability to bind all kinds of compounds when they come into contact with fluids, thus acting as carriers of all kinds of substances including environmental pollutants, toxins, antibiotics, or microorganisms,” Dr. Benedé told Medical News Today.

Where is this plastic in water coming from? This study focused on bottled water, which is almost always packaged in plastic. The filters used to filter the water before bottling are also frequently made from plastic.

Is it possible that some of these nanoplastics were already present in the water from their original sources? Again, research is always evolving on this front, but microplastics have been detected in lakes, streams and other freshwater sources, so it's not a big stretch to imagine that nanoplastics may be making their way into freshwater ecosystems as well. However, microplastics are found at much higher levels in bottled water than tap water, so it's also not a stretch to assume that most of the nanoplastics are likely coming from the bottling process and packaging rather than from freshwater sources.

The reality is, though, we simply don't know yet.

“Based on other studies we expected most of the microplastics in bottled water would come from leakage of the plastic bottle itself, which is typically made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic,” lead author Naixin Qian, a doctoral student in chemistry at Columbia University, told CNN Health. “However, we found there’s actually many diverse types of plastics in a bottle of water, and that different plastic types have different size distributions. The PET particles were larger, while others were down to 200 nanometers, which is much, much smaller.”

We need to drink water, and we need to drink safe water. At this point, we have plenty of environmental reasons for avoiding bottled water unless absolutely necessary and opting for tap water instead. Even if there's still more research to be done, the presence of hundreds of thousands of nanoplastics in bottled water might just be another reason to make the switch.

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