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Race & Ethnicity




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

Though we're all part of the same species living on the same planet, our experience as humans walking through this world can differ widely. Children see things through a different lens than adults. Women and men have different perspectives on certain issues. And because racism has long been an active element in our society, people with varying amounts of melanin in their skin face specific challenges that others don't.


As a white American, I don't instinctively know what it's like to walk in a black person's shoes. I can tell you about the legacy of white supremacy laced throughout our country's history. I can explain the far-reaching effects of slavery, lynch mobs, Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration, and more. I can intellectually break down the psychological and sociological impact of centuries of race-based oppression.

But I can't tell you what it feels like to walk through this world, right now, as a black person—which is why it's so important to listen to the voices of people who can.

David Summers shared a story on Facebook that reflects the experience of many black Americans—one that can help us non-black folks see through a lens we simply do not and cannot have. Perhaps that's why it's been shared more than 20,000 times. From the fear that any object he carries might be mistaken as a gun to figuring out how to smile at a stranger just right so he won't be considered a threat, the "black thoughts" Summers describes during his walk through a beautiful, white neighborhood—presumably a neighborhood most of us would consider "safe"—are heartbreaking.

He wrote:

"I took a black walk this morning. I took a black walk through a white neighborhood. When I take black walks, I think black thoughts. I am conscious of where I've placed my gun, my gun, and my gun. I mean, my phone, my wallet, and my keys. Because Peace Officers have a hard time telling the difference. I rehearse what I'll say if a concerned resident, or a law enforcement employee has questions about why my black body is walking through their white space. And I remind myself to make sure the law enforcement employee has his body camera recording. Sometimes it helps if there is video evidence to accompany the hashtag.

There is no way to be stealthy when you take a black walk. White neighborhoods are blanketed by a sophisticated security system comprised of nosy neighbors, Ring doorbell cameras, and white women walking their dogs. So, I've learned to notice the white world through my periphery. To be aware of the dangers without acknowledging them. There is an art to making white people feel safe. To say 'Good Morning' and flash a smile that shows confidence and deference at the same time. To being polite because your life depends on it.

I felt the squad car behind me before I saw it.

It moved deliberately. Not like the other cars mindlessly whizzing past. Its tires inched. Crept. Stalked their way toward me.

I kept walking.

"Don't take your hands out of your pockets," I thought. Or wait, maybe I should? Maybe it's better if my hands are clearly empty. But it's cold outside…maybe it's nothing. Keep walking.

The car rolled past me and made a slow right turn. I glanced quickly but didn't stare. The air is still. My ears tuned out everything but the slight scuff of my sneakers on the sidewalk and the fading sound of those stalking tires.

Almost there.

Suddenly the squad car re-emerged. It was a block ahead of me. It made a quick right turn, continued to the end of the street, and then waited. No more stalking. This was a show of force. This was a roar. This was a reminder that I was trespassing.

I kept walking.

"Don't take your hands out of your pockets," I thought. Or wait, maybe I should? Maybe it's better if my hands are clearly empty. But it's cold outside…maybe it's nothing. Keep walking.

The car rolled past me and made a slow right turn. I glanced quickly but didn't stare. The air is still. My ears tuned out everything but the slight scuff of my sneakers on the sidewalk and the fading sound of those stalking tires.

Almost there.

Suddenly the squad car re-emerged. It was a block ahead of me. It made a quick right turn, continued to the end of the street, and then waited. No more stalking. This was a show of force. This was a roar. This was a reminder that I was trespassing.

I kept walking.

As I approached the corner, the front window began to roll down. The occupant didn't speak. Didn't smile. Just stared. I was being warned.

I crossed the street and the lion trotted off. He had effectively marked his territory. The brave protector had done his job.

I however, couldn't help but wonder what I'd missed during my black walk. It's hard to hear the birds chirping, or to smile at the squirrels playfully darting along the branches when you're on a black walk. It's easy to miss the promise of a light blue sky, or appreciate the audacity of the red, yellow, and purple daisies declaring their independence from the green grass when your mind is preoccupied with black thoughts.

I took a walk through a beautiful neighborhood this morning. But I missed the whole thing."

Thank you, Mr. Summers, for sharing your "black walk" experience. Hopefully, it will prompt us all to ask ourselves whether our words and actions serve to reinforce or remedy what you've described.


This article originally appeared on 03.02.20

Identity

10 Black women sat in first class on an airplane and it revealed a lot about race in America

"This weekend I went on a girls trip. 10 Black women flying first class. People literally could not process how it was possible."

via Angie Jones / Twitter and Matt Blaze / Flickr

Software developer Angie Jones' recent girls trip revealed that America still has a long way to go when it comes to race.

To most, that's not surprising. But what's unique is how the specific experience Jones and her friends went through revealed the pervasive way systemic racism still runs through our culture.

Jones is the Senior Director of Developer Relations at Applitools, holds 26 patented inventions in the United States of America and Japan, and is an IBM Master Inventor.


On July 27, she tweeted about a flight she took with nine other Black women and they all sat in first class. "People literally could not process how it was possible," she wrote. "Staff tried to send us to regular lines. Passengers made snide remarks. One guy even yelled 'are they a higher class of people than I am?!'"

Jones and her friends were the targets of racism that ranged from the seemingly unconscious — people who assumed that Black people don't sit in first class — to the blatant — those who were seriously bothered that Black people were being treated as having a higher status.

It's interesting that she didn't mention anyone saying "good for you" for succeeding in a world that often holds people of color back. Instead, she was greeted with incredulity and jealous rage.

There are a lot of white people who can't stand the idea of a Black person being elevated above them. It's disturbing that in 2021 there are still some who will admit it publicly.

Jones' tweets inspired a lot of people to share their stories about the racism they've experienced while flying first class.

Jones' tweets also angered some people to the point that they denied her story. To which she responded, "To those saying I'm lying, you're a huge part of the problem," she wrote. "You tell yourself a notable person is lying (for what reason, I cannot figure out) before you believe there are actual racists in...America."

One Twitter user came up with the perfect retort to the person who asked, "Are they a higher class of people than I am?!"

This article originally appeared on 07.29.21

Identity

Formerly enslaved man's response to his 'master' wanting him back is a literary masterpiece

"I would rather stay here and starve — and die, if it come to that — than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters."

A photo of Jordan Anderson.

In 1825, at the approximate age of 8, Jordan Anderson (sometimes spelled "Jordon") was sold into slavery and would live as a servant of the Anderson family for 39 years. In 1864, the Union Army camped out on the Anderson plantation and he and his wife, Amanda, were liberated. The couple eventually made it safely to Dayton, Ohio, where, in July 1865, Jordan received a letter from his former owner, Colonel P.H. Anderson. The letter kindly asked Jordan to return to work on the plantation because it had fallen into disarray during the war.

On Aug. 7, 1865, Jordan dictated his response through his new boss, Valentine Winters, and it was published in the Cincinnati Commercial. The letter, entitled "Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master," was not only hilarious, but it showed compassion, defiance, and dignity. That year, the letter would be republished in theNew York Daily Tribune and Lydia Marie Child's "The Freedman's Book."

The letter mentions a "Miss Mary" (Col. Anderson's Wife), "Martha" (Col. Anderson's daughter), Henry (most likely Col. Anderson's son), and George Carter (a local carpenter).

Dayton, Ohio,
August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee



Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jordon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy, — the folks call her Mrs. Anderson, — and the children — Milly, Jane, and Grundy — go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve — and die, if it come to that — than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,
Jordon Anderson

Learn more about Jordan Anderson here.


This article originally appeared on 11.03.17.