We have come a long way from the first men who lived in caves but as affluent as we grow in the mastery of many languages, somehow we often forget why certain words are profoundly offensive to our friends (and foes) of other races. Since the wrongful killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement has shamed individuals, institutions and establishments all over the world into reviewing their policies and being more cognizant of the power of their words.
But what if I told you that certain seemingly ‘innocent’ words and phrases you use are actually rooted in racist, sexist, or generally offensive language? The context within which we deliver our words sometimes transcends our own era and can further alienate an already wronged race or oppress a gender.
How we communicate to each other, especially as a white person to a black individual, matters. To help you communicate a lot better (particularly if you consider yourself to be an ally of BLM or are doing lots of anti-racist work), here are nine offensive words and phrases you should cut off from your vocabulary if you truly support black lives:
1. Fuzzy Wuzzy
These days, these words can be easily mistaken for baby talk but if you’ve ever used it in a conversation with a black person and they got upset, please understand that fuzzy wuzzy is actually a racist term. Coined by British soldiers back in the 1800s, the term was used to describe and poke fun at the members of an East African nomadic tribe – the Hadendoa.
Their elaborate hairdressing gained them the name of “Fuzzy-wuzzies” among the British troops during the Mahdist War and for years after, white settlers from other countries also used it in reference to indigenous dark skinned folks in other parts of Africa. The term is a relic from a time when white soldiers looked down on blacks because of their hair texture and the color of their skin. Any black person who knows their history will be offended by this term so please refrain from using it.
A cakewalk, in some circles today, refers to a quick victory or an absurdly or surprisingly easy task. The word actually has deep roots in racism because it originated as a dance performed by enslaved Black people on plantations owned by their White masters before the Civil War.
The black slaves every few days were made to entertain their masters by mimicking the way white people danced, in competition for some slices of cake. It was intended to be a mockery of the black man who embarrasses himself while attempting to mimic a white person and the masters found it entertaining when their slaves contested in this manner for some cake. This word was popularized through subsequent minstrel shows, but it still stings when brought up in conversations with black people so avoid it.
This is a relatively popular word because, in the past few years it has been used to describe President Obama, Michelle Obama, and more recently, Megan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. It is sometimes mistaken as a synonym for being “pretentious” but the historical significance of the word is even bleaker than you might expect. Uppity was in fact first used by southern white folks in reference to their black slaves who agitated for better treatment, who didn’t show their owners enough deference, who wouldn’t accept the inferior status assigned to them by their masters or who in their opinions, acted as if they didn’t know their place.
More blacks than we’ll ever know were lynched by white mobs for being “uppity” and this word is an insulting way to describe a black person for one simple reason: it suggests that they are clamoring dignity they aren’t entitled to as humans. The word is often used by people who claim that they are ignorant of the word’s racist origins but if you’re reading this, now you know.
4. You are not like other Black people
Statements like these are infuriating because even though they are ironically intended to be complimentary, they in fact comprise various racist nuances. For instance, with this phrase, not only are you excluding a black person from his racial group, you’re also taking things a few notches higher by expressing an incredibly narrow view of their race. You are communicating that you find that person likeable because their behavior differs from your stereotype of an entire race (to which you do not belong) and you state this, expecting to be thanked for the ‘twisted compliment’.
What you may not realize though is that the black person on the receiving end of this statement as a result of your insensitivity, afterwards has to choose between communicating how wrong your words are (with you labeling them confrontational instantly) or attempt to validate your narrow views by further removing himself/herself from the features you have assigned to his/her race. Even if you mean well, the message you pass along here connects to a larger history of white people being surprised that black people can actually lead polished lives and I hope you rethink this compliment before you pay it again.
5. All Lives Matter
This phrase has cropped up in response to the Black Lives Matter movement because, for some reason, someone felt threatened by the outcry for black people to be treated with the same level of dignity ascribed to other races. Those who respond to “black lives matter” by saying “all lives matter” are at the very least, interpreting the BLM to mean “only black lives matter,” and this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
To be clear, we know that all lives do matter, but the problem is that clearly, black lives do not matter nearly as much as white lives hence the BLM movement –and it hasn’t for a very long time. If you take to chanting “all lives matter” without acknowledging that black lives have to matter for all lives to matter, understand that not only are you ignoring the age long racism against blacks, you are also still forcing the world to revolve around yourself by being willfully insensitive to the pain of the people suffering in this moment.
6. I don’t see color
It is not uncommon to hear a white person shrug off a black person’s complaints with this phrase and it’s wrong given the research on unconscious biases and racial prejudices. Usually the intent with this phrase is to demonstrate that the speaker isn’t racist because to them, skin color doesn’t matter. The problem though is that with this phrase, the speaker removes him or herself from the conversation and dismisses whatever is being said by the black person.
Offering your colorblindness (even if you think it’s true) as a solution to racism against blacks only means that you believe you are the ‘stellar’ human, and that discussions about racism shouldn’t involve you. It’s similar, I think, to the response ‘not all men’ when offered as a defense to issues of gender bias against women. It means that you- the stellar human- are refusing to acknowledge the implicit bias that still goes on to make life harder for blacks and the problem with being that human is that more often than not, the stellar humans are huge parts of the problem they dismiss.
I am convinced that no other single word carries as much purposeful venom, hatred and repulsion as the word “nigger” when spewn from the lips of a white person to a black person. This word has deep roots in the bleak history of black slavery and has been the verbal justification for discrimination of the black race as lazy, stupid, dirty, and worthless parasites for centuries.
These narratives of former enslaved people illustrate the success of the campaign of mental terrorism waged on blacks by white men back in the day and this word conveys the depths of unimaginable oppression of a race. It represents the totality of a system under which an entire race was induced to think they were less than human. It is the ultimate expression of white superiority; it carries a lot more weight than other racist nuances and should be avoided at all costs.
The word ghetto is an Italian-derived term which loosely means “to throw” and is often used against black women to show that they are crude, unrefined, low-class, cheap, or inferior. It is obviously a derogatory word but for some reason, white people tend to think that African women regard the description as something of pride. News flash: they don’t and you wouldn’t too if you were in their shoes.
It conveys something low about black people, their neighborhood or their mannerisms. It represents something nasty or undesirable and shouldn’t be used if you support BLM.
9. Shuck and jive
The term, like all the rest, is both common and well-rooted in the history of black slavery. ‘Shuck and jive’ is a phrase that references a time when black slaves sang and shouted gleefully during corn-shucking season to the entertainment of their white masters. It was a technique that helped them accommodate their masters while saving themselves from being beaten physically or psychologically.
Even today, these words denote cases where a black person goes along with the wishes of his white superiors primarily because they are white. Clearly this is not a phrase black people find amusing in the slightest.
To summarise, we ultimately need to be more conscious of the impact of our words as they have huge consequences. If someone tells you that a remark you made was harmful, be open to learning better ways to communicate your thoughts. Most black people aren’t asking you to accept blame; we are asking that you see how our disadvantage as a people has, on a twisted level, been the advantage another race has unfairly earned. We are asking you to show up with your actions, and you can start off by understanding why these words are offensive to us.
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Cover image by Joe Yates.