These 5 Insulting Terms Could Make You Sound Racist

News & Politics

The following terms belong to a different era and have no place in our modern climate of heightened awareness, inclusion and empathy. Be cool, be aware, and consider not using these terms. 

1. 'Ethnic food'

I get it: when you were growing up, this was an acceptable term that applied to everything from Cantonese Chinese to what you probably thought was Mexican (in reality, your nachos and quesadillas are actually Tex-Mex). Non-ethnic food meant good ol' classic American food, like Italian, burgers and fries, perhaps even your Eastern European-inspired pastrami on rye. Never mind the fact that Italian, Mexican, German, and Chinese cultures are all ethnicities. And never mind that most of those “classic” American foods were actually borrowed from waves of new immigrant groups and simmered slowly into the big melting pot of American culture. What are you actually talking about when you ask your friends of family if they want to get “ethnic food” tonight for dinner? Indian? Thai? Turkish? Just say that, please.

2. 'Bad neighborhood'

To be totally honest with you, I only learned how offensive this term is a few years ago, and used it myself up until then. It was tossed around casually when I was growing up, particularly by the parents of friends who encouraged us to stay away from the “bad” cities that bordered our wealthy suburban town.

What you really mean when you say “bad” is “poor.” And when you imply that poor people are bad, you assume that the people who live in those neighborhoods don’t want to change the things that both you and they know are real problems: things like drug use, gangs, gun violence, litter and boarded-up buildings. It’s victim-blaming, and nothing more.  

3. 'Transvestite'

It’s not an offensive term in itself, but I bet you might be using it incorrectly. Merriam-Webster provides this handy definition: 

Transvestite: a person who wears clothes designed for the opposite sex: a cross-dresser

An older term for crossdresser is transvestite. Crossdressers often dress only in certain situations. They do not usually identify as transgender—most identify as straight men. — Laura Erickson-Schroth

I don’t have much to add to this. If you don’t know any members of the trans community, and you’re innocently trying to open a discussion about Caitlyn Jenner or Chelsea Manning, know that transgender people are born feeling that their gender does not match their sexual anatomy. They may not necessarily undergo surgery to change this (nor is it polite to assume or ask about somebody’s body parts, ever). And the clothes they choose to wear are just one of many forms of self-expression, not a one-note representation of who they are.

4. 'Urban culture'

Let’s put aside the fact that with the rapidly growing populations of our cities, “urban” has lost its prior implied meaning. Our nation’s urban areas are no longer delegated to black and brown peoples, and our suburbs are no longer 1950s-era white havens. Generally used in a derogatory sense by baby boomers ignorant of the many poverty-inducing factors that lead to inner-city strife, “urban culture” is not usually intended to include any of the magnificent artistic contributions of city-dwelling black or brown folks in an appreciative way. It’s usually used alongside negative stereotypes like sagging pants or loud music blasting from cars.

Lessons to be learned here: 1) stop thinking your culture is the only valid one; and 2) don’t lump all black and brown people into one bucket. There are many different styles of art, music, food, fashion, literature, and ways of life among non-white people.

5. 'Indian'

Do you mean “Native Americans?” Then say that. About 525 years ago, Columbus landed in the Caribbean, and falsely believing he’d made it to India, named the indigenous peoples he came across (and later cheated, stole from and launched a genocide against) after an entirely different people he had never even encountered. It should blow all of our collective minds that anyone would use the word “Indian” when speaking about a person who does not originate from India, the populous country located in South Asia. But we still do. And it’s insulting to actual Indian people as well.

Moreover, not all Native American groups are the same. The Lenni Lenape of New Jersey and Delaware have almost nothing to do with the Navajo of the Southwest. These groups were only lumped into the collective “Native American” because we’ve put them all in a box and forced the term on them, just to distinguish them from ourselves, thus reinforcing the idea of an alien “other.”

The term “Native American” has come under heat from some indigenous groups, who feel the name is another product of colonizing language. There’s a strong possibility that one day in the future, I’ll be horribly embarrassed I ever advocated for the phrase “Native American,” as it will possibly be just as offensive and old-fashioned as using “colored people” in 2017. But if that happens, I’ll recognize that times and terms change. I’ll adapt, because I’m a grownup, and that’s what we do. 

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