The American lexicon is filled with slang, but some colloquialisms are best avoided by anyone with a modicum of racial sensitivity. Not only are they frowned upon, they're also considered racially offensive. Take, for example, the expression "honest injun." In January 2010, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele used the colloquialism to assure voters that his party did not need a makeover to be more relevant in contemporary America. After Steele's remarks, however, the American Indian community reproached him for using a term that's functioned to denigrate Native peoples for decades. Unfortunately, "honest injun" isn't the only term in popular use with dubious origins. Racist terms have been included in the American vocabulary for so long that many who use them are clueless about their offensive origins. If you'd rather your foot not end up in your mouth, find out what the offending expressions are and why to avoid them.
Count 'em. In recent memory not one, not two, but three people in the public eye have been chided for using the term cotton pickin.' They are journalists Rick Sanchez, Julia Reed and Lou Dobbs. Whether this term is racist is up for debate in some circles. Defenders of the term argue that it's the equivalent of using a swear word such as "damn." But critics of the word say it's racist because it harkens back to the time when black slaves picked cotton. According to Urban Dictionary, the term "cotton picker" is indeed a racist slur used "to represent a black person, or person of African heritage."
So did Sanchez, Reed and Dobbs intend to be racist when they used the term? They deny any malicious intent, but it shouldn't be overlooked that each of these news people used the term in reference to African Americans. Both Sanchez and Reed used the term when discussing President Barack Obama, and Dobbs used the term while discussing a speech former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made about race in America. Given this, if you're fond of the term "cotton picking" and don't want to be accused of being a racist, refrain from uttering it when black people are the topic at hand.
In most situations, the word "boy" is not a problem. Used to describe an African American man, however, the word is troublesome. That's because whites routinely described black men as boys to suggest that they were not on equal footing with them. Both during and after slavery, African Americans weren't viewed as full-fledged people but as mentally, physically and spiritually inferior beings to whites. Calling black men "boys" was one way to express the racist ideologies of yesteryear.
Despite its widespread use as a racial putdown, the U.S. Court of Appeals recently decided that "boy" cannot be considered a racial slur unless it's prefaced with a racial marker such as "black." This decision has sparked controversy, considering that whites typically didn't call African American "black boys" during Jim Crow, but simply "boys." But the good news, according to Prerna Lal of Change.org, is that the U.S. Supreme Court "ruled on an appeal for the same case that the use of the word 'boy' on its own is not enough evidence of racial animus, but that the word is also not benign." That means the court is willing to consider the context in which "boy" is used to determine if it's being uttered as a racial epithet.
When singer Jessica Simpson used the term "Indian giver" to deny that she planned to take back the boat she'd given her ex-boyfriend, she ignited a firestorm. That's because the term refers to someone who gives gifts only to demand them back later and is largely considered an indictment of the character of Native Americans.
"Most people flippantly use the comment 'Indian giver' without realizing its true meaning," Jacqueline L. Pata of the National Congress of American Indians told Us magazine. She also called the term "culturally insensitive to Native people."