4 Words and Phrases You Say That Surprisingly Have Anti-Black Racist Origins

What’s in a word? Well, sometimes, way more than you think.

While growing up as a 90s kid in Mississippi, I remember when someone non-Black referring to me as Black was a little awkward, maybe even slightly offensive. African-American was deemed the more appropriate racial descriptor at the time in the South. Today, especially during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Black is not only appropriate, but it’s preferred by many whom the term is used to identify. As a major part of culture, language evolves—as dramatically as the people speaking and writing in it. Cultural sensitivity has shifted, too. Still, many people use old sayings, even those likely tied to the lifestyles of white slaveholders and segregationists generations back.

Here are four words and phrases you should know more about, because their origins are very, in fact, racist.

 

Call a spade a spade

This is a common figurative expression you may use when being open and truthful about something negative or unpleasant. Have you ever stopped to think exactly what the “spade” is in this phrase? As a phrase passed down with replacement words, it’s worth noting that it originated with a word other than “spade” and has likely meant something vulgar and racially offensive.

What to say instead:

  • “Tell it like it is!”
  • “Be direct and honest.”
  • “Refer to it as you see it.”
  • “Be blunt.”
  • “Be frank.”

Uppity

When someone thinks they’re “better” than others, you may refer to them as uppity. Well, have you stopped to think why this word has even come about? Merriam-Webster defines the word as “aspiring to a rank or position higher than one deserves or is entitled to.” As a result, when you refer to a Black person as uppity, you are implying they are not worthy of such entitlement. If you’re in America, you live in a place literally built on systemic racism, and during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, Black people were lynched for trying to better themselves and their communities—registering to vote, protesting, starting businesses, and being “too” successful. These Black people were perceived by whites as a threat by not being willing to “stay in their place.” When you use the word, you are endorsing the same idea that “white is a higher standard.” Don’t be another Rush Limbaugh, the conservative critic who used a form of the word to describe Michelle Obama in 2008.

What to do instead:

  • Before criticizing a Black person for “being uppity,” pay attention to how exactly you’re comparing them—on a Black-white social spectrum?
  • Be more open and accepting to different types of Black people. Being Black is not a monolithic thing. We come in a multitude of forms.

Master bedroom and bathroom

This one is likely a no-brainer. Have you reviewed home floor plans or real estate listings lately? Well, you may have noticed that the largest bedroom and bathroom with the most amenities were referred to as the master bedroom and master bathroom. While this may have been appropriate before the Civil War on Southern plantations where master-slave relationships existed, it does not quite fit the bill in the twenty-first century. Slavery has been abolished. There is no master.

What to say instead:

  • Primary bedroom and primary bathroom
  • Bedroom #1 and bathroom #1
  • Main bedroom and main bathroom
  • Owner’s bedroom or suite/owner’s bathroom

Blacklist/blackball

We all know that, for centuries, things of the achromatic color black have been associated with something negative—typically darkness, evil, aloofness, or depression. Words like blacklist and blackball emphasize the color black as something unfavorable. Since a race of people are also referred to as Black, this meaning could transfer over to them, too, especially with words that have an opposite “white counterpart.” (Think blacklist and whitelist used in tech roles for cybersecurity in which specific words, user credentials, or other elements are banned access.)

What to say instead:

  • For blacklist: denylist and blocklist (for whitelist: allowlist or passlist)
  • For blackball: reject, exclude, or shut out

 

Now that you are aware of the origins of these words and phrases, pay close attention to your conversations with others. Are you using these words? Are people around you using them? It may be time to check yourself and others. Let’s correct racism in all facets imaginable. And while you’re at it, consider an alternative for asking someone the idiomatic question, “Cat got your tongue?”