What makes racist words racist?

I’ve been pondering this for a while. There seems to be two possible reasons: the speaker means it derogitorally and the listener considers it to be derogitory, whether the speaker meant it that way or not. The primary reason the listener would consider it racist when the speaker didn’t mean it that way was if the word was commonly used that way. So it comes down to what’s important: intended meaning, usual meaning, or both. As a listener, I go strictly by what I think the intended meaning was. I don’t give a rat’s ass if someone calls me a honkey or a cracker as long as I know they meant it lightheartedly. So why do other people care? Some jokes can be carried too far, but a simple slang word? Also, don’t people realize if they’d just get over it and allow it to be used casually, the word would lose its vulgar meaning?

What about when people consider a term denoting a race as rude even when it’s not commonly used as such? For instance, I haven’t met anyone that feels this way, but I’ve heard of oriental people that don’t like to be called such. Instead, they’d rather be called Asians and lumped in with middle-easterners and most Russians. What the hell? I have never heard the term “oriental” be used insultingly. I’m going to be blunt on this one. I think it’s ridiculous. What do you guys think?

I think it’s common courtesy to respect other people’s feelings if they get offended by something you didn’t mean to be offensive with. A simple “Sorry, I didn’t know that word bothered you” is far more sociable than “Too bad you dislike the word, I’m going to keep using it anyway.”

Well I’m not really asking if you should call them it anyway. I just want to know if you think it’s reasonable for them to find it offensive in the first place. I don’t go around throwing racial slurs casually (except to close friends) just because I don’t mean them insultingly. At the same time, I can think it’s foolish to be offended by such.

And I don’t mean that anyone who feels differently from me is a moron. I just have my opinion and wanted to talk about it.

Maybe, but isn’t it rude and ungracious not to take someone’s intent into consideration? If it is clear that no insult was meant to be given, then doesn’t the fault lie with the person who voluntarily takes offense when no offense was meant to be given? A sociable person wouldn’t take offense nearly so easily.

Oh, I never said the offendee was flawless; I’m just saying that to dismiss their objection because you didn’t find it offensive was impolite.

As for whether it’s “reasonable” for the offendee to be offended in the first place, that’s too subjective to address in generalities.

Well you’ve just met one.

This comes up all the time, with people who for whatever reason get very upset about the fact that “Oriental” is no longer a word you use to refer to a group of people.

It’s like the word “Negro”. Do you ever use that? What about “colored”? These, much like “Oriental”, are all words that, at one point or the other, were used, usually without offense. But outside of organizations that were formed back when these terms were acceptable (like the NAACP), you don’t use it anymore huh? Kinda ridiculous huh?

Asian-American is a term that is mostly political. Most Asian-Americans will identify with their own specific ethnic/cultural group (like Chinese, Korean, Japanese…) before they identify as “Asian”. However, in order to gain some political strength in the United States, members from very diverse ethnic groups are united as Asian-American.

Why not use the term “Oriental”? I think one of the reasons is that “Oriental” was used with “exotic” connotations, the feeling that the groups of people it referred to were foreign, strange, and unfamiliar. Honestly, that is exactly what pops in my mind when I hear the word.

Another reason is that “Oriental” was not chosen by the people it refers to. This might seem like a stupid reason to you, but it’s exactly why “black” and “African-American” as well as “Asian-American” came into being- to express our own unique ethnic identities.

So to answer your question, words become offensive, derogatory, racist, whatever based on the historical context in which they are used, regardless of their original intent.

Very rarely. I don’t know why though. I don’t see anything wrong with the word. I believe the anthropological word for the particular race is negroid. Is that offensive because it’s scientific? I don’t even know what to call races anymore. Black is vague. There are people in India that make most “black” Americans look like milk, yet are not of the “black” race. African American is misleading. Not all Africans are very dark skinned. And what about Carribean black people? Maybe they did originate from Africa, but not that I’m aware of. Caucasian is the only word I can think of which accurately describes a race of people.

That one is terribly vague and moronic if you ask me. Colored? We typically think of black as having the least color. I have no problem with this word dying off.

I use the term oriental. Like I said, I’ve never met anyone that minded (except here anyway). On the other hand, there are few people of that race in this area. I’ve never really known any at a personal level.

Well I’d probably identify as an American before I identified as a white boy if I was in another country, but that’s a whole other issue. Anthropologically, I’m closely related to most Europeans. Is my race called European? No. Caucasians have been living outside of Europe for millenia (eg Russia), and there are other races that originate from Europe. On the other hand, I think all “oriental” people originated from Asia or an Asiatic island, but they’re certainly not the only race that originated from Asia. (I put “oriental” in quotes because I know you’re offended by it, but I don’t know any other word to use.)

Is being exotic so bad? I must say I’m most physically attracted to females of your race, perhaps because of the exoticness (especially in East Texas).

Well yeah, they didn’t choose the word. I doubt many of them knew English when the word was created. I seriously doubt caucasians came up with the Chinese word for their race, but it wouldn’t bother me.

I still don’t see how most of the terms have a negative historical context.

Asian American was chosen instead of Oriental? When was that decision made, and by whom? I suppose that means that I can compel the Spanish speaking people to refer to us as whites, instead of by the offensive term “Anglo”? I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

When Cassius Clay changed his name to Ali he did so legally at a Courthouse, and thereby won the right to insist that he be called by his new and correct legal name. Anyone who still called him “Clay” was deliberately insulting him and had the intention of asking for trouble.

But Ali was an individual. The group dynamic is much tougher, and people should be more forgiving and willing to give those fuddy duddies who still use the old-fashioned name some slack. Fashions come in and out of style, after all. I still think we’re all better off not taking offense at names. Names can give offense to be sure, but why pick a fight when about something as silly as a name? Its the intent that matters, not the name.

Are you serious about Anglo carrying a negative connotation? Since when?

I think you’re on to something here. Racial descriptors seem to last about as long as fashions before going out of style and becoming racist. Can someone at least pick a precise name and stick with it?

Not to pick on you, because I hear plenty of people say what you just said, but Black and AA aren’t vague or misleading. Both terms only confuse overly pedantic people, the truly ignorant, and smart-asses who think calling Charlize Theron African-American is appropriate. Any person who really cannot grasp these concepts has a major problem understanding language, or the way people communicate.

Like any words, offensive words carry their denotation and connotation based on perceived meaning. If I say a word, and you percieve it to be insulting, and you go tell your friend, “Hey, that Spatial guy said this word,” your friend will either agree that it’s insulting or not. If enough people agree that the word is insulting, then it is. The precise historical, economic, political, or social cause of that perception is irrelevant, if enough people share that perception, as is the rationality or lack thereof of said perception. All of this can be found in Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action, which sums it all up quite nicely in the statement: “No word ever means the same thing twice.”

Or perhaps some people simply don’t like to butcher the English language by using inaccurate adjectives to describe people when there are more appropriate usages. Using “Asian” to describe any race is totally inaccurate and completely misleading when there are at least three major races with huge populations in Asia, two of which are almost totally confined to that continent. And are you telling me Egyptians aren’t Africans? I think they’ve been there long enough to earn the title.

It’s only inaccurate and misleading to people too stupid to understand language, or accept that it evolves over time. It is clear what people mean when they use the word. Egyptians are Egyptians, they are not usually considered Africans (nor are they African-American when in America). Just as Mexicans are not Americans by the fact that their country is in N. America. The problem with people like you is that you clearly understand how the words are being used, but you feel your arbitrary standards of what language should be, must be respected by others with an appropriate appreciation for common sense and logic. Get over yourself.

As to the question of what makes racist words racist, I think it mostly has to do with the way it’s interpreted by the receiver.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about Blacks insisting on being called African-Americans.

And I’m not out to start a race war, but we recently had a discussion about how would you describe a person in a line up. If he was red headed, call him a red head. If he was extrordinarily tall, call him the tall guy. If he was black, call him black.

Duke of Rat. African-American isn’t an arbitrary term.

I, like others here, call myself an African-American as an accurate ethnic descriptor of my culture, history and national heritage. Of course I’m black, and proud of the fact, but if I’m in a line-up with a Jamaican, a Trini, a Panamanian, an Ethiopia, a Somalian, a Brazilian and Moorish Spaniard, we may all be black, but I would be the only natural-born American black descendant of slaves, i.e., an African-American.

I usually only insist on the term “African-American” as a matter or precision or to honk you off royally, depending on the situation.

And that’s cool. It doesn’t really honk me off, just seems anal.

I’ll bet that there are Blacks, living in the United States of America, that aren’t the descendants of African Slaves. Are they “African Americans”? How are we supposed to know that they are “a Jamaican, a Trini, a Panamanian, an Ethiopia, a Somalian, a Brazilian and Moorish Spaniard”.

Why do we need such descriptors?

I can see where this is going, the same circular “why don’t I have to identify myself as an Irish-German-Nordic-blah blah blah…”. My ancestors are no more of this continent than yours. Or of the “a Jamaican, a Trini, a Panamanian, an Ethiopia, a Somalian, a Brazilian and Moorish Spaniard”.

Yet only "natural-born American black descendant of slaves are worthy of a special description?

That’s fine, if you feel that strongly about it.

I’d be perfectly happy to just call everybody living in the US “Americans” and be done with it. Civil Rights, equality, call everybody the same thing.

I think he actually gave you a pretty decent reason.

That stuff is all junk science, and much of it has very outdated racist connotations. Race in general is bunk, but let’s not go there yet.

Congratulations. You’ve just proven that black can be as misleading as African-American! So why do you want to use it again?

You don’t think all the slaves were brought to America, do you? Yes, they originated in Africa. (Excepting the local tribes like Arawaks, obviously.)

And it doesn’t. People who are from the Caucasus region might all look roughly similar, but Caucasian has turned into a euphemism for white (I guess someone thought, wrongly, that we all descended from ancestors in that area). And white people do not all look alike by any stretch. Spanish and Irish people both go in the book as Caucasian, as do some North Africans.

If you want to get further into details about it, all racial terms are too broad to be really useful, which is one reason I won’t be sorry when people let them die. The OP is correct that Asian-American is not a particularly accurate term because people from India and Afghanistan are just as Asian as people from China, but if you know what the term means, I don’t see that as a major complaint.
And it doesn’t.

It’s bad because it’s reductionist.

Oh, and my vote is that words are not inherently racist. The question is the intent of the communicator. Because there are many words that, in the past, have been used by racists and/or are most often used by racists, many people are lead to assume that if you use those words, the racist views and intent are implied. So the words themselves become offensive. I wish people would confine their offendedness to instances where the bigotry is clear, but unfortunately some groups attack people who happen to use one of the verboten words regardless of the context.

Actually, most blacks here are descendants of West Indian slaves and Brazilian slave traders or whatever, even if they emigrated from elsewhere. They just aren’t descendants of Africans enslaved in North America.

But there is a growing population of blacks from North and East Africa who aren’t descendants of slaves, and that difference in our histories is an important distinction between our cultures.

At a glance, it isn’t always easy: lotta race mixing in Jamaica, Trinidad and Brazil. But slender, short and high cheek-boned East African Ethiopians and Somalians are easily discernable from American blacks, who are overwhelmingly from West African heritage. Gotta talk to 'em, I guess. You’ll know a Jamaican Rasta when you smell him.

Because ethnic terms like African-American are culturally precise, whereas racial terms like “black” are limited to skin color. Most immigrant Trinis, Panamanians, Ethiopians, etc., have pride in their heritage and will be the first ones to tell you they’re just not like blacks reared here over the centuries and it’s a mistake to lump us as all the same “race.”

Or put the way my Nigerian art professor always did: “Black people here are crazy.”

Back to the OP: Some words are weapons. Toss around a hand grenade like “nigger” – or even niggardly – carelessly…? You deserve what you get.