Mind your metaphors, idioms, and phrases (race edition)

As a communication person (both my B.S. and M.A. are in communication), I am fascinated by language. I’m sure that I’m not alone that when I find myself muttering a saying that I likely picked up from my mom like, “Jeez oh Pete,” I wonder to myself, “was Pete a real person? Why did we start invoking his name in surprise? Or, was it just a name that seemed to flow after ‘Jeez oh?'” I also note the creation stories of some idioms, like when I hear my children refer to something being “sus” (short for suspect), and in the next moment, call me a “sussy baka.”

At any rate, my point is, we use sayings, metaphors, and idioms on the regular, oftentimes thoughtlessly. And that thoughtlessness is how we end up using phrases with a checkered or all-out racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ, and/or ableist history. Thus, in this blog, I highlight some everyday sayings with racist implications that we should work to eliminate from our vocabulary.

Anti-Black Idioms

Anti-Black idioms often stem from language used or developed during the U.S. enslavement of Africans, the Jim Crow era, as well as in relation to mass incarceration and the criminalization of Black people. Ian Haney Lopez penned a book, Dog Whistle Politics, that focuses on particularly politically developed anti-Black sayings and metaphors to drum up support among white people, drawing on white fear and racism.

Below are a couple of examples of anti-Black phrases:

  • Cakewalk: Cakewalks were a dance developed by enslaved Africans as a way to mock slave owners’ partner-style dancing, but was later picked up in minstrelsy and black-face as a racist mockery of Black people.
  • Slaving away: Many people use the words or phrases that draw on the word slave or invoke slavery as a metaphor. Enslavement of Africans was a horrendously violent institution, the ramifications of which are still devastating to Black people today. Using the word “slave” metaphorically is dismissive of this history and these impacts.
  • Thug: This is a highly racialized term, often used to cast Black people, particularly in the media, as violent and as criminals.

Anti-Indigenous Idioms

In the past several years, we have seen sports teams shift away from using caricatures as mascots or racist slurs referring to Native Americans. But we continue to hear language that is offensive to Indigenous people, oftentimes not noticed by the non-Indigenous user. These anti-Indigenous phrases often erase Indigenous people and tribes or they turn Indigenous people, customs, and other sacred items into a caricature or a mockery.

Here are some examples of anti-Indigenous phrases:

  • Native: In Colorado, we see stickers of our license plates with the term “native” on them. And, we hear non-Native people referring to themselves as natives of a state, or referring to “native English speakers.” The trouble with this is that by claiming to be “native” as non-Native people, we are further erasing people who are actually Native American and Indigenous to this land.
  • Spirit animal: Some non-Indigenous people use the phrase “spirit animal” to describe something (animal or otherwise) that they relate to. This practice both renders Indigenous people invisible in how it erases this tradition, but also makes a mockery of this same tradition, casting it as superficial.

Anti-Asian Idioms

In the U.S., many of the Anti-Asian idioms and sayings were developed in the wake of our anti-Asian history, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans. Some anti-Asian sayings revolve around the emasculation of Asian American men as white men sought to exclude them from the workforce and forced Asian-American men into “women’s work” like laundry services. Other anti-Asian language derives from the stereotype of casting Asian American people as “forever foreigner,” where they are excluded from participation as full members of white U.S. society.

  • Long time, no see: This phrase was developed as a mimicking of some Asian Americans’ speech and served to reinforce the “forever foreigner” stereotype.
  • Yellow: Although it’s unclear where this term originated, this reference to someone being afraid or a wimp is connected to other racist phrases like “the yellow peril.” It also returns to the historical and stereotyped emasculation of Asian American men.

I’m the first to admit that it is hard to remove some of these phrases from our everyday parlance, but it’s certainly worth the effort when we realize how these can impact people. I also encourage you to learn the history of phrases you use. For instance, I looked up the meaning of “sussy baka,” and baka is a Japanese word for “not smart.” I’ll let my kids keep calling me a sussy baka for now.