Racist words and substitutes

This is a work in progress; first post December 31 2013, most recent edit Mar 2023

Low man on the totem pole.  This expression misses the point of the imagery and significance of totem poles, which are not constructed on the basis of hierarchy as understood by settler culture.  If you don’t believe you can construct or use a less sexist and insensitive term, perhaps you should just sit quietly over there, and stay off the internet too.  Suggest ‘lowest status’ or ‘probie’ or ‘newbie’.

Cotton pickin‘   Often added as a kind of meaningless rhythmic spice, as in “Are you out of your cotton pickin’ mind?” Try to match the verbal abuse to the crime, without an additional slur on the mental status of person you’re venting at.  If it’s a safety issue, say so. “Safety hazard!” “Try not to panic stop on glare ice.” “I’m glad you survived that… may I post the footage to youtube?”  “You have to take the books out of the bookshelf before you move it.” If your feelings were hurt, say so.  “That was a shabby thing to do / say to me.” “I thought better of you.” “I’ve specifically asked you not to call me Caledonia… I can’t help how big my feet are.”

The phrase, used in conjunction with white people, is tone deaf thoughtless and shames those who suffer mental health issues.  Used in conjunction with the activities of black people, it’s actively racist.  Excise it.

Boy With reference to men descended from the African Diaspora, “young man” will do fine. Otherwise, man is rather all-purpose and generally inoffensive.  Boy is never to be used by white people with respect to black men, except in paedogogical circumstances, with appropriate explanation.

Indian Giver The historical origin of the term is irrelevant, and if you try to explain it after using it, shame on you.  Don’t use under any circumstances.

Jew down  Nope, Nope, Nope.  If you want to bargain, bargain, and do not refer to the sharp practices of others using this nasty phrase.

Gyp, gypping, gypped As of December 31 2013, while the word Gypsy is in a moral grey area (some Roma descendents apply it to themselves, and their heads don’t implode – others, notably my acquaintance Seanan McGuire, will blister you with history), using a derivation of the word Gypsy to refer to thefts and cons is completely unacceptable. Acceptable replacements for the word Gypsy (in the moving around a lot, as opposed to the ethnic cleansing sense the word has come to bear) include strowler, itinerant, vagabond and wanderer.

Indian Time Pretty much anywhere white people settled, they had issues with the time keeping of the indigenous people, who had a culture where time keeping was as precise as it needed to be.  There are many variants of this.  Just, don’t.

Chief Referring to any indigenous person as Chief, unless that really is one of his or her titles, is on a par with referring to a grown black man as ‘boy’ (unless you are that grown black man’s direct ancestor).  Do not say this ill-considered word.

Chug This term for North American indigenous people is a slur to be vigorously excised from one’s own speech and vigorously called out in anyone else’s.

Off the reservation How this expression came to be used almost exclusively in TV shows about law enforcement and covert ops to describe the activities of a maverick (derived from a Welsh name – the Texan Samuel Maverick who refused to brand his cattle) cop or agent is a mystery.  If you hear it, it’s a sign of creative sloth and muddy thinking.  If you hear it coming out of your own mouth, expect criticism.

On the warpath Again, lazy, racist, clichéd speech, unsupported by the reality of indigenous life. Quit that shit.  Out for blood is an acceptable substitute if you’re talking about a harsh contest or feelings of vengeance, alternately “Aggrieved and irritable” covers a lot of situations more accurately and less offensively. Pissed works. Blowing a gasket works.

Putting on, or donning, warpaint An acceptable substitute is ‘getting your game face on’, or ‘girding your loins for battle’ which has the advantage of being a Biblical expression (Peter, Jeremiah, Job) and has a somewhat comical connotation, without the teeth grinding racist subtext.

Powwow. Unless you’re talking about an Indigenous gathering, DO NOT USE. Gathering, meeting, conclave, conference, assembly – use a damn’ thesaurus. Added January 2018

Bury the hatchet. Read up on this, it isn’t a metaphor, and be extremely careful using it. Mend fences or reconcile work better. Added January 2018

Circle wagons IT SHOULD NOT BE A MATTER OF DELIGHT THAT THE NOTORIOUSLY LEFT LEANING GEORGIA STRAIGHT SHOULD in APRIL OF MOTHERFUCKING 2018 use this expression for the headline in an article regarding the Kinder Morgan Ongoing Capitalist Meltdown/outrage/Festival of Cheerfully Illegal Land Theft and if they change that it merely proves my point. hat tip to Dan

Tundra monkey


Ching chong, chink, Chinaman 



Francophone please

Raghead, towelhead, hamburger head, aki

The acceptable word for brown people, mostly Hindu, but also Muslim and Sikh and ‘other’ from the Indian subcontinent is ‘Desi’. It’s literally described in the dictionary as a ‘person of South Asian descent who lives abroad.’

Wog, Worthy Oriental Gentleman


Awaiting further examination…. or

Camel jockey





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