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Understanding the Meaning of Racial Epithet with Examples

Understanding the Meaning of Racial Epithet with Examples

Despite an increased awareness of racism in the past couple of decades, this social evil still persists in some forms all over the world. Racial epithets, or slurs, are one of them, and are explained in this OpinionFront article, with the definition, history, and some examples.
Akshay Chavan
Last Updated: Dec 21, 2017
Did You Know?
The word 'Monday' is considered a racial epithet for African-Americans. It is derived from the phrase 'nobody likes Mondays'.
Science has proven that verbal abuse has a long-term impact on the victim's physical and mental health. When such abuse is associated with racial discrimination, the damage is even greater, as was seen in the days of slavery. With almost 150 years having passed since slavery was abolished, and half a century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, one would think that such racial abuse was a thing of the distant past. Apparently, discrimination based on skin color takes much longer to fade away, especially with the increasing immigration of people of different races. This is the reason why racial epithets have persisted in society.
Disclaimer: This article is solely for informative purposes. OpinionFront strongly condemns all forms of racism.
Definition of Racial Epithet
A racial epithet is a word or phrase that is used to insult a person by referring to his/her race, skin color, or religion, in a negative manner. An epithet is any term that reveals more about a person, place, or thing, by referring to its characteristics. Therefore, terms that refer to the alleged characteristics of a race to describe a person are known as racial epithets. They are commonly known as 'racial slurs'.
Why is it Used?
Racial epithets are used to dehumanize a person of a minority racial group and make them feel inferior to others. These slurs are often created and used by the dominant racial group of society, to remove what they consider as threats to their own privilege and status.
Effects on Victims
Such insults often have profound health and psychological impacts on the person they are directed towards. Many victims suffer from high blood pressure, nightmares, depression, lack of confidence, and low satisfaction levels. Victims are traumatized every time they face an insult. To escape such slurs, victims may have to change their place of residence or employment, which can adversely affect their lives.
History of Racial Epithets
Most racial slurs originated when different societies first encountered each other, either due to military conquest, or migration. In these scenarios, one group always became dominant over the other. So, to maintain their dominant status, and to justify the subjugation of natives or racial minorities, insulting terms began to be used. When European conquerors encountered and defeated American Natives, they often used terms like 'savage Indians' to justify their cruel behavior towards them. One of the oldest racial slurs, the word 'nigger' (Latin niger means 'black') was used by Europeans and Americans as early as the mid-19th century to justify the subjugation of African-Americans.
Types of Racial Epithets
Depending on the terms used, and whom they are directed towards, racial slurs can be of different types. They may refer to the victim's race directly, such as 'Japs' for the Japanese, 'Polacks' for the Polish, and 'Chinks' for the Chinese. Others refer to common stereotypes that denigrate a particular race, such as 'porch monkeys' for African-Americans, and 'towel heads' for people from the Middle East or any Asians who wear turbans. In some cases, insulting terms for one group may be modified to target another, such as 'green niggers' for the early Irish immigrants in the US.
1. For African-Americans
  • nigger
  • thug
  • boy
  • coon

2. For East Asians
  • chinks
  • yellow
  • buddhahead
  • squinty

3. For Native Americans
  • redskins
  • injuns
  • savages
  • indian giver

4. For people from Middle East
  • ragheads
  • camel jockeys
  • sand niggers
  • pakis

Racial epithets are not restricted to informal use alone; they are common in several literary classics, like Othello and To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird contains a liberal use of the word 'nigger', raising demands for it to be banned in US classrooms. On the other hand, Shakespeare's Othello goes even further, by comparing the dark-colored leading character to a 'black ram'.