Whether at home or at work, an accessible way to start the conversation about race and racism is by considering the language we use. One of the most important ways to adopt and promote an anti-racist, inclusive, and equitable philosophy is through understanding the words we use.
There are myriad colloquialisms that have culturally and racially charged origins, and most of us are probably using certain terms without knowing their true meaning. Read on to understand the origins of such language and what you can say instead.
“Long time no see”
What it means: It has been awhile!
Why you should stop using it: It derives from the broken English used by non-native English-speakers. Meant to be funny, this particular phrase mocks the way that Native Americans and Chinese speak English.
Say this instead: “It has been too long!” or “We haven’t spoken in ages!”
“No can do”
What it means: I can’t do it.
Why you should stop using it: Similar to “long time no see,” this is another phrase that pokes fun at the mistakes non-native English-speakers may make. This phrase dates back to the mid-1800s and mocks the way the Chinese spoke English.
Say this instead: “I’m unable to do it.”
What it means: Critics.
Why you should stop using it: It’s a classist phrase that refers to the cheapest, worst seats in a theater. It can also be construed as racist since the cheap seats were the only seats Black Americans were allowed to purchase in the early- to mid-1900s.
Say this instead: “Audience” or “hecklers.”
What it means: Assuming a place above one’s standing in a social hierarchy.
Why you should stop using it: Though it doesn’t have a long racial history, “uppity” has in recent years taken on racial overtones to specifically criticize a Black person who doesn’t know her place in the racial hierarchy.
Say this instead: “Audacious” or “cavalier.”
“Sold down the river”
What it means: Betrayed.
Why you should stop using it: It refers to when American slaves were sold to plantations in the south.
Say this instead: “Let down” or “mislead.”
What it means: Low class or acting poorly.
Why you should stop using it: Physical ghettos were neighborhoods where Jewish people were segregated from the greater population. But “ghetto” also describes deficient manners and behavior, often referring to Black people.
Say this instead: “Uncouth” or “unpolished.”
What it means: To cheat.
Why you should stop using it: It’s a short form for “gypsy.” Because gypsies traveled from place to place selling their wares, disputes arose, resulting in the stereotype that gypsies are cheats and thieves.
Say this instead: “Bamboozle” or “rip off.”
What it means: A spiritual guide or leader.
Why you should stop using it: In the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the word is a sign of respect. Using it casually negates its original value.
Say this instead: “Expert” or “teacher.”
What it means: A gathering.
Why you should stop using it: The word is an example of cultural appropriation since it is actually a Native American ceremony that includes singing, dancing, and food.
Say this instead: “Meeting” or “conference.”
What it means: Not subject to the change in rules.
Why you should stop using it: The “grandfather rule” started after Reconstruction in the U.S. and deprived recently freed slaves of voting rights.
Say this instead: “The old rules apply.”
What it means: To avoid or exclude.
Why you should stop using it: Any language that reinforces the symbolism of white as pure and good, and black as dirty and bad, needs to be re-examined.
Say this instead: “Boycott” or “ostracize.”
Colloquialisms often have hidden histories that can give you greater insight into the complexities of race and racism. Being more mindful about the language you use in everyday life actually empowers you to make changes that are accessible and easy to practice.
If you want to learn more about how to use language in a more culturally- and racially-sensitive manner, visit the Social Justice Phrase Guide.
Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.