The Race Terms You Need To Learn And Use ASAP

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Daughters in discussion with mother at table
Thomas Barwick/Getty

My kids brought home a flyer from school advertising a 1920s-themed auction and dance. As I was reading the details, my oldest tween piped up, “Mom, you shouldn’t go to that.” I asked her why, and she said, “Because that picture is cultural appropriation.” She pointed a clip art image of a flapper girl. I was puzzled and asked her to explain, to which she said, “The feathers.” True to 1920s fashion, the flapper girl had a sequin forehead band accessorized with feathers.

I explained to her that the flapper girl was not, in fact, cultural appropriation—a term we’d recently discussed when watching some Kansas City Chiefs fans don feathered headdresses and face paint while doing a tomahawk chant. Though I expressed to her how proud I was that she was learning about some of the important modern day racial terms that would empower us to have in-depth discussions.

My kids are black, and I’m white. Our unique family makeup has given us the opportunity to discuss race far more than some other families. We can’t go anywhere without getting at least a second glance from someone, if not comments or questions about our adoptive, multiracial family. Sometimes it’s a stranger insisting they are colorblind, after approaching my family because we are black and white. Other times there’s white women interrogating my daughters about their cornrows by asking in a wide-eyed way, “How long did that take? I could never sit still for hours!”

I’m thankful that we now have a vocabulary list rather than just feelings with no words to match them. By having and knowing terminology, we are able to better engage with others when they approach our family. However, it’s not just my family or other families of color who benefit from utilizing race-woke language. The more people—both adults and kids—understand and use these, the better off we all are. After all, not talking about race has gotten us nowhere.

White privilege

Let’s get this out of the way right now. If you are white, you have white privilege. White privilege is “societal advantage that comes with being seen as the norm in America.” Additionally, it’s “a set of unearned assets that a white person in America can count on cashing in each day but to which they remain largely oblivious.”

There are numerous examples of white privilege that I can personally attest to. For example, as a white woman, I can stroll through a store with a reusable bag on my shoulder, filling it. I have never had an employee or security follow me or question if I’m going to pay for the items. However, my black children do not have the same advantage. Their melanin deems them suspicious and dangerous by default.


Let me be very clear. Racial colorblindness isn’t real. (Don’t @ me. I understand it’s a medical condition that some people have.) Colorblindness is the false belief that if one claims they “do not see race” that they are not racist and believe in racial equality.

Not acknowledging my children’s race is rejecting who they are. They cannot separate themselves from their blackness. By claiming that we are all the same, that there is only one race (the human race), and that you don’t care if people are black, white, yellow, orange, or green with purple polka dots doesn’t make you not-racist. It just makes you ignorant, not anti-racist.

The Race Card

This is a doozy. Whenever a person of color calls out racism, there’s always that one white person who will proclaim that they’re using The Race Card. The Race Card is a dismissive claim that the person of color is using their race for personal advantage.

I’ve said this many times to those who have clapped back at me for “pulling the race card” when I’ve called out something racist. This isn’t a game. There is no card. Racism is so ingrained in our culture that oftentimes white people simply cannot understand it. Therefore, they feel their only option is to blame the victim. Here’s the deal: Just because you haven’t personally experienced something, it doesn’t make it untrue.


Microaggressions are “the kind of remarks, questions or actions” made that “have to do with a person’s membership in a group that’s discriminated against and subject to stereotypes.” They are problematic because “they happen casually, frequently, and often […] in everyday life.” To be perfectly clear, a microaggression isn’t a less harmful level of racism.

One microaggression my kids frequently encounter is white, female strangers attempting to touch their hair. These women claim they are just so curious. The reality is that white women, because of the aforementioned white privilege, feel a sense of entitlement to pet a black child. Other examples of microaggressions are frequently messing up the “ethnic” name of a person of color or speaking the assumption that a black person is good at basketball or an Asian person is gifted in math.

White fragility

Talking about racial injustice can be uncomfortable for white people, because the conversation forces them to acknowledge their own privilege and the ways they are complicit. When white people don’t know how to deal with this discomfort, they try to protect themselves by going on the defensive. This can manifest as obvious emotions (anger, fear, and guilt), arguing, silence, or fleeing the situation. The focus of the conversation shifts away from racial injustice, and towards the hurt feelings of the white person.

White people do not like to be called out on their racism since they are so used to having white privilege. One example of white fragility is when a black person expresses angst when another story breaks about a police officer shooting a black person, and a white person’s response is that “all lives matter.” It is more comfortable for the white person to focus on lives in general, because then there is no need to confront the difficult realities of racial profiling and discrimination. Throw in a reference to “black-on-black crime,” and the issue of white people’s responsibility is effectively erased. Rather than listen and empathize, the white person centers their feelings in the situation which only puts the focus back on them.

Cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation

Cultural appropriation occurs when a person essential steals something from one culture and utilizes it for their own benefit. One example is a young, white celebrity posting a picture of her cornrows on Instagram for attention and financial gain for her brand. Cornrows have long been a protective black hairstyle. Another example of cultural appropriation is a child’s parents allowing them to dress up for Halloween as someone else’s culture, such as the time Disney pulled Moana’s character Maui’s costume after they faced backlash.

Cultural appreciation is when a person from one culture chooses to engage, observe, or buy from another culture without personally profiting — financially or otherwise — from it. For example, instead of creating a nature-inspired nursery for their new baby, complete with a department store purchased teepee and dream-catcher, the person chooses to buy art from an Indigenous artist to place in their home.

By taking time to understand what these race terms mean, we can have more productive race conversations in our own homes, our schools, our place of employment, and in our communities. As Maya Angelou eloquently taught us, when we know better, we do better.

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