Know Better, Do Better: 10 Common Phrases That Are Racist

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Racist Language You Didn't Know Was Racist
Scary Mommy and Stas Knop/Pexels

The puppet musical Avenue Q tells us that “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes.” Nowhere is that more true than when it comes to racist language. You have no idea what kind of racism you’re spewing, trust me. Neither did I until I did research for this essay, when I realized I had to revamp the way I talk, and stat. Let’s go over some racist language that we’re not using anymore at Scary Mommy— and that you ought to stop using yourself.

Don’t freak out. This is a case of know better, do better. You didn’t know these words and phrases were racist language. Now you do. And when you know better, you do better. So rather than flip out that you may have said something in the past, look forward and decide never to use these these phrases in the future. And make sure you call people on them. There’s an easy way to do that: assume they have literally no clue either. Because hey, you didn’t, did you? “I say that all the time, and the other day, I found out it comes from…! I had no freaking idea! OMG! So now I’m trying not to say it anymore,” might be a good way to start.

Basically: don’t keep this stuff to yourself. Spread the word about racist language.


Many people still use this term to describe people from Alaska, parts of Greenland, and Siberia with a shared culture of reindeer, kayaking, and fishing… you know who they are. But according to NPR, people in the Arctic consider it offensive because it was used by “racist colonizers.” There are several theories about where the word came from, but the preferred term is “Inuit” (plural) or Inuk (singular). So no Eskimo kisses or Eskimo pies, people.


The proper term is “Romani.” According to the National Organization of Woman, they’re Europe’s largest ethnic minority and hail from Northern India. They have a serious history of persecution in Europe (think Holocaust and chattel slavery). The word “gypsy” enforces the idea that the people are “beggars who are dirty and exploiting social welfare” and that their women are “sexualized beings.” It’s also a term imposed on them from the outside, says NPR. And the word “gyp” meaning “steal”? That comes straight from the word “gypsy. So when you use it, you’re perpetrating the idea of the Romani as untrustworthy thieves. Totally racist language.

Eenie-Meenie-Minie-Mo, Catch A…

Tiger by the toe, right? Nope. That used to be “catch a n****r by the toe, reports Vox. Not quite racist language, but definite racist insinuation. Best to avoid it.

Peanut Gallery says it used to be known as “the rearmost and cheapest section of seats in the balcony or the uppermost balcony of a theater.” In the 1880s, the people who sat there usually ate peanuts, and since they were the cheapest seats, were often poor and Black and known to be rowdy. Now it’s “a source of insignificant criticism.” Both classist and racist language!

Syd Wachs/Unsplash


This comes right from a white pronunciation of a Mandinka word, says NPR. But it doesn’t mean, as says “a whole lot of mumbling.” Instead, it named a masked male dancer. So it’s basically white people making light of an African ritual.


… was not a bear. Nope. Instead, says, it’s a racist term for black people based on their hair texture. It was used by British colonial soldiers (never a good sign) and made its way into a Rudyard Kipling poem (another bad sign), according to The Phrase Finder.

Long Time No See

Babbel Magazine says this phrase comes either from British and American sailors speaking pidgin English (or being spoken to) with the Chinese, or encounters with Native Americans. “No can do” has the same roots in racist language.


Yeah, don’t say this. Ever. Because who’s uppity? Black people, that’s who. The word was used by white Southerners to describe Black people who didn’t toe the line of their racist expectations, says Babbel Magazine. Rush Limbaugh once accused Michelle Obama of “uppity-ism,” says The Atlantic in an article titled, “Yep, Uppity is Racist” and it’s hard to hear him calling a white woman that. Totally racist language.

Sold Down the River

This should be self-explanatory, but people still say it. I’ll spell this racist language out very slowly. Who got sold? Slaves got sold. Where were they threatened to be sold when they were especially troublesome? Farther South, where the work was harder, or “down the river,” i.e. the Mississippi. Now we say it to mean that someone was betrayed. But it’s super racist language. Don’t use it.

Spirit Animal

Actual spirit animals are an important part of many cultures, especially Native American cultures, who, as says, “help guide or protect a person on a journey and whose characteristics that person shares or embodies.” Saying something is your “spirit animal,” in other words, does not mean you like or love something desperately, as in, “Avocado toast is my spirit animal. ” That’s racist AF.

Like I said, there’s no need to freak out or to cry out about how ‘you can’t say anything anymore!’ What you need to do is find alternatives for a few common phrases. This is not hard. This is not a lot of work. It’s the literal least you can do.

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