Racial slurs, often called racial epithets, are words or phrases that refer to members of racial and ethnic groups in a derogatory manner. Slurs and all other forms of racial defamation dehumanize targeted groups and justify racial oppression by suggesting that targeted populations are unworthy of equality (Clark 1995, p. 6). Racial slurs take myriad forms and are often adapted by users to fit a variety of contexts. They may mention a racial category explicitly (e.g., Japs for Japanese people, Chinks for Chinese people, and spics for Hispanics) or indirectly allude to the targeted racial group by referencing common derogatory stereotypes (e.g., porch monkeys and spearchuckers for African Americans). Other racial slurs refer to historical encounters (e.g., redskins for Native Americans). In some cases, racial epithets targeting one group are derived from slurs targeting a different group (e.g., sand niggers for Middle Eastern people). Other examples of racial slurs commonly used in the United States include nigger, wetback, coolie, kike, and dago.
Racial slurs are usually created and used primarily by the dominant racial group in society. A variety of sociopolitical circumstances govern the creation and duration of racial slurs. Initial contact between racial groups in the form of militaristic exploration (colonialism) or migration frequently leads to racial conflict. This, in turn, often generates racial imaging and racial slurs, when one racial group considers itself distinct from and better than another. During conquests, European conquistadors and colonists invented numerous racial slurs (for example, Indian savages ) to denigrate and rationalize the oppression of Native Americans. Subsequent generations of European Americans coined other slurs to disparage and rationalize the subordination of African Americans and various populations of immigrants of color.
After their creation during initial contact, racial slurs persist in two contexts, which Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin (2007) have termed the social frontstage and backstage. Frontstage refers to multiracial environments where racist acts are performed. These environments range from relatively private gatherings to major public events. Members of dominant groups use racial slurs in public spaces to intimidate members of other groups and to prevent challenges to the dominant group’s status and privileges. Racial slurs are extremely common when the economic and political privileges of dominant groups are threatened by resistance from oppressed groups. In 1994 six African American employees were embattled in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Texaco company. Threatened by their act of resistance, some angry Texaco executives were tape-recorded referring to the employees as “black jellybeans.”
Explicit public uses of racial slurs range from their appearance on signs during white supremacist demonstrations to their use by whites during lynchings and other incidents of racial violence. In the absence of a sufficiently powerful formal or informal social structure, dominant groups may use racial slurs as the primary colloquial term for discussing racial others. In contemporary times, some have resorted to referring to African Americans with derogatory “coded” racial slurs. In 2006 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against a medical clinic that was referring to a black employee as a “reggin,” the N-word spelled backwards. There has been a rise in the use of “coded” racial slurs such as “boy,” “drug dealer,” “you people,” and “thug.” These coded racial slurs carry a contemporary message of hate.
Despite the attention such public usage receives, racial slurs are now most commonly used backstage, in settings where only members of the dominant racial group are present. In this environment, slurs insult the relevant racial others and build solidarity among those present. Formal and informal sanctions against the public use of racial slurs have created a climate of political correctness in which most people refrain from the use of terms and symbols that may be viewed by other populations as offensive. Ever since the moral climate of the civil rights movement there have been changes in the United States that have curbed the public use of racist epithets; however, in private, members of the dominant racial group may continue to use them with impunity.
Because race is a social construction and not a biological reality, over time a minority group may be redefined as part of the dominant racial group. As this process occurs, these redefined groups are less often the targets of racial slurs. For example, in the United States, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans originally classified Irish Catholic immigrants as nonwhite and racially inferior. During the mid-nineteenth century, established European Americans targeted the Irish with racialized slurs, such as paddy and mick. As generations of Irish Catholic families assimilated to the Anglo-Saxon core culture, the established white groups were unable to distinguish Irish people from other European Americans, and the use of anti-Irish slurs decreased. The use of slurs against racial groups who cannot pass as white does not decline as sharply, regardless of their degree of cultural assimilation.
Arguably, no racial slur has been as prominent and damaging as nigger, which remains a potent epithet used against people of African descent. Use of nigger is so hurtful to African Americans that most people publicly reference it as “the N-word.” Possibly derived from niger, the Latin word meaning black, nigger has been decidedly derogatory since the eighteenth century. The term has primarily been used by white Americans to derogate blacks as unworthy of equality due to their alleged intellectual, moral, and cultural inferiority. Although generations of white Americans used nigger as their primary term for referring to African Americans, whites would often use the slur during explicitly violent racist actions, such as lynchings, adding an implicit threat of violence to any use of the word. Despite contemporary use in popular media, sometimes by black musicians attempting to defang its potency, nigger retains its power to insult, intimidate, and threaten African Americans.
In the United States, many citizens have looked to the political and judicial systems for relief from hateful terms. In a landmark case, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “‘fighting’ words—those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” are not protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court ruled that restricting fighting words is permissible because hate speech is not valuable for contributing to greater understandings and because the state has a legitimate interest in limiting disruptions of the peace. Under Chaplinsky, state laws proscribing the public use of racial slurs were deemed constitutional. Since Chaplinsky, however, the Court has limited the scope of the doctrine to incidents in which provocative words are “directed at the person of the hearer” and there is an immediate threat of retaliatory violence (UWM Post, Incorporated v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 1991). In so doing, the court has largely disregarded the first half of the fighting words doctrine, which recognized the injury that racial slurs and other hate speech inflict on hearers.
The Supreme Court has generally struck down laws limiting free speech on the grounds that they are either “overbroad,” meaning they restrict speech beyond that which falls under the fighting words doctrine, or are attempts to regulate ideas and content. Speaking to attempts to regulate content, in R.A.V. v. St Paul, Minnesota (1992), the Supreme Court declared that the purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent the majority from expressing its preferences by silencing the minority. Consequently, the high court provided protection for racially hostile speech in public spaces by deeming unconstitutional laws precluding speech simply because that speech is racially hostile.
Academics and legal scholars have responded to the courts by emphasizing the right of individuals to move in public spaces without the fear of racial hostility. These scholars take seriously the harmful effects that racial slurs and closely related actions have on their targets. Many victims of hostile and intense racial slurs suffer physiological and psychological injuries, including high blood pressure, breathing difficulty, nightmares, and thoughts of suicide (McKinney and Feagin 2003; Matsuda 1995). To avoid subjection to recurring racist slurs, people of color often must leave their homes or jobs, which limits their socioeconomic opportunities. Scholars also criticize the Court’s insistence on limiting only words directed at individuals. Because racial slurs dehumanize members of the targeted group, they lay the groundwork for both individual and state-sponsored violence against that group (Fergenson 1995). To take a major example, the German Nazis’ hostile slurs against Jews as vermin and parasites were directly connected to the “final solution” that Jews must be “exterminated.”
Prompted by the effects of German Nazi propaganda during World War II (1939–1945), international efforts to regulate hate speech have given far more consideration than have U.S. policymakers to the rights of the targets of such speech. Consequently, the international community has outlawed most racist hate speech (Matsuda 1995, pp. 92, 96). Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) declares illegal all propaganda based on ideas of the superiority of one race over another or that promote racial hatred and discrimination. Other human rights treaties, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950) and the Inter-American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, (1948) protect people against recurring racist slurs and other hate speech. Similarly, many national governments have outlawed racist speech.
SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Colonialism; Feagin, Joseph; Harassment; Humiliation; Immigration; Nativism; Obscenity; Other, The; Political Correctness; Race Relations; Racism; Supreme Court, U.S.
Clark, Kenneth. 1995. Group Defamation and the Oppression of Black Americans. In Group Defamation and Freedom of Speech: The Relationship between Language and Violence, eds. Monroe H. Freedman and Eric M. Freedman, 3–8. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Fergenson, Laraine R. 1995. Group Defamation: From Language to Thought to Action. In Group Defamation and Freedom of Speech: The Relationship between Language and Violence, eds. Monroe H. Freedman and Eric M. Freedman, 71–86. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Matsuda, Mari J. 1995. Outsider Jurisprudence: Toward a Victim’s Analysis of Racial Hate Messages. In Group Defamation and Freedom of Speech: The Relationship between Language and Violence, eds. Monroe H. Freedman and Eric M. Freedman, 87–120. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
McKinney, Karyn D., and Joe R. Feagin. 2003. The Many Costs of Racism. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
Picca, Leslie, and Joe R. Feagin. 2007. Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage. New York: Routledge.
Joe R. Feagin
Glenn E. Bracey II