America's reckoning with systemic racism forces more critical look at everyday words, phrases that have racist connotations

Americans may unwittingly evoke racism when they use phrases like "sold down the river" for exaggeration, a UC Santa Barbara linguistics expert said.

Sunday, April 11, 2021
Understanding commonly used terms about racism, inequality
Learn more about seven terms commonly used when discussing racism and racial injustice like systemic racism, white privilege, institutional racism, microaggression and white fragility.

The words and phrases permeate nearly every aspect of our society.

"Master bedrooms" in our homes. "Blacklists" and "whitelists" in computing. The idiom "sold down the river" in our everyday speech.

Many are so entrenched that Americans don't think twice about using them. But some of these terms are directly rooted in the nation's history with chattel slavery. Others now evoke racist notions about Black people.

"Words like 'slave' and' master' are so folded into our vocabulary and almost unconsciously speak to the history of racial slavery and racism in the US," says Elizabeth Pryor, an associate professor of history at Smith College.

But America's reckoning with systemic racism is now forcing a more critical look at the language we use. And while the offensive nature of many of these words and phrases has long been documented, some institutions are only now beginning to drop them from the lexicon.

Pryor suggests people think about the context certain words can carry and how using them could alienate others.

"Language works best when it brings as many people into communication with each other," she says. "If we know, by using certain language, we're disinviting certain people from that conversation, language isn't doing its job."

Here are some familiar words and phrases you might consider dropping from your vocabulary.

In real estate

Master bedrooms/bathrooms: A master bedroom typically refers to the largest bedroom in the house, often accompanied by a private bathroom.

Nationally, 42% of current property listings on Zillow use the term "master" in reference to a bedroom or a bath.

The phrase "master bedroom" first appeared in the 1926 Sears catalog, according to the real estate blog Trelora. It was a feature of a $4,398 Dutch colonial home, the most expensive in the catalog, referring to a large second floor bedroom with a private bathroom.

"Master bedrooms" were more widely implemented in American homes after World War II, intended to give working parents a private space within their own homes, Trelora notes.

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While it's unclear whether the term is rooted in American slavery on plantations, it evokes that history.

Now, because of its slavery-era connotations, some members of the real estate industry are now calling to retire the term "master."

The Houston Association of Realtors recently announced it would replace "master" with "primary" to describe bedrooms and bathrooms on its listings.

And the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO), a group that includes associations, data companies and multiple listing services, told CNN that it's discussing its standards around the use of the term.

In computer technology

Master/slave: Tech engineers use these terms to describe components of software and hardware in which one process or device controls another.

The terms have been around for decades, and they've long raised concerns.

In 2014, the programming language Drupal replaced "master/slave" terminology with "primary/replica." Django opted to use "leader/follower." Python, one of the most popular programming languages in the world, eliminated the terms in 2018.

And last week Twitter announced it's dropping "master," "slave" and "blacklist" from its code after two engineers lobbied for the use of more inclusive programming language. America's biggest bank, JPMorgan Chase, says it's taking similar steps.

"Words matter," a Twitter engineer said about the move.

Blacklist/whitelist: In tech, a blacklist refers to a directory of specific elements, such as email addresses, IP addresses or URLs, that are blocked. A whitelist, by contrast, is made up of elements that are allowed.

Though the origins of those terms don't appear to be directly connected to race, some argue that they reinforce notions that black=bad and white=good.

Google's Chromium, an open-source browser project, and Android's open-source project have both encouraged developers to use "blocklist" and "allowlist" instead.

And recently, the National Institute of Standards and Technology -- a federal agency that develops technology, metrics and standards for everything from atomic clocks to computer chips -- said it would stop using computer security terms with racist overtones. The agency said it would formally urge other organizations to drop them too.

In sports

The Masters Tournament: It's one of the four major tournaments on the PGA tour and is usually called simply, "the Masters."

The history of the name goes back to 1934, when the tournament was first held at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. Clifford Roberts, one of the co-founders, wanted to call the event the "Masters Tournament," according to the tournament's website. But co-founder Bobby Jones rejected the idea over concerns that it was too "presumptuous."

Roberts finally got his way in 1939. The name appears to have been a reference to golfers with great skills, but its connotations have brought the name under scrutiny.

Deadspin sportswriter Rob Parker recently called on the tournament to change its name.

Parker argues the name evokes slave masters in the US South, especially given the history of the golf course where it's held.

For decades Augusta National Golf Club required that all caddies be black. It also banned black golfers from the Masters Tournament until 1975, when Lee Elder broke its color barrier.

Black members weren't admitted to the club until 1990, and women weren't admitted until 2012.

In the arts

Peanut gallery: The phrase typically refers to the cheapest seats in a theater, and is informally used to describe critics or hecklers.

When someone says "no comments from the peanut gallery," it implies that a certain group of commentators is rowdy or uninformed.

The term dates back to the vaudeville era of the late 19th century and referred to the sections of the theater where Black people typically sat. Jeffrey Barg, who writes a language column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, noted recently that the first documented use of "peanut gallery" appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1867.

The term was cemented in pop culture in the 1940s, when the radio show "Howdy Doody" used it to refer to its live audience of children. That name also carried over to the TV version of "Howdy Doody" in the 1950s.

In law

Grandfathered in: This legal term broadly refers to the "grandfather clause" adopted by seven Southern states during the Reconstruction Era.

Under it, anyone who was able to vote before 1867 was exempt from the literacy tests, property requirements and poll taxes needed for voting. But enslaved Black people were not freed until 1865, when the 13th Amendment passed, and weren't granted the right to vote until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870.

The grandfather clause effectively excluded them from voting -- a practice that continued until the 1960s, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Now, "grandfathered in" means that a person or company are exempt from following new laws, but "grandfather clause" in its original context disenfranchised Black Americans for decades.

In everyday speech

Cakewalk: It's what we call an easy victory, or something that's easily accomplished.

The cakewalk originated as a dance performed by enslaved Black people on plantations before the Civil War. It was intended to be a mockery of the way White people danced, though plantation owners often interpreted slaves' movements as unskillful attempts to be like them.

Owners held contests in which enslaved people competed for a cake. Later, the dance -- and the idiom -- was popularized through minstrel shows, characterized by a "a high-leg prance with a backward tilt of the head, shoulders and upper torso."

Lynch mob: The racist roots of the phrase are hidden in plain sight. Though it's evolved into an umbrella term for an "unjust attack," lynch mobs originated as hordes of people, most always White, who'd torture and kill Black people -- often by hanging them -- as a form of vigilante justice.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Black Americans could be lynched for speaking to a White person or being perceived as insubordinate. White Americans have since co-opted the term to characterize what they feel is undue punishment.

President Donald Trump last October called his impeachment inquiry a "lynching," an interpretation of the word that doesn't fit the description from the Equal Justice Initiative, a group which fights racism in the criminal justice system. In the organization's report, "Lynching in America," lynchings are defined as hangings that inflict terror and are usually racially motivated.

Uppity: It's an epithet used by White people in the Jim Crow era to describe Black people they believed weren't showing them enough deference.

It's far more malevolent than a synonym for "arrogant," though. Per PBS' long-running "American Experience" series, many Black men and women were lynched by White mobs for seeming too "uppity."

"It was and remains an insulting way to describe a Black person because it suggests that they are 'too big for their britches' or are demonstrating a sense of dignity or autonomy they are not supposed to possess," said Krystal Smalls, an assistant professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The insult was frequently lodged at President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama throughout the 44th president's two terms, usually by conservative opponents who claimed they were unaware of the word's racist origins. And American and British journalists have used the term to describe Meghan Markle, who is biracial, after she became the Duchess of Sussex.

Blackball, black mark: The terms both imply wrongdoing. If you bear a black mark, you've done something that people hold against you. If you've been blackballed, you've been banned from joining an organization because of something you've done.

The phrases didn't originate in times of slavery, but the use of "black" to describe things that are wrong is subconsciously racialized, according to Douglas Longshore, a UCLA researcher who published a study in 1979 on color connotations and race.

"Black has connoted evil and disgrace, while white has connoted decency and purity," Longshore wrote then. Those colors and their connotations, he added, "may well reinforce social norms pertaining to those groups" of people.

Sold down the river: While this phrase now refers to a devastating betrayal, its history is more fraught.

In the 1800s, Black slaves were literally sold down the river. Slave traders traveled along the Mississippi River, selling enslaved people to plantation owners further south. There awaited inhumane conditions and brutal labor that often ended in death.

"Thus to be 'sold down the river' was to commence a life of crushing circumstances," according to the Mississippi Encyclopedia, a project from the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

Americans may unwittingly evoke racism when they use phrases like this for exaggeration, said Jamaal Muwwakkil, a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"It takes away the weight of the reality of chattel slavery," he said. "You can, through hyperbole, water down the association of (that word) to slavery."

But the association remains. And in 2020, people are seeing these words in a new light.