Racial and Ethnic Slurs

A racial or ethnic slur is a remark or statement designed to defame, vilify, belittle, and insult members of a racial or ethnic group, usually by those who are not members of that racial or ethnic group (Rodale 1986: 1125). Examples of racial and ethnic slurs include expressions such as ”miserly jew,” “gook,” “jap,” ”red savage,” ”mongrel,” ”half breed,” ”sambo,” ”spook,” ”nigger,” ”coon,” and ”kike.”

Racial and ethnic slurs reflect the attitudes and beliefs of individuals and groups, on both conscious and unconscious levels, to make another group, generally a group with less power, the target of the slurs. For this reason, there is for both the user and the target of the slurs a variety of psychological, emotional, and behavioral actions and counteractions. The choice of words used, and the force with which they are used, mirror the degree of animosity the users of the slurs will have toward the groups that are the targets of the slurs. Such slurs traditionally have meanings in the ideological underpinnings that buttress such slurs, for behind the use of slurs one would find beliefs in the biological, cultural, and moral inferiority of the victims of the slurs. Consequently, slurs are used to ascribe attributes of moral weakness, intellectual and academic weakness, and physical and behavioral peculiarities to members of the racial or ethnic group.

Historically, racial  slurs used by white Americans toward black Americans depict black Americans as emotionally and intellectually immature, morally degenerate, and not being fully human. This can be seen in arguments used in the defense of slavery and segregation after the Civil War. Slurs against blacks were used in the sermons of white ministers, the speeches of politicians, and the writings of academicians to describe blacks in a very negative manner so as to justify the status quo. For example, the following slur appeared in the Baptist Courier of June 22,1899: ”The native African is a born liar and thief” (Owens 1971: 79). Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, a white supremacist and lay minister, was outspoken as a public official in his use of slurs to express his strong concern for maintaining segregation and ”the purity of white blood.” The intensity of his resentment of black Americans was demonstrated by the slur used in the title of his book, Separation or Mongrelization (1947).

From the perspective of symbolic interaction, the slur words provide qualitative data for examining the direct and indirect semantic differentials and far ranging implications in the use of the slur. Each slur word generates a dichotomy of mutually exclusive characteristics for blacks and whites, with an implied logic and a possible course of action for the user of the slur as well as for those who are the targets of the slur. The slur, therefore, functions as a tool for the formulation of ideas, emotions, and actions toward those to whom the slur is applied. From this perspective, slurs provide an outlet for expressing emotions with the potential of serving as a rallying call to action. When the slur is used to describe an individual or group in strong negative terms, giving expression to feelings of hatred, then the slur symbolizes and arouses negative images, feelings, and emotions which the user assigns to the racial or ethnic back ground of those involved. When these negative qualities are intensely and saliently impressed upon the mind of the user, they become deeply internalized in the user’s conduct and personality. The intense saliency of these features and the descriptive characteristic of the slur determine the nature and extent of interaction of the slur user with members of the targeted racial or ethnic group. The affective content of racial and ethnic slurs for the user include verbalized ideas, beliefs, and emotions. This constitutes part of the social psychological process which allows the user to maintain a coherent and meaningful view of the self and others in the context of the user’s belief system, ideological perspective, and self interest. In this sense, slurs demonstrate the power of words.

Racial slurs, as verbalized expressions of racist beliefs, result in the user constructing a circular logic in which social relations and inter actions of blacks and whites are perceived only from a racist perspective of black inferiority and white superiority. By addressing and interpreting reality through slurs, social relations and group interaction are consequently limited and restricted to a linguistic framework that serves the vested interests of the user, which may be direct and/or indirect in its psychological, monetary, or other advantages for the user.

From the social conflict perspective, racial and ethnic slurs can be seen as mechanisms for expressing aggression toward an out group through slandering, labeling, stigmatizing, and verbally ”cutting to pieces” those of the ethnic and racial out group. In this manner, the slur serves as an instrument or process for releasing aggressive hostility in in group/out group conflict situations. Such hostility is expressed in the use of slurs in anti racial and anti ethnic jokes (Middleton & Moland 1959: 61). The frequent use of racial and ethnic slurs in the rhetoric of institutional leaders and other members of the in group creates in their minds and in the minds of listeners an almost permanent fixation of negative images of those in the racial or ethnic out group. The stigma and label assigned to the out group precede and dominate any contact or relationship in group members have with those of the racial or ethnic out group. This brings into play the social control function of slurs for in group members. For example, white in group members are aware of the slur ”nigger lover” and the ridicule and rejection that one would experience if seen in frequent association with black Americans. In this manner, the slur serves a social control function by exerting strong pressure for conformity with conventional racial norms while promoting in group solidarity. Finally, an important function of slurs for members of the racial or ethnic in group (the users) is that of creating and reinforcing a sense of solidarity and intimacy within the group. It also provides the individual using the slur a sense of social approval and bonding with in group members.


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