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Why 'white' isn't a racist slur



Language operates and affects people in profoundly different ways, bestowing power upon minorities through their reclamation of words that were otherwise used to demean them, or deployed effectively to typecast and dehumanise.

Scene from Dear White PeopleI hung out with a group of Indian-Australians while I was a first-year university student who called themselves 'curries', but the unspoken camaraderie and deep sense of pride that ensued from this self-identification stood in stark contrast to that time I was called a 'fucking curry' by a passing car full of white people.

It is commonly understood why Indian-Australians are able to call themselves 'curries', while white people and, to a certain extent, other minorities are not — the desire to subvert the narrative and a shared understanding of the nuanced ways in which one can be an Indian-Australian allows this cultural group to reclaim the word without further entrenching negative stereotypes.

Yet you often hear from white people, even the seemingly progressive ones, that they can't be called 'white' because that too is racist language. This reflects a flawed assumption that societal structures advantage and disadvantage people in the exact same way, and that we operate on a level playing field.

To be white is to not face the same tangible repercussions that come with being a person of colour in Australia. White people aren't asked 'what's the deal with white people?' and 'are they all the same?' by one of Australia's most renowned breakfast radio hosts. White celebrities aren't told to 'leave the country' or called 'un-Australian' when they dare question the hypocrisy of certain national celebrations.

White people have never had their skin colour co-opted in the spirit of a Halloween costume, harking back to a deeply corrosive history of whiteface minstrelsy, and had their ensuing outrage demonised as 'batshit crazy' by a multimillion dollar media mogul.

White people don't suffer material disadvantages by virtue of being white, which extend to resume-based discrimination in the labour market, prejudice in the criminal justice system, education apartheid, disproportionately high incarceration rates and lower life expectancies.

Of course, whiteness often intersects with womanhood, lower socioeconomic status, queerness and disability, so it would be a misnomer to paint the realities of all white people with a broad brushstroke. But the identifier 'white', in and of itself, can't be considered derogatory within a framework that serves to protect and further the interests of white people at its every juncture.


"Racism doesn't occur when one person says something offensive or mean to another person. Racism occurs when there is privilege and power."


As American feminist Peggy McIntosh adroitly summarises in her 1989 piece 'White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack', being white means many things, but none of them are bad. It means seemingly inconsequential things like being able to find a 'skin-colour' band-aid in a way that legitimises your primacy in the world, to more fundamental privileges like being able to turn on your TV or open to the front page of the paper and see your race widely represented and never being asked to speak for all the people of your racial group. It means remaining oblivious to the language and customs of people of colour, who constitute the world's majority, without feeling any penalty for such oblivion because the irreversible effects of colonialism continue to play out through structures that actively exclude minorities. Historical context matters.

Moreover, racism doesn't occur when one person says something offensive or mean to another person. Racism occurs when there is privilege and power. McIntosh writes about how she'd been taught to decode racism in the context of the individual, instead of the societal structures that are reinforced and consolidated by virtue of its transgression. 'I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognise racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.'

In episode five of Netflix original comedy-drama series Dear White People (see main image), a fight breaks out between African American character Reggie and a white student after the latter sings along to every word in Future's Trap Niggas, including the n-word.

Reggie: It felt kind of weird to hear you say it. I mean, how would you feel if I started rapping to songs, you know, that say 'honky' and 'cracker'?
White student: I wouldn't care at all.
Reggie: Exactly, that's the difference. The fact that you don't care and that I do.

The words 'honky' and 'cracker' and to a lesser extent 'white' will only become racist words when they sit within a system that disadvantages white people based on their race. And when has that ever happened?


Sonia NairSonia Nair is a freelance writer and critic who has been published in The Big Issue, the Australian Book Review and Books&Publishing. She tweets @son_nair and blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at www.whateverfloatsyourbloat.com.

Topic tags: Sonia Nair, racism



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Existing comments

"White" isn't a slur. Really? Depends who says it and in what circumstances. I studied in the US for a year, and I went with an Afro American friend to visit some of his long-time buddies. The conversation drifted to talk about "whitey" and "honkey", and was very angry and hurt about the effect such people had on their lives and their possible futures. I was the only Anglo person in the room, so I pointed to my skin, and said, "I'm white, you know". "No, you're not", I was told. "You're Australian". Their perception of "white" had nothing to do with skin colour, and everything to do with the subjective experience of "the other" in their own country. So the so-called racist slurs are dependent for meaning on the context in which they are uttered. Deternining intent when such words are uttered seems to be both important and tricky.

Hester Child | 14 July 2017  

I remember, when the great Morgan Freeman was once interviewed on TV and asked, most respectfully, his opinions as a Black American, he objected to the epithet and wanted to be 'just an American'. Morgan still lives in Mississippi where he is a role model for everyone. It is interesting that Ireland now has a gay Prime Minister whose father was Indian and mother Irish. Leo Varadkar also objects to stereotyping. Closer to home, the distinguished former Governor of Victoria, David de Kretser, described himself as a Dutch Burger from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and left it at that. Much literature on discrimination in the USA - some of which you mention - refers mainly to Afro-Americans and is not so relevant to Indian-Americans, who are, financially, the most successful migrants. Many traditional epithets, here and abroad, are, at best, naive and tasteless, and, at worst, downright racist. I think we are moving from the days of White Australia, which conditioned many peoples thinking, to a more inclusive concept of society. Intermarriage is helping to break down the old stereotypes.

Edward Fido | 14 July 2017  

No country or society is perfect. I am from a middle eastern background and thank God that i was born into a western liberal democracy. There is a good reason why no one is rushing to leave these countries and why people are trying to get into them - they have managed to create the best living conditions for the majority of their people. if you dont believe me trying living in a communist country or in Saudi Arabia.

Ron Hassarati | 14 July 2017  

and another thing "white" people here, in the US,UK, are insulted with rude names because they are poor or not part of power structure. In this world Class and Economics have plenty to do with discrimination. I am not getting into any argument about whether or not more than race or colour. This country, like USA, was, as we say, (Yes dear PC persons, I know it was an invasion) 'settled'! first by the unwanted of the empires of Europe. soldiers no use any more, vagrants, vagabonds...and you can hardly blame their descendants, white trash, with no names or recorded history because why bother, they had no lands to tax, getting annoyed when persons of privileged backgrounds, Asian, Indian, whatever make a big deal out of their own dissatisfactions and refuse to acknowledge that us poor trashy whites have any grounds for anger or resentment..

jill | 14 July 2017  

When someone wants to be cruel to another person they can mock some characteristic of the other person that the other person cannot change. If the other person is proud of that characteristic, the attempt to mock it won't work.

Damian | 14 July 2017  

During the court trial of Steve Beko, in the film 'Cry Freedom' an impertinent white judge queried Steve and said he was not black but brown. He, SB, replied to the judge that he was not white, but pink. I thought that was a perfect answer at that time and in that situation.

mick Jones | 15 July 2017  

There is a sad reality behind the article and the point that it is making- the experience of racial abuse. Whilst some have experienced racial abuse, others from the very beginning of this modern nation have experienced religious persecution. Any point of difference can be turned into the basis of systematic and wholesale abuse whether by a majority or persistent minority. To imply that the word "white" cannot be used as a racist term is a blindness. Numerous Anglo-Saxon children in a school in which they are a minority can affirm that reality. Racism is an evil that knows no boundaries.

Kevin | 15 July 2017  

Any term can be abusive or not according to circumstances and personal relationships. My son recently went with a Church group to China. Most were from Islander or South East Asian backgrounds. For a laugh at a fundraiser I pointed out that my Scots-Irish background made using the term “Anglo” for us at least mildly irritating (they laughed). My son is 192cm (6ft 3) broad shouldered and “big with it”. In China some local people stopped to take photos of him, making comments like “I didn’t think a human could be like that”. By the end of the trip some of his companions were referring to my son as a “reverse coconut” (“white” on the outside, “brown” on the inside) with amused affection. All good fun, although when my Australian parents lived in the US through the 50’s and 60’s they had different experiences. I won’t repeat the too familiar comments by “Whites” against all “Others”, which horrified my parents – as if it didn’t happen here. But when Mum was pregnant with me Dad stopped at a supermarket to get her milk. A large man appeared at the door with a knife and told him “This place isn’t for you, Whitey!”

Russell Jones | 15 July 2017  

White can be a negative term if used with other derogatory words. Got called a "white c... " a few times at school. Could have just been called a c... but putting "white" in front to put a line between me and the user underlines the insult. Privilege and power can also be localised and transient, as evidenced by another commented family's experience while travelling.

Drew | 29 July 2017  

I refuse to buy into the premise of this article. What's the point? The only person/s who know/s if a comment is racist or offensive is the person making the comment and the person receiving it. When I called an Indian schoolmate in grade 4 a curry muncher, he didn't take offence. And when he said I had so many freckles on my white arms and legs that if I joined them up I would look like an Aborigine, I wasn't offended either. We simply laughed it off and continued playing handball untill the buzzer sounded and we scampered back to class and sat beside each other for the next lesson. Grow up, people. Children have a lot to teach us.

AURELIUS | 05 August 2017  

this is a really good article

Oscar | 20 November 2019  

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