Identifying Racist Language: Linguistic Acts and Signs

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/2/2003

As we move to the turn of the century and the next millenium we have turned our attention to questions of diversity, pluralism, difference, differance, ethnicity, gender, and cultural location as never before. Ethnic, racial, and cultural consciousness have flooded the plains of our social life. We are victims of the new awareness. This has led some individuals to proclaim that there is a new tribalization. This is, of course, an exxageration but it does suggest apprehension, alarm, and fear. The rise of hostility, aggressive language, and epithets has produced a rush for explanation.

The breakdown of what had been thought by some to be the monolithic Soviet Empire, the spread of democratic principles to the various regions of the world, the re-emergence of national sentiments, and the discovery of long silenced voices in heterogeneous societies such as ours have sparked a new debate. Nothing in this litany of social and intellectual transformation, however, can be considered signifying the end of history. Indeed, it is the promise of a new beginning in which more people are armed with the knowledge necessary to make contributions from their various cultural perspectives. The essential elements surrounding the debate have to do with the questions of society, culture, and speech.


The contextualization of speech is itself a political act. By that we mean whenever you categorize society in an effort to make concepts functional, you make a choice between possibilities. The making of a choice between possibilities creates cleavages which benefit some to the disadvantage of others. One knows the appropriateness of the benefits by the consequences to the society.

Our aim is modest. We seek to provide a framework for examining racist language in any society. The United States is not alone in the world as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural society. Quite frankly, the modern state is most often comprised of many nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures. Take Germany, for instance, and we see that what appears to be a rather homogenous society is really made of of many ethnic groups. Germans are the dominant and most popular group. However, the fact that Turks, Greeks, Italians, and Yugoslavians have come to Germany to work as Geistartbeiter during the past twenty five years has made it a much more heterogenous society than before the Second World War.

We intend to demonstrate that offensive speech , a form of racist language, finds its source in the structure of knowledge in a society. A society that is structured along racial lines will produce offensive racist arguments. Racism is intertwined in the most intricate patterns of our conversation and language. By analyzing discriminatory discourse, one area of offensive language, suggestions might be made for responses to other forms of offensive speech, for example, sexist and homophobic. By providing crosscultural examples of racist language we seek to demonstrate how language might function to undermine national unity in a pluralistic society.

Racist speech is a form of offensive speech. Offensive speech is deliberate public or private language intended to ridicule, pose a threat, or belittle a person or persons because of cultural or racial origin, religious practice, political beliefs, or sexual orientation. Use of such language is usually intended to create discomfort in the person or persons to whom the language is directed. It may reflect gross insensitivity to cultural difference.


As a phenomenon of language, racism is initially manifest in terms of what people say about others and how they justify their personal attitudes and actions. Despite the impact of numerous rhetorical studies, the development in this century of semantics as a field of inquiry, and the current emphasis in some circles on intercultural interactions, the nature of racist language remains relatively unexplored. Social scientists in all fields are more inclined to study general effects of communication rather than to concentrate on racist language as a part of our national discourse.

W. E. B. DuBois, one of the most prolific scholars of the twentieth century, wrote in his book THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK that "the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line." But he did not go further to describe the obvious manifestations of that problem in terms of the language people would use. DuBois may not have understood the full implications of his statement in terms of its subtle unfolding in offensive language although there is no question that he understood what it meant from the standpoint of overt actions against African Americans. Had Dubois been alive today he may well have discussed the implications of ethnicity and nationality for the twentieth first century because many of the ideas and attitudes that gave rise to racist language in the early part of this century are still with us.


Race functions as a fundamental cognitive category in personal relationships in the American society and symbols constitue the primary reference points for those relationships. There exists what is appropriately called a symbology of racism which fuels the transcultural and transethnic interactions in society. Founded upon mono-ethnicism and mono-culturalism, the symbology is mono-racial as well. An assertive Eurocentrism is the carrier of this symbology in the United States, although in other heterogeneous societies , other racial-cultural groups occupy this hegemonic place.


The presence of a large African population in the United States from the inception of the country created, inter alia, a need for the dominant white group to distinguish itself from the black group, on the basis of color, and then permanent servitude. This worked itself out in similar discriminatory patterns against Native Americans and others of color over the succeeding years. Alongside this pattern of discrimination was linguistic terms and concepts used as epithets and derogations. The origin of this pattern may be seen in the ignorance of African culture.

African cultural and ethnic differences were neither recorded nor considered important in making distinctions, any African was black, and any black was a Negro, and Negroes had no cultural heritage. To recognize Africans as Asante, Yoruba, Ibo, Ibibio, Hausa, Mandingo, Fulani, Wolof, Serere, Kikongo, Fante, and so forth would have meant ascribing history, cosmologies, indeed, humanity to those who were enslaved. Without humanity, Africans could be called the worst epithets thinkable by white Americans.

There is therefore the sense in which the history of Africans in America relates to the evolution of racist language among white Americans. Since the Africans who arrived as indentured servants and later were used as slaves spoke various languages, the social climate for linguistic intrigue was richly textured with strands of sophistry. Many whites found this a design for the use of the most subtle, sophisticated form of discriminatory discourse, made more debased by the play on variation in skin color among Africans as well as perceived ethnic temperaments. Thus, Mandingo people were treated one way and Asante another based upon what was perceived to be temperamental differences. The literature of slavery is abundant with stories of slaveowners indicating preference for certain Africans because of perceived value based on difference traits, real or imagined.


Racist language, as a special category of offensive language, may be protected by a society which establishes a hierarchical language system dependent upon domination of numerically smaller ethnic groups. This is not to say that members of smaller ethnic groups cannot and do not participate in offensive language themselves, but that the conditions for acceptance of offensive language are much broader within the larger group. There are three characteristics for a condition of hierarchical language. The first one is the control over the rhetorical and discourse territory through definitions. The second characteristic is the establishment of a self perpetuating rite de passage. The third characteristic is the stifling of opposing discourse. The metaphor works for language as well as for the control over people, the process is essentially the same.

Redefining conversational ground so that the original meaning is ambiguous or lost is one method of creating hierarchical discourse. In this way established powers undercut the oppressed and manipulate the communication patterns between races, sexes, and classes. The self perpetuating rite de passage where "truth" is reserved for those who have been initiated by some certifying word serves to create hierarchy as well. The certifying word might be a series of verbal commitments to offensive language, much like street gang members voicing their commitments to use certain common expressions to show how tough they really are. This is the world of the South African Bruderband or the American Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, the Klan finds its authority on the certifying ku-klos, the Greek word for circle, establishing antiquity as well as commitment to rituals of offense. In its most offensive form, apart from the words spoken to induce discomfort themselves, the hierarchy establishes itself by denouncing all opposing views. The aim of the racist is to invalidate the other by attacking the character of the other or by denouncing the ideas brought by the other.

The maker of offensive speech operates from a perceived hierarchy which gives him or her the pedestal from which to offend. Such a viewpoint, in order to realize its objective, must control discourse territory, support certain symbolic rituals, and attack ideas which might be defensive. Thus, a teacher might say that her children were "acting like a bunch of wild Indians." Now this is clearly offensive to many people. But the teacher might perceived herself to be in a position of hierarchy to make such a statement. She would not have thought to say "Wild Vandals" or "Wild Vikings." "Wild Indians" carried for her the kind of offense she was trying to convey. To some of her colleagues this may not have been offensive because they partake of the same general cultural bias. However, in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, such language is inherently offensive to the quality of the social contract we hold with each other. Even more, there is something inherently unethical in the use of other people as an example of generalized depravity or negative behavior.

English, like any growing language, acquires proverbs, adages, and sayings that become a part of the common repository of public discourse. The sayings reflect the major architectons of social relations. In a major university, a white professor, frustrated over the stubbornness of an issue in a faculty meeting, rose to say that the solution was "like finding a nigger in a woodstack." He later apologized to the "African Americans" present in the meeting because he immediately saw from their reactions that it was offensive speech. Obviously, it had not become offensive within his own value system.

The fabric of any complex modern society is cultural quiltwork with the characters of the people being revealed in daily interactions by choices of asides, nuances, figures, and adages. In a race conscious society, intercultural group solidarity becomes a value in maintaining the structure of human relations. Yet we see in our behavior symbols the full extent of values upon language. Characteristics of the society which are defined by economic, educational, or technological issues can be negatively modified by racist discourse. In the late l960s Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver used to say that certain "profanities of speech" were not obscene but that the Vietnam War was obscene, cops shooting innocent people in the streets was obscene, and children going to school without breakfast was obscene. This was social discourse operating in the same way racial discourse had often operated. In other words, the white person who says to the African American detective seeking to search her apartment, "You can look inside any room, I ain't got nothing to steal anyway," is using the predictable pattern of discourse related to values and beliefs about African Americans.


We have identified speech acts that indicate offensive racial discourse as matters of opinion, matters of belief, and matters of fact. We choose to call these three speech act categories indicator acts because they serve to indicate the possibility of racist discourse. Such acts identify racist and discriminatory language in significant ways which interrelate with values and behavior. Since language is also sermonic, we can examine the concept of indicator acts as a signal that certain behaviors and values are about to be expressed or are being expressed. These are most often declarative statements inasmuch as they state an aggressive position.

The matter of course statement assumes that something is of a natural or logical occurrence, that is, in the nature of events and situations. Thus, when a white person says to another "But you know, that's the way their metabolism moves, slower than ours" he is expressing a matter of course position. The use of a code such as "you know" assumes that the listener shares in the same general value construct as the speaker. There are a number of variations on this theme such as "Given their ineptitude I understand how they could develop such a project" or "What can you expect of them" and so forth. The introductory codes are no guarantee that the discourse would be racist but they do guarantee that the expressions contain offensive assumptions. Matter of course statements often include the crude racial slurs, expressions used to dehumanize others because of their racial origin.

The matter of fact statement is literal and prosaic. This statment is usually given rather straightforwardly as a fact. The offending speaker believes his own discourse because he or she has never explored the information in an objective manner. Therefore, in the United States, the matter of fact statement is the forte of the true anti-African individual. This is a person who sees reality from the standpoint of major distortions of reality. Language of the the matter of fact variety demonstrates the ideology of prejudice in a clear fashion because the speaker is sure that his or her information on the genitalia of blacks, the biology of blacks, the rhythm of blacks has something to do with intelligence and ability and morality and God. The elements of this type of speech act might appear novel but in fact are frequently incorrect, inadequate as explanations, and extremely prosaic. This is the purview of those who use the untested information of others as evidence. Statements having to do with innate qualtiies of race are most frequently matter of fact acts. This is the hard core area for offensive speech acts.

The matter of opinion statements are prefaced by introductory remarks signifying debatable propositions. Whenever a speaker begins a discourse "I believe that black people..." or "I think it is true that you people..." or simply "Don't you believe that you would be better off with..." the speaker is using the matter of opinion statement. To make propositions with the capacity to arouse debate, without considering the nature of the prejudices which cause such utterances, is to complicate the process of human communication. Among other such statements are "I don't have anything against your kind..." or "What you people shoudl do is follow the pattern of the whites who were poor" or "To get ahead in this society you people will have to work hard" or "My parents were not racists but they just did not want to live next to blacks" and so forth. Matter of opinion statements are almost always made in the presence of the person to be offended which means that the offense is personal and direct. These statements epitomize the one-sided predisposition and its use as an indicator of offensive speech.

This predisposition to racist indicators is built into the symbol structure of our conversational paradigms. Because it is impossible to conceive of that which is not a combination of what is present within our world-view, users of the language are often limited in their ability to open to multi-cultural and multi-ethnic realities. The language contains references that cannot stand the strain of additional definitions. Therefore, the old "flesh-colored" bandaids had to go because they could not accommodate a multi racial society.

In discussing offensive speech in this manner we are suggesting a theoretical framework for examining discreet discriminatory acts in American speech. Therefore, we have intended to capture the universe of discourse that contains offensive racial speech. Culture patterns, speech acts, and behaviors change and are modified in several ways. Sometimes a person changes his language under duress, i.e., "If you call me kike again I will retaliate physically," might be enough to cause someone to change behaviors. Sometimes a person changes because he or she has been informed that his or her perceptions are incorrect; this is education. At other times, a person may need an environmental or circumstantial change in order to modify the use of discriminatory discourse. At any rate, American speech is modifiable and expandable.


There is a fundamental proposition at the basis of my discussion: racism cannot get into language unless some one puts it there. Offensive speech is created by people. We have an essential problem because human intervention is both responsible for language and racism as well as racism in language. It is useful to modify whatever belief we have had about the presence of racism in language if we had ever assumed its presence without human intervention.

Racist language is an integral part of the American experience. H. Rap Brown used to say in the l960's that "racism was as American as apple pie." What is language except a regularized code, containing lexical and syntactical elements, accepted by a common community of speakers? In American English we have all of the generalized and generalizable assumptions of the society. They are profoundly racist because of the nature of the society we have inherited. While we make a difference in this society by our constant attempts to evolve a new rapprochment with each other we are still left with the old, staid, decrepit system which has given us so many reasons for pause.

The structure of knowledge is itself the principal problem because it generates the sub-problems in terms of racist language. A recent theoretical movement, Afrocentricity, has argued that society requires us to question the imposition of the Eurocentric view of the world as universal. The reason it was necessary to argue that position was because for five hundred years we have lived in a make-believe world where Europeans conquered other people and then wrote the histories of the people as well as the histories of the conquests. Certain elements were necessary in such histories, histories which became the guiding myths of many generations of Europeans in Europe and the Americas. With these myths everything is tainted.

The child who goes to school in America gets the programming on the very first day when she learns about the founding fathers of the nation. There are sexist problems here, too. The racist problems inhere in the structure of the knowledge. The child is told that these white men came and created such a wonderful civilization! Already the idea floats around that this was the most marvelous thing to happen in history. The little African American girl sitting there filled with her own historical consciousness, however fragmented from her home, wonders deep in her soul, how could such an experiment which enslaved her ancestors be as wonderful as the teacher makes it out to be. The white child, already at this tender age, receives the essential dichotomy between whites and Africans that will go with her the rest of her life unless there are some interventions. Nevertheless, both children finishes that grade and goes through the rest with the same dichotomous structure operating so that in the final analysis we find both of them believing that Europe is universal and that nothing really happened in Africa.

Language is used to support the structure. Therefore, when we say that American English has acquired so many words, expressions, and sentiments of racism because of the conquest of the last five hundred years we mean that almost every major book and most major authors of the 18th and l9th centuries contained misinformation and racist sentiments based upon this structure of knowledge which is rooted in the traditions of conquest. But alas, even into the twentieth century we see this situation emerging in the strangest of places, in schools of education, in university presses, and in college classrooms.

Following the work of Cheikh Anta Diop, Martin Bernal wrote BLACK ATHENA which was published by Rutgers University Press in l987. Bernal's thesis is that the last five hundred years of European conquest has meant the emergence of an Aryan Thesis to oppose the Ancient Model of world history, particularly as it relates to the anteriority of African civilizations to European ones. Indeed the fact that most of the books published by university presses begin all discussions of theatre, art, poetry, philosophy, communication, or political science with the Greeks instead of with the people of Kemet is indicative of the problem. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Solon came after the Africans and were students of the Africans. Rather than begin at the beginning, all discussions of knowledge in Europe and America begin in Greece. We do not have a problem with Greece as the beginning of European knowledge; the problem is that it is not the beginning of knowledge. Indeed, as Diop said, Egypt is to the rest of Africa as Greece is to the rest of Europe. However, the difference is that Egypt is the Mother of Greece. Bernal goes so far as to say that the name of Athens itself is an African name. Of course, we know that Herodotus says that nearly all the names of the Greek gods came from Africa.

Without an understanding that before there was Isocrates, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, there was Kagemni, Seti, Ptahhotep, and Khun-anup, the earliest philosophers known in the world, one can never appreciate the depth of the racism in the language. Even if we cleaned up the language today and the structure of knowledge remained or our conception of the origin of knowledge remained, offensive racist language would be generated just as soon as we eliminated the offending words and expressions. New ones would be developed. This is not to say that change is unthinkable. New social information must provide us with new opportunities for change. Racist language is insinuated into society in four significant ways:

1. Temporal Tampering
2. Isolating and Enlarging Minor Events
3. Creating Illusions
4. Using Pejoratives to refer to Africans
5. Omitting Information that would Modify Structure

From the point of view of American English it is necessary to be vigilant, not just against the offensive speech found in the general American lexicon, not just for matter of course, matter of fact, and matter of opinion statements, but also in the common sentiment and expression of ideas. In the end, this is the more fundamental problem and the one we have the least opportunity to truly affect unless we also work to eliminate racism itself.

African symbol