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Tags language issues , racial slurs , racism history , racism issues

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Old 23rd June 2013, 08:58 AM   #1
EGarrett
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Where does the slur "whitey" come from and who uses it?

I notice this comes up a lot when people are doing a caricature of racist black people, or things like the 2008 Election when there were threats of Michelle Obama saying "whitey" on tape that never materialized. But I actually realized that amongst the thousands of black people I've known and spoken to, from toddlers all the way up to people over 90 years old, I've never heard anyone use the term "whitey." Even when angered or doing some old-fashioned race-based grumbling that so many of our grandparents unfortunately do.

My impression was that the term came from the Black Panther Party or the Nation of Islam in the 60's and 70's. But I'm searching youtube and am having a very hard time finding any example of a black person using it in any serious context (or almost any context at all).

So now, I googled it, and it sent me to wikipedia's listing for racial slurs. The citation for that sent me to Princeton wordnet, where it's listed as a derogatory term with no background given, or listing of what group used it, and when, why, or where they did it.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:04 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by EGarrett View Post
I notice this comes up a lot when people are doing a caricature of racist black people, or things like the 2008 Election when there were threats of Michelle Obama saying "whitey" on tape that never materialized. But I actually realized that amongst the thousands of black people I've known and spoken to, from toddlers all the way up to people over 90 years old, I've never heard anyone use the term "whitey." Even when angered or doing some old-fashioned race-based grumbling that so many of our grandparents unfortunately do.

My impression was that the term came from the Black Panther Party or the Nation of Islam in the 60's and 70's. But I'm searching youtube and am having a very hard time finding any example of a black person using it in any serious context (or almost any context at all).

So now, I googled it, and it sent me to wikipedia's listing for racial slurs. The citation for that sent me to Princeton wordnet, where it's listed as a derogatory term with no background given, or listing of what group used it, and when, why, or where they did it.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:05 AM   #3
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The use of "blackie" as a pejorative started in 1815.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:07 AM   #4
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This page gives a list of usages in literature and in the news, but none of them seem to be necessarily in a derogaroty context - more as a name or nickname.

http://www.finedictionary.com/whitey.html

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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:12 AM   #5
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Hmm, I've never heard an adult actually use it as a derogatory term. I do remember kids in the Detroit area using it but they were just being idiot kids. I mostly found that if a black adult wanted to insult a white person they would call them racist.

In Detroit I often found that if a white person complained about a black person doing anything they would be called racist. Complain that a black person cut in front of you in line, you're a racist. Don't give up your seat on the bus, you're a racist.

It was really nice when I moved to New York City and discovered that blacks and whites can be friends without it being a big deal. No one seemed to care that I was white, I was just another friend. It still makes me tear up thinking about it.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:13 AM   #6
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Both Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron used it.

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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:19 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Matthew Best View Post
Both Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron used it.

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Ah yes. The Gil-Scott Heron one is the first example. I'd forgotten about it. The Curtis Mayfield song, of course, is anti-racism. Though he certainly may be referencing the term from elsewhere.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:26 AM   #8
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My mother recalls walking down the sidewalk in Chicago and passing a black woman. The woman glared at her and called her "Whitey". She remembered it so clearly because she'd never heard the term used, and it surprised her that it was an insult, since she was born in the late 20s when the default position in the country at that time was that it was a good thing to be white. I'm guessing this would have happened in the late 40s.

Personally, I've never heard the term used, and I've lived in the South most of my life.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:34 AM   #9
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Although it doesn't tell us who uses it and where it comes from, I find the google ngram viewer - go to google, and type in "ngram viewer" - to be helpful with questions like this.

The ngram viewer scours google's considerable database of scanned writings for the occurrence of particular letter combinations.

The short answer is, no one used it too much, at least not in written form, but to the degree it was ever used much at all it spiked sharply from the mid '60s to the mid '70s, and peaked in 1971.

Sly and the Family Stone had that one song off their first album that used the term; I would bet dollars to donuts that the zenith of its usage came from things like album reviews.

But I agree with the sentiment that this is a caricature of the angry black guy. The terms "honkey" and "ofay" follow very similar patterns, so I suppose there were folks somewhere in the early 70's using these terms, but they weren't using 'em much.

The ngram viewer allows one to enter multiple words and phrases - putting "whitey" alongside "desegregation" gives a decent visual of what words people were using. Entering a few other racial slurs is enlightening as well.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:49 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by iangoeswest View Post
Although it doesn't tell us who uses it and where it comes from, I find the google ngram viewer - go to google, and type in "ngram viewer" - to be helpful with questions like this.
Ngram does let you see the context of the word, at least in the books Google has scanned: click on one of the date ranges below the graph.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:54 AM   #11
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@Pulvinar -

Right you are! Thanks. Man, that is a powerful tool.

It also showed that, although the graphs purport to be case sensitive (and they are - "whitey" and "Whitey" return different graphs, the results don't actually seem to be - lower-case whitey still returned many results for Whiteys Herzog, Ford, and Bulger.

But still, beats my own baseless speculation. Thanks for the tune up.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 10:43 AM   #12
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A couple of other derogatory terms used to describe white folks from back then...
"Honkey"....You don't hear that much any more... Supposedly a corruption of "bohunk" or "hunky" to describe someone from middle Europe.
Also "Offray", which was supposed to be pig-latin for "foe"... Both used by Black radicals back in the 60s and early 70s.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 11:05 AM   #13
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This baby name site says that the name "Whitey" is of Jamaican origin, derived from Whitney. That's its use as a proper name, though, not as a pejorative.

Wiki calls it African-American slang for a white person without giving any examples or authority.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says "whitey" meaning a person of European descent is first recorded in 1828. It does not cite the example.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 11:16 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by Weak Kitten View Post
Hmm, I've never heard an adult actually use it as a derogatory term. I do remember kids in the Detroit area using it but they were just being idiot kids. I mostly found that if a black adult wanted to insult a white person they would call them racist.

In Detroit I often found that if a white person complained about a black person doing anything they would be called racist. Complain that a black person cut in front of you in line, you're a racist. Don't give up your seat on the bus, you're a racist.

It was really nice when I moved to New York City and discovered that blacks and whites can be friends without it being a big deal. No one seemed to care that I was white, I was just another friend. It still makes me tear up thinking about it.
Things have not changed much around Detroit in that regard.

Generally, whitey seems like a rather ineffective insult. Sort of like "Yankee go home". Not much of an insult there. Tempted to start a thread on the strength of pejorative terms and perception of them.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 11:45 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by EGarrett View Post
I notice this comes up a lot when people are doing a caricature of racist black people, or things like the 2008 Election when there were threats of Michelle Obama saying "whitey" on tape that never materialized. But I actually realized that amongst the thousands of black people I've known and spoken to, from toddlers all the way up to people over 90 years old, I've never heard anyone use the term "whitey." Even when angered or doing some old-fashioned race-based grumbling that so many of our grandparents unfortunately do.

My impression was that the term came from the Black Panther Party or the Nation of Islam in the 60's and 70's. But I'm searching youtube and am having a very hard time finding any example of a black person using it in any serious context (or almost any context at all).

So now, I googled it, and it sent me to wikipedia's listing for racial slurs. The citation for that sent me to Princeton wordnet, where it's listed as a derogatory term with no background given, or listing of what group used it, and when, why, or where they did it.
I used to hear it all the time. Maybe the term has fallen out of use but back in the 60's & 70's black radicals used the term quite a bit.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 12:34 PM   #16
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A famous musical usage from 1969 is Sly and the Family Stone's, Don't Call Me ******, Whitey:
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Old 23rd June 2013, 12:41 PM   #17
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Doesn't seem like much of an insult. It's definitely intended to be insulting, and to "otherize" a group of people, but I think most white people would shrug or laugh it off.

Obviously it doesn't have the baggage that comes with many of the slurs directed towards black people and other minorities.

The OP statement:
Originally Posted by EGarrett
But I'm searching youtube and am having a very hard time finding any example of a black person using it in any serious context (or almost any context at all).
brought to mind an article I recently read (link). Apparently the head of the Philadelphia chapter of the New Black Panther Party has a tattoo right on his face which reads "Kill Whitey". The guy seems a bit out there, but I would say that tattooing the statement on his face would seem to indicate a "serious" context.

And, naturally, while reading the article I couldn't help but be reminded of this great Chris Farley scene from the classic film Black Sheep.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 01:12 PM   #18
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As a white Englishman, I'd associate "whitey" with Richard Pryor, though I doubt he originated the term. A bit of googling shows he used it in a SNL skit in 1975.

Originally Posted by Bikewer View Post
Also "Offray", which was supposed to be pig-latin for "foe"... Both used by Black radicals back in the 60s and early 70s.
I've only seen it spelt as "ofay".
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Old 23rd June 2013, 01:59 PM   #19
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Originally Posted by zooterkin View Post
As a white Englishman, I'd associate "whitey" with Richard Pryor, though I doubt he originated the term. A bit of googling shows he used it in a SNL skit in 1975.


I thought of that skit,too.

I remember Redd Foxx using it as well, in his stand-up routines, and as Fred Sanford on Sanford & Son, also from the early/mid seventies.

He even used the "N" word in one episode to dismiss one of Lamont's (the titular son) friends who was giving Fred a hard time. Watched it again on broadcast TV a few years ago. Really surprised it wasn't bleeped for syndication.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 02:24 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by iangoeswest View Post
The short answer is, no one used it too much, at least not in written form, but to the degree it was ever used much at all it spiked sharply from the mid '60s to the mid '70s, and peaked in 1971.

Sly and the Family Stone had that one song off their first album that used the term; I would bet dollars to donuts that the zenith of its usage came from things like album reviews.
Not sure if this was a common word used on The Jefferson's with George being the classic caricature of a racist black man.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 02:26 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by FreshHat View Post
I thought of that skit,too.
I'm not sure I've seen that actual skit; I most likely saw him using the term in his stand-up routine, but that was recorded later (1979).


Quote:
I remember Redd Foxx using it as well, in his stand-up routines, and as Fred Sanford on Sanford & Son, also from the early/mid seventies.
Pryor apparently wrote for that show, though whether he was responsible for the word being used there, or if he picked it up, I have no idea.

(I don't know a lot about the show, apart from it being based on Steptoe and Son.)
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Old 23rd June 2013, 02:26 PM   #22
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Originally Posted by qayak View Post
Not sure if this was a common word used on The Jefferson's with George being the classic caricature of a racist black man.
It might have been, but I don't remember it. I do remember a lot of honkey and jive turkey on that show, though.

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Old 23rd June 2013, 03:19 PM   #23
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Originally Posted by zooterkin View Post
As a white Englishman, I'd associate "whitey" with Richard Pryor, though I doubt he originated the term. A bit of googling shows he used it in a SNL skit in 1975.



I've only seen it spelt as "ofay".
Ofey, pig latin for "foe", as mentioned above. And shortened to fey.

Call me Honky, a mis-speak of Honky, I am Lithuanian. But I do take umbrage at being called a foe. I'm not even Jesse Jackson's enemy. Except to him?
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Old 23rd June 2013, 03:23 PM   #24
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Although it probably has a variety of "origins" and other places it was used, I would think it came into prominence as a joke based on The Jeffersons. The Jeffersons was a spin off from All in the Family (Both George and Weezy were characters on All in the Family) and so there was probably a broader audience for The Jeffersons than would have been had it not been a spin off of such a successful show. One of the running gags on The Jeffersons were their neighbors Tom and Helen Willis as an interracial couple.

If I remember correctly George also used the term "honky" quite a bit.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072519/

Quote:
When the show first started George constantly referred to Tom as a honky. After a few seasons Sherman Hemsley asked the writers to stop having George call him that, as he felt that the characters were friends and he felt George would not use a racist term on a friend. When the writers refused to stop Hemsley simply mumbled the the word every time he said it, forcing re-shoots. Eventually the writers stopped using the word.


Here's a clip showing Archie Bunker and George Jefferson

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=da0eaiZ0CKw


from wiki

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Jefferson


Quote:
The lingering cultural impact of the George Jefferson character is such that Michelle Obama, the wife of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, referenced George Jefferson in a June 2008 interview with the New York Times. Referring to an unfounded rumor discussed by a blogger that she had once used the word "whitey" in a speech, Michelle Obama told the Times: "You are amazed sometimes at how deep the lies can be . . . I mean, ‘whitey’? That’s something that George Jefferson would say. Anyone who says that doesn’t know me. They don’t know the life I’ve lived. They don’t know anything about me."[1]
References

Funny, I wrote all this out before finding the connection to Michele Obama in your OP. So I guess that brings it full circle.

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Old 23rd June 2013, 09:52 PM   #25
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Quite commonly used in baseball prior to 1970 or so to refer to anybody with light blond hair; Whitey Ford sort of retired the nickname much like George Herman Ruth did with Babe in an earlier generation.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 10:05 PM   #26
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Originally Posted by Loss Leader View Post
This baby name site says that the name "Whitey" is of Jamaican origin, derived from Whitney. That's its use as a proper name, though, not as a pejorative.

Wiki calls it African-American slang for a white person without giving any examples or authority.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says "whitey" meaning a person of European descent is first recorded in 1828. It does not cite the example.
The OED gives an example from 1827:

Quote:
1827 P. Cunningham Two Years New S. Wales II. xx. 21 The instant blacky perceives whity beating a retreat, he vociferates after him—‘Go along, you dam rascal.’
The next example is from 1842, and that from The American Thesaurus of Slang, so it's not very enlightening.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 10:09 PM   #27
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A lot of Indians (aboriginals) here in Alberta use the term whitey.
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Old 23rd June 2013, 10:48 PM   #28
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I've heard it in the news just recently.

I think they used it as a slur against some criminal named Bulger. I kept thinking that, even if he was some kind of mob boss, there was no real reason to call him a racial slur on top of it.
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Old 24th June 2013, 07:22 AM   #29
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The black residents of Shepard street in Buffalo us it as a racial slur. They also use cracker, honky, pales, ghost bitch, snowflake, and (I'm not joking) white ******.

Walk past the bridge and the white residents have a list of names to call you too.
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Old 24th June 2013, 07:42 AM   #30
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uh uhuh

I got a BULGER...
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Old 24th June 2013, 01:43 PM   #31
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Originally Posted by marplots View Post
I've heard it in the news just recently.

I think they used it as a slur against some criminal named Bulger. I kept thinking that, even if he was some kind of mob boss, there was no real reason to call him a racial slur on top of it.
Wrong, that is Whitey, quite different.

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Old 24th June 2013, 03:06 PM   #32
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I don't think I've been called "whitey," here I usually got "white boy," as in "What up, white boy?" or "Where you going, white boy?"
This was south-side Lansing around '06-'09.
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Old 24th June 2013, 03:07 PM   #33
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Originally Posted by mikedenk View Post
Doesn't seem like much of an insult. It's definitely intended to be insulting, and to "otherize" a group of people, but I think most white people would shrug or laugh it off.
I've never really understood this kind of reasoning.

People aren't robots. They're generally able to tell when they've been insulted, and to take offense at the insult regardless of how it's phrased.

I mean, it'd have to be a very emotionally or socially retarded person, to be insulted to their face with the epithet "whitey", and think, "that's fine; he's just saying I'm white--which I am. He definitely doesn't mean to suggest I'm inferior to him, or that he's going to discount everything I say, or anything else derogatory or demeaning".

Does anybody even try using that tactic to cope with insults, other than children on the playground trying to pretend they don't care, and therefore it doesn't matter? Does that tactic ever actually work? From my playground days, I don't recall that it does.

I'd invite you to be the butt of several offensive double-entendres, purely by way of making a scientific experiment, but I don't want to strain the limits of the MA. So instead I'll let xkcd have the last word: http://xkcd.com/1216/

Last edited by theprestige; 24th June 2013 at 03:10 PM.
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Old 24th June 2013, 06:48 PM   #34
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Originally Posted by Doubt View Post
Things have not changed much around ....
Really? I've lived here since 1980, and nobody has ever called me whitey even once.

And certainly not twice.
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Old 24th June 2013, 06:59 PM   #35
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Originally Posted by theprestige View Post
Does anybody even try using that tactic to cope with insults, other than children on the playground trying to pretend they don't care, and therefore it doesn't matter? Does that tactic ever actually work? From my playground days, I don't recall that it does.
I found it much more efficient to look bored and disappointed. Then I told them that their insults were uncreative and that they should come up with new ones. So they did. It became a game with me as the judge of their creativity. I'm not sure if they ever realized that they had given me all of the power but it definitely changed the nature of our relationship.
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Old 24th June 2013, 07:01 PM   #36
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But rather than come and go with a little pugnacious joke, let me add that I came to Detroit as an adult, and have lived here the whole time among adults. I wouldn't expect to be called anything insulting.

My experience, in a much wider society than southeast Michigan, is that racial slurs are seldom uttered in a one-on-one situation. Five-on-one, six-on-one, then maybe -- but still not certainly. When you racialize a situation, you cross a line that you can't easily cross back again.

Once on a city bus, two little old Detroit ladies sitting behind me talked about "killen up de w'ite stuff," but they didn't go on very long. The white stuff! I'd never heard that one before. Wasn't that courageous of them?

I think most people consider racial epithets beneath them.
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Old 24th June 2013, 07:09 PM   #37
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I was listening to a podcast of vintage music recently featuring the Vegas lounge act of the Rat Pack, and Sammy Davis Jr. used it (jokingly) to refer to either Frank or Dean. There were various un-PC things said in the act by today's standards. They liked to rib each other.

If anyone's interested, the podcast is called The Quiet Village and the episode is #59, the most recent episode. It's kinda cool in a retro way.
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Old 24th June 2013, 11:24 PM   #38
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I remember an episode of the John Laroquette Show where his character is being driven somewhere by a young black employee in the bus station he manages and the rap song playing on the stereo in car consists of the lyrics "Kill whitey" repeated over and over. Laroquette's character is disgusted and turns it off.

The joke comes when they are pulled over by a white cop and as the young guy tries to talk his way out of the tight spot of being black in the wrong neighbourhood, Laraquette turns the stereo back on and the lyrics begin blasting at top volume, "Kill whitey! Kill whitey!"
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Old 24th June 2013, 11:39 PM   #39
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Originally Posted by theprestige View Post
I've never really understood this kind of reasoning.

People aren't robots. They're generally able to tell when they've been insulted, and to take offense at the insult regardless of how it's phrased.

I mean, it'd have to be a very emotionally or socially retarded person, to be insulted to their face with the epithet "whitey", and think, "that's fine; he's just saying I'm white--which I am. He definitely doesn't mean to suggest I'm inferior to him, or that he's going to discount everything I say, or anything else derogatory or demeaning".

Does anybody even try using that tactic to cope with insults, other than children on the playground trying to pretend they don't care, and therefore it doesn't matter? Does that tactic ever actually work? From my playground days, I don't recall that it does.

I'd invite you to be the butt of several offensive double-entendres, purely by way of making a scientific experiment, but I don't want to strain the limits of the MA. So instead I'll let xkcd have the last word: http://xkcd.com/1216/
I think that's the most effective way to deal with it. People usually resort to slurs when they don't have anything intelligent to say in order to get a rise out of the other person. It is hard to insult someone who doesn't allow them self to get insulted.
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Old 24th June 2013, 11:51 PM   #40
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Originally Posted by theprestige View Post
I mean, it'd have to be a very emotionally or socially retarded person, to be insulted to their face with the epithet "whitey", and think, "that's fine; he's just saying I'm white--which I am. He definitely doesn't mean to suggest I'm inferior to him, or that he's going to discount everything I say, or anything else derogatory or demeaning".

Does anybody even try using that tactic to cope with insults, other than children on the playground trying to pretend they don't care, and therefore it doesn't matter? Does that tactic ever actually work? From my playground days, I don't recall that it does.

Well, in that context, what does it matter whether the insult is "whitey" or "******* piece of ****"? Of course having somebody insult you to your face is going to fire you up.

I just don't place the insult on a higher plane because it refers to white skin color. The NBPP member with the "Kill Whitey" tattoo on his face amuses me more than anything else.
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