Words by Nikeetha Gamage Art by Kea Tokley-Higgs
Despite the definition of racism being rooted in racial discrimination, racism ironically does not discriminate where it exists.
Racism speaks a universal language, as slurs against virtually every ethnicity in the world can be found.
Their meanings and usage vary significantly, but they all harbour prejudice against a certain race while asserting the user’s racial superiority. Although many are familiar with words like the n-word and white trash, there are numerous slurs that are relatively unknown. Below is a list of racial terms you may or may not have heard of, but are harmful nonetheless.
ABC/ABCD (American Born Confused Desi)
Definition/s – An ABCD is of South Asian origin (typically Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani). ABCDs are typically raised in America/Australia for more than one generation, hence, have adopted American/Australian views and values.
Unlike other racist slurs, ABC/ABCD is often used against people of the same race and is much more modern. This 21st century term seems fairly innocent compared to other slurs, whose history involves atrocities like slavery and racial segregation. However, it is a slur attached with guilt that shames young Asians who have lived in America/Australia for their Westernisation, despite Western culture and norms being all they have been exposed to during their lives. The term is usually used by those who are more attuned to their native culture, values and language, as they mock those who lack knowledge regarding their homeland.
Definition – Alligator bait is a pejorative word for young black children.
One of the more gut-wrenching slurs, “alligator bait” arose from the American Deep South and symbolises the racial cruelty African Americans faced throughout US history. More than just a metaphor, the notion of “alligator bait” was an unfortunate reality that was practised in Southern states like Louisiana and Florida. The infants of black slaves were used to lure alligators out of swamps, so their highly coveted skin could be harvested. From then on, “alligator bait” became a term used among white people to refer to black children from the 19th to the 20th century, making it one of the oldest slurs on this list.
Definition – Boong is an offensive term for Aboriginal Australians.
“Boong” has murkier origins than the rest of the words on this list, but is still very degrading. Some theorise it derives from the Australian/New Zealander word “bung”, meaning useless, decrepit and dysfunctional. However, “Boong” was originally Australian army slang for Papua New Guineans, whose country was under Australian colonial occupation during the 20th century. Like “abo”, “boong” did not start off as an intrinsically discriminatory word for Aboriginal Australians, but became so over time with the disparaging way it was constantly used.
Definition – Camel jockey is derogatory slang for Arabs and more generally, Middle Eastern people.
“Camel jockey” stems from the sport of camel racing, which is prevalent in Qatar, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman and the UAE. But, the disturbing part of the slur arises from the controversies attached with camel racing, as young boys have been trafficked for the sport for approximately 25 years, due to their light bodies. These boys are often no more than five years old and are plucked from poverty to lead brutal lives, where they face physical danger and sexual abuse. Therefore, “camel jockey” is not simply symbolic for the camel-related sport popular in many Muslim countries, but also the tragic reality behind it.
Definition – Kaffir is an offensive term for black people, specifically the native population of South Africa.
“Kaffir” means non-believer in Arabic, but white colonists adopted it to refer to black people in South Africa. Arguably one of the most disparaging words on this list and often deemed South Africa’s n-word, many are hesitant to say or even print “kaffir”. One reason it is insulting stems from the kaffir lime, which is a bloated, mottled fruit considered not as attractive as other types of limes. Another reason, is “kaffir” connotes laziness and incompetence, which is supposedly the inherent nature of black people. The term is apparently so offensive that the South African government proposed to criminalise it through a hate speech bill in 2018, arising from an incident where a white South African woman called a black police officer a “kaffir”.
Definition – Initially meaning foreigner in circumstances of war, gook became a pejorative word for East and Southeast Asians, especially those of Korean, Vietnamese or Filipino descent.
“Gook” has the most varied history on this list, but is broadly known as an Americanism for Asian people. American troops used it during warfare in several Asian countries and its earliest record was during the Philippine War (1899-1902). American soldiers attempted to mimic Filipino languages by degradingly describing them as “goo-goo” or “gugu”, which eventually became “gook”. The term later resurfaced during the Korean War (1950-1953), with American soldiers calling North Koreans “gooks” in a tone of combined anti-communism and racial superiority. The more modern usage of “gook” stems from the Vietnam War (1955-1975), where American troops used it contemptuously against Vietnamese communist soldiers.
Definition – Squaw is derogatory slang for Native American women.
“Squaw” specifically targets North America’s Indigenous women and is the one word on this list intersecting racism and sexism. It originates from the Massachusetts Algonquian tribe and translates to woman. Consequently, “squaw” is not intrinsically demeaning, but its true meaning was lost when European colonists misinterpreted it as the female genitalia. “Squaw” then evolved to be highly offensive, as it became equivalent to calling an Indigenous woman a whore. Overall, “Squaw” became a sexually abusive, dehumanising term and the resulting connotation was Native American women were impure, barbaric and perverse.
Definition – Wetback is a racial slur for Mexicans living in the US who are typically illegal immigrants.
“Wetback” initially applied to Mexican immigrants who illicitly entered the US through Texas. They did so by presumably crossing the Rio Grande (the river bordering Texas and Mexico), thus arriving in the US with a back wet from swimming. However, “wetback” is not just a racial epithet due to its historical background. During the Eisenhower administration, the US government launched Operation Wetback (1954): a mass deportation initiative aimed at Mexican aliens. Over time, “wetback” evolved to become a broad slur for hispanics residing in the US.
From this list, we can see no ethnicity is spared when it comes to racist terms. Some seem ancient, while you may have heard one of these yesterday. It gets particularly horrific when child abuse and sexual objectification are added into the mix, like icing on an already monstrous racism cake. But, we can take away that racism is almost amalgamating, because regardless of our skin colour, we can all relate to experiencing some sort of racial vilification. We can use this to unite, learn from history and vow to never repeat it ever again.