Filling a gap in racial slurs

Racial slurs are horrible things (as are gender and sexual ones) and cover a wide range of people. But Michael Mark Cohen, a professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of California Berkeley and who describes himself as white and middle-class, noticed that there is one group of people who do not suffer from having one assigned to them.

When he asks the students in his class to yell out racial slurs aimed at white people, after an embarrassed pause he gets terms like “cracker”, “redneck”, “hillbilly”, “trailer trash”, or “white trash,” all of which have class overtones and are aimed at poor white people. Rich white men seem to be safe from racial slurs so he set out to find one that would fill that niche. And he thinks he has found one that fits the bill.

Of course, what we should be doing is de-escalating the use of racial slurs, not escalating this particualr arms race so I am not sure that he is doing society any favors. And to be fair, I think that is not really what he is proposing. He seems to be using that as a jumping point for a look at the interesting look at the history and sociology of racial slurs and the way it intersects with class and privilege, which is what I think his article is really about.


I just remembered this old sketch with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase. It ran in 1975 and was unbleeped on network television.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I think a better term for self-centered one-percenters would be “trickler”, as in someone who doesn’t have to offer help to underprivileged people because “trickle down” will automatically take of all that distasteful stuff for them, somehow, possibly involving invisible hands and tidal flows.

  2. Randomfactor says

    I do believe that George Carlin got there first, in a monologue reminiscing about his childhood. But he said it applied to women only, IIRC. “Scumbag” was the male equivalent.

  3. Curt Cameron says

    I never knew what “scumbag” literally meant, until fairly recently I heard that the New York Times apologized to readers for including the answer “SCUMBAG” in their crossword puzzle. Turns out that it’s slang for a condom. The word seems much more insulting now that I know that.

  4. Some Old Programmer says

    The slur I’ve heard is “honkey”, which I don’t think has specific classist undertones. I don’t know how much currency it has in the african-american community (I’m white, grew up poor and am now am middle class). Its impact certainly pales in comparison to slurs directed at minorities.

    I don’t know that it’s possible to inflect a slur at a majority that would carry a similar impact of the minority-directed slur (and leads to the question of how desirable that would be). Being gay, I’ve heard “breeder” being aimed at non-minority people; I doubt it compares with the shout of “fag” in the street.

  5. Anne Fenwick says

    In Britain, we have ‘toff’ and ‘nob’ though I think they’ve only racial incidentally. There’s no reason why members of the African aristocracy and Baronness Warsi shouldn’t also be nobs.

  6. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    Actually, i think he is just a fairly typical anti-white racist “douchebag” reveling in his ability to say crap like this and get away with it. We all know what the response would be if he were asking his class to demonstrate existing epithets against Jews. or invent new racist terms for rich Jews or Jewish supremacists.

    Racist terms for whites are often class-based and have a long tradition, but Cohen himself sinks to using them in his article which eliminates any weak credibility his concern-trolling on behalf of working class whites might have had. “White, heterosexist male” is really the racist/sexist/heterophobic catch-all term he should be promoting if he wishes to refine his bigotry, since it is so widely employed by self-styled “anti-racists.” Then again what right does this blancophalllocis-privileged oppressor have to assert his domination and monopolize the creation of racist diatribes? POCs have come up with far more amusing terms for whites like “ice mutant” and “tater tots” (Irish kids) when all this douchebag has to offer is “douchebag?”

  7. Michael Duchek says

    #4 Some Old Programmer says:
    If I remember correctly, ‘Honky’ was specifically created in the 1950’s or 60’s as an equivalent to the N word because up until then there wasn’t an equivalent insult for whites.

    Cracker comes from being the whip cracker, ie the slave driver.

  8. Holms says

    Pretty sure ice mutant and tater tot would just be met with ridicule on the grounds that they are lame. Maybe the Irish might be irked at the association with potatoes, but dear god ice mutant is out there.

  9. says

    On Hill Street Blues the preferred racial slur for white people was “graymeat” which I thought was rather pithy. I have no idea if that was a real existing slur before the show or if they made it up though.

  10. John Horstman says

    Race doesn’t work in such a way that one can slur the dominant group collectively, by design. Even if you try, you’re still only slurring specific individuals; a “racial slur” that degrades the entire group is impossible becasue the dominant group enjoys social recognition of group heterogeneity, while marginalized groups are socially constructed as homogenous. A White person may be “a douchebag” but this doesn’t suggest all White people are douchebags in a way that is at all comparable with slurs against Black people, Latino/a people, East Asian people, etc. The closest thing I can come up with is “colonialist” or something similar, which DOES implicate all members of the colonizing group, as we benefit from colonialism even if we don’t directly engage in it or support it (often, even if we oppose it). But that’s a simple description, not really a slur; with the proper context suggesting the intended connotation, “White” could function just as well as a slur.

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