What Is a Racial Epithet?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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A racial epithet is a derogatory term based on someone's racial background, used as an insult. These slurs are used against members of a racial group or their allies, as in the case of slang terms where people append “lover” to an epithet to imply that someone advocating for a specific group is as contemptible as the group itself. Many languages have racial epithets, and different cultures may have varying norms about their use; within English-speaking languages, these epithets are quite culturally diverse.

The history of racial epithets is ancient. Numerous ancient languages record instances of race-based insults. Some were made out of terms groups used to refer to themselves, while others were derived from slang terms created by outsiders. A racial epithet can also combine the use of an insult with an ethnicity, like “Mexican pig.” Referring to someone as “Mexican” is not offensive, but the combination of the neutral descriptor with the insult can create a charged racial epithet.

Public attitudes about racial epithets are highly variable. In some communities, there may be a high tolerance for race-based insults, and this may play into racist social attitudes. Racial epithets can also interplay with other political and social issues. For example, in nations with rising anti-immigrant sentiment, epithets aimed at immigrants may also weaponize traditional racial epithets to inflame popular sentiment and exploit race-based fears among the general public.


Epithets can be used in bullying and intimidation tactics as well as threats, like defacing a student's locker with a slur or writing a letter that may open with a racial epithet or use slurs to refer to members of someone's family. In some regions, the use of a racial epithet, particularly in charged language like suggestions that violence should be committed, is a crime. It may be considered hate speech, and can subject the speaker to penalties. Hate crimes laws vary considerably by jurisdiction, and sometimes come into conflict with free speech protections.

Awareness of racial epithets can be important for travelers, even if they are traveling to nations that speak their own language. Considerable linguistic divergence can be seen between two countries that ostensibly speak the same language, and this can include insults. A term that may be harmless or acceptable in one regional dialect may be considered a profound insult in another. It can help to talk to native speakers familiar with the issue to get advice on descriptors of various racial and ethnic groups to avoid.


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Post 4

I actually had a bit of a discussion with someone recently about hate speech. She was quite liberal, and was torn on whether it should be a crime or not, since she really believed in the right to free speech.

But, the thing is, the right to free speech should only go so far. Because speech can harm people and people should be protected from harm.

Threats with intent, for example, are a pretty clear cut case of words being harmful. Or verbal abuse of minors.

In the case of racial epithets I think the line blurs a little, because you're getting close to persecuting people for their opinion (however vile that opinion might be). I guess it depends on the racial epithet definition and what else is said when they say it.

Post 3

@bythewell - The thing is, there is an enormous power wrapped up in words, particularly those related to marginalized people. And even if they have managed, through perseverance and probably much gritting of teeth, to subvert that power for the good by taking back a word and redefining it, if you use it and you aren't in that marginalized group it's still going to carry the same power it did before.

In fifty years, it's possible that "bitch" will have come to really mean someone who is confident and honest, but at the moment that meaning is still less well known than the other meaning. And the same goes for pretty much every racial epithet you can think of.

Post 2

I find it really interesting how racial epithets and other swear words can change over time. Particularly when a particular group "takes back" the word for themselves. For example, in some cases women seem to try and take back the word "bitch" and use it to mean someone who is forthright and confident, rather than its negative terms. Other women still find it offensive in all iterations though.

The difference seems to be, not just intention, but also who gets to use the word. There are plenty of racial epithets that are used by the members of the race in question, but if someone outside of their race uses them, it's considered offensive. I'm not sure entirely why it works like that (I'm not arguing it though).

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