Best of 2017: Why 'white' isn't a racist slur



Language operates and affects people in profoundly different ways, bestowing power upon minorities through their reclamation of words that were otherwise used to demean them, or deployed effectively to typecast and dehumanise.

Scene from Dear White PeopleI hung out with a group of Indian-Australians while I was a first-year university student who called themselves 'curries', but the unspoken camaraderie and deep sense of pride that ensued from this self-identification stood in stark contrast to that time I was called a 'fucking curry' by a passing car full of white people.

It is commonly understood why Indian-Australians are able to call themselves 'curries', while white people and, to a certain extent, other minorities are not — the desire to subvert the narrative and a shared understanding of the nuanced ways in which one can be an Indian-Australian allows this cultural group to reclaim the word without further entrenching negative stereotypes.

Yet you often hear from white people, even the seemingly progressive ones, that they can't be called 'white' because that too is racist language. This reflects a flawed assumption that societal structures advantage and disadvantage people in the exact same way, and that we operate on a level playing field.

To be white is to not face the same tangible repercussions that come with being a person of colour in Australia. White people aren't asked 'what's the deal with white people?' and 'are they all the same?' by one of Australia's most renowned breakfast radio hosts. White celebrities aren't told to 'leave the country' or called 'un-Australian' when they dare question the hypocrisy of certain national celebrations.

White people have never had their skin colour co-opted in the spirit of a Halloween costume, harking back to a deeply corrosive history of whiteface minstrelsy, and had their ensuing outrage demonised as 'batshit crazy' by a multimillion dollar media mogul.

White people don't suffer material disadvantages by virtue of being white, which extend to resume-based discrimination in the labour market, prejudice in the criminal justice system, education apartheid, disproportionately high incarceration rates and lower life expectancies.

Of course, whiteness often intersects with womanhood, lower socioeconomic status, queerness and disability, so it would be a misnomer to paint the realities of all white people with a broad brushstroke. But the identifier 'white', in and of itself, can't be considered derogatory within a framework that serves to protect and further the interests of white people at its every juncture.


"Racism doesn't occur when one person says something offensive or mean to another person. Racism occurs when there is privilege and power."


As American feminist Peggy McIntosh adroitly summarises in her 1989 piece 'White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack', being white means many things, but none of them are bad. It means seemingly inconsequential things like being able to find a 'skin-colour' band-aid in a way that legitimises your primacy in the world, to more fundamental privileges like being able to turn on your TV or open to the front page of the paper and see your race widely represented and never being asked to speak for all the people of your racial group. It means remaining oblivious to the language and customs of people of colour, who constitute the world's majority, without feeling any penalty for such oblivion because the irreversible effects of colonialism continue to play out through structures that actively exclude minorities. Historical context matters.

Moreover, racism doesn't occur when one person says something offensive or mean to another person. Racism occurs when there is privilege and power. McIntosh writes about how she'd been taught to decode racism in the context of the individual, instead of the societal structures that are reinforced and consolidated by virtue of its transgression. 'I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognise racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.'

In episode five of Netflix original comedy-drama series Dear White People (see main image), a fight breaks out between African American character Reggie and a white student after the latter sings along to every word in Future's Trap Niggas, including the n-word.

Reggie: It felt kind of weird to hear you say it. I mean, how would you feel if I started rapping to songs, you know, that say 'honky' and 'cracker'?
White student: I wouldn't care at all.
Reggie: Exactly, that's the difference. The fact that you don't care and that I do.

The words 'honky' and 'cracker' and to a lesser extent 'white' will only become racist words when they sit within a system that disadvantages white people based on their race. And when has that ever happened?



Sonia NairSonia Nair is a freelance writer and critic who has been published in The Big Issue, the Australian Book Review and Books&Publishing. She tweets @son_nair and blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at

This article was originally published on 12 July 2017.

Topic tags: Sonia Nair, racism


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Existing comments

Actually why use colour words as a way of describing(labelling) people at all? I'm from an anglo-celtic background. I'm not 'white'. I'm a kind of tanned apricot- pink (hard to get it right) I wouldn't like to be called 'white' which by now I've come to associate with socially advantaged supremacist biggotted racist people. In the Judeo/Christian tradition aren't all people deemed to be made in the image and likeness of God. So what colour's God?
Pauline | 10 January 2018

I learned a long time ago that to be a racist you have to be white.
Don Humphrey | 11 January 2018

In relation to the final question - yes that happens a lot when "white people" are employed or need to work out things in non-white countries (in my country-of-origin, the local translation of the word white is correct but every usage of it is derogatory). Remember that we now live in a gloabl world where people have to travel overseas for work and study and trade and so many other matters. There will always be rude and ignorant and insular people. If they are not part of your inner circle or seriously interfering with your ability to carry out your tasks or lead a reasonable satisfying life, then who cares what they say?
Beryl | 11 January 2018

Thank you for your article, Sonia Nair. A good discussion and I agree with your analysis of privilege and power balance adding up to racism, rather than just prejudice. However, I would like to suggest that while the black/white/brown/ and other adjectives/coloured language has been a necessary step to increase awareness of our constructs rtelying on the colour of one's skin and on ignorance of genetics, we now need to move to a language that does not refer to the colour of one's skin, to make a point and to claim equality. After all modern science tells us there are no human races, only human species "In many ways, genetics makes a mockery of race" says Adam Ratherford in his book A brief history of everyone who ever lived. To the extend that we rely on the colour of one's skin to define a person and/or a group, we are all using racist language, in my opinion. It is like confirming that white has meant and is continuing to mean 'power structure' Well, it is time to introduce a different type of language that indicates the need, obligation.rights of sharing of power. I look forward to reading more of your writing. Thank you.
Antonina Bivona | 12 January 2018

When I (white English woman) became engaged to a brown Sri Lankan man) in 1961 , the only relative to use a racist remark to us was an aunt by marriage of my fiance (later my husband for 44 years) who didn't want him to marry a "white girl". She clearly objected to me because of my skin colour. This was certainly racist. Clearly her impression of white people was biased. The first few times I went to Sri Lanka, people in the street would stare but not make a derogatory remark. I assume they were just curious and wondered how I came to be in that family group. I have known of white people planning engagement to non-white people who were treated rudely and insulted because of their colour. In some cases the plans for marriage were abandoned because of this.Clearly people from all cultures can be racist . I think racism is based on ignorance of other communities and cultures. As people from childhood mix in society, friendships can develop and bonds form. However, it is important to have laws in place which make discrimination illegal.
Mary Samara-Wickrama | 14 January 2018

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