6 common phrases with racist origins that you should stop using

Getting started with your Racial Equity Strategy in 2022What if we told you that some of the words and phrases you are using have racist origins?

Would you be surprised?

Whilst we can all agree that racism has no place in society, it is an issue people are currently facing on a daily basis in our workplaces, towns and cities.

There are many words and phrases in the English language which many people are commonly using as they do not realise are entrenched in racism. To create a culture where everyone feels respected and valued, take the time to understand the phrases we use and why you should avoid using some of them.

In this post, we’re going to shed some light on some of the most common words and give you handy hints on what to say instead. Let’s break the cycle.


The word “gyp” is commonly used to refer to being cheated or scammed. People also use it to describe something not working well or being unreliable, for example, “My back’s giving me gyp”.

You might not be aware that “gyp” is a racial slur derived from the word “gypsy”, a derogatory term for people of Romani descent.

Just as you wouldn’t dream of using any other racial slur in a casual description of backache, it’s not appropriate to use the word gyp.

What should we say instead?

  • Swindle

  • Rip-off

  • Cheat

No can do / long time no see

“No can do” is often used as an upbeat way of telling someone that something isn’t possible. It’s rarely used in a serious conversation.

The racist origins of “no can do” might not be immediately apparent, but it’s impossible to unsee once it’s been pointed out. It was originally used to mock the speech patterns of Chinese immigrants to the United States.

The same is true of the closely-related phrase “long time no see”. Due to their origin, either of these phrases could make racially marginalised people feel uncomfortable and should therefore be avoided.

What should we say instead?

  • I can’t do that

  • It’s not possible

Sold down the river

To be sold down the river means to be deeply betrayed. The phrase is American in origin and dates back to before the American Civil War.

The phrase refers to the Mississippi River and originated with Northern enslavers threatening to sell enslaved people down the river to ensure compliant behaviour.

Enslaved people considered ‘difficult” would be separated from their families, removed from everyone they’d ever known and shipped down the Mississippi river to carry out brutally hard labour in the Deep South.

Given this context, talking about being “sold down the river” to describe an everyday betrayal is inappropriate.

What should we say instead?

  • Betrayed

  • Let down

A thug is a violent and brutal criminal. The term is often used in news reports when talking about violence carried out by groups, especially groups of young Black men.

The term thug is probably more often applied to Black people than White offenders who commit the same crimes.

The racist undertones of the word thug also go back to its origins. Thug is derived from the Hindu word Thuggee, meaning thief.

Thugs were an organised group of thieves operating in India for over five centuries. Their methods were profoundly brutal, and many would murder their victims and rob them.

The British eventually wiped out the group, who appropriated the word to fall on the more-brutal end of the spectrum of gangsters.

What should we say instead?

  • Bully

  • Violent criminal

  • Thief

Calling a spade a spade

“Calling a spade a spade” means being forthright and ‘telling it like it is’. This phrase can be a red flag anyway because it signals the speaker prioritises giving their own, unvarnished opinion over considering other people’s needs and feelings.

The phrase “calling a spade a spade” has a complicated history. In its oldest forms, the phrase was actually “calling a fig a fig and a trough a trough” and dates back to ancient Greece. The racial undertones were a later addition.

The spade in this phrase was originally understood to be the gardening tool. Around the late 1920s, this association shifted to imply the suit of playing cards instead. At the same time, the word “spade” began to be used as a code word for black people.

These two adjustments in language usage took “call a spade a spade” from an innocuous Greek idiom to an uncomfortably racist phrase.

What should we say instead?

  • Telling it like it is

  • Being completely upfront

  • Being brutally honest

Peanut gallery

The “peanut gallery” is defined by Urban Dictionary as “a person or group of people whose opinions are insignificant”. The implication is that they are rowdy or unruly and don’t need to be taken seriously.

The phrase is typically relaxed or jovial, but its racist history is not.

The phrase was first used to refer to poor (mostly Black) sections of the audience at Vaudeville shows in the 1860s. Audience members threw food (primarily peanuts) at performers who failed to impress.

References to the peanut gallery evoke images of rowdy, aggressive Black people from a low socioeconomic background with poor self-control — not an appropriate image for the workplace or anywhere else, really.

What should we say instead?

  • Cheap seats

  • Hecklers

Creating more equitable organisations — one step at a time

Creating an organisation where everyone feels safe and respected, no matter their race isn’t a pipe dream, but it will require making changes.

Being more careful with our language and being curious about the origins of the terms we use, is a small step towards creating that culture.

For an open conversation about other necessary steps, you can take to create the kind of culture you want, get in touch with FLAIR today.

2022 GUIDE: Getting started with your Racial Equity Strategy