what makes a particular term offensive

  • Posted by a hidden member.
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    Oct 04, 2007 2:44 AM GMT
    I question the reason for the offensiveness of many terms. Oriental, negro, homosexual, to name a few that have appeared and been deemed offensive in these forums. (I'm sure I could find a lot more if I wanted to take the time...but, you folks know what I mean.) I would like to have you opine on and discuss how and why did these presently offensive terms become offensive. There was a time that many of them were accepted and, indeed, deemed politically correct and appropriate. Did the particular group that the term described become more cohesive and powerful politically and need to flex their political muscle? I would really like to hear from some of the folks that were a part of the group described by the offensive terms.
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    Oct 04, 2007 3:14 AM GMT
    I think it has more to do with the way people use them.
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    Oct 04, 2007 3:17 AM GMT
    I'm offended by your question!
  • MSUBioNerd

    Posts: 1813

    Oct 04, 2007 3:31 AM GMT
    Well, for the record...

    It seems a lot of people feel that unless you are a member of the group, you don't have a say in what an acceptable term is for the group. I've run into that problem when attempting to express my views on certain group names in the past. But of those three listed terms, one of them does apply to me: namely, homosexual. And I have no problem with going on record that I think it's absurd for someone to find that term offensive. It merely means that I'm sexually attracted to members of my own sex, and not to those of the other. I think the term is a good one, as gay has come more and more to mean only gay men, and it's good to have a term that encompasses both gay men and lesbians.

    In general, I think a term most often comes to be seen as offensive when people perceive it to be used primarily as a pejorative. Hence, you're no longer supposed to refer to people as being retarded, even though it's a perfectly valid way to describing individuals who are slower to develop mentally and socially than they are physically, and it was once the preferred term. It's clear that many, and probably most people use the term retarded primarily as an insult, which makes it all that much easier for the term to be considered offensive.

    On the other hand, sometimes a group chooses to use a term which had previously been considered offensive themselves. The term queer, for instance, was once intended as an insult, and plenty of idiots (a term formerly meant to refer to those unable to restrain their base impulses, but obviously no longer the predominant use of it today) these days use gay as an all-purpose putdown. (I tend to dislike the phrase "that's so gay" when referring to, say, a stupid rule being enforced. I'm often tempted to ask the speaker to explain what about it calls to mind man on man action.) This reclaiming of a term is often seen as symbolically powerful. The exact mechanisms for how this occurs are not terribly well understood, though.

    As for the other two terms in the original post...well, this may lead to flaming, but I don't really see either being offensive. Negro's rather dated, and has connotations of the attempt to split people into three principle races, the caucasoid, the negroid, and the mongoloid, but that notion's fallen out of favor. Still, I can see why it's best not to use that word, as it's rather closer to nigger (a word I wouldn't use, just as I wouldn't use cracker or kike or spic of the like), which is a dangerously loaded term to try to use except for shock value. And despite the recent posting where oriental was declared offensive, I still don't buy that it is. The major objection seemed to be to referring to a diverse continent as if it were homogenous (which, if we're being fair, should also apply to the concept of White--the Norwegians and the Greeks looks pretty different and are rather culturally distinct, but we lump them all together in one broad term), but the suggestion that we just replace the term with Asian renders that argument nonsensical. If the former is offensive for the reason listed, then so should the second one be.
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    Oct 04, 2007 3:57 AM GMT
    Oh, this one is good!

    The way I see it, the offensiveness of a term (for a group) varies depending on who you're talking to, what your talking about, what the context is, and how well you know each other. Also, your in- or out-group status makes a difference.

    Take the group of people commonly reffered to as "Native Americans." Now, of course, many people still use the term "Indian," which has fallen out of academic usage, but then you have situations where certain people may want to be referred to by specific tribal affiliation (Cherokee) or by none at all "American." If the person is very self-aware of their group status, they are probably more likely to be offended, depending on the term you use (and if they deem it to be correct, and so on...).

    Overall, there's such a diversity of people and the groups they belong to that we can't all keep all the names correct ALL THE TIME! I think if most people try to use a term that gets the point across (but not one they KNOW will offend), others are likely to be okay with it. You can't tip-toe around everybody's little "PC" titles.icon_exclaim.gif
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    Oct 04, 2007 5:07 AM GMT
    Overall, there's such a diversity of people and the groups they belong to that we can't all keep all the names correct ALL THE TIME! I think if most people try to use a term that gets the point across (but not one they KNOW will offend), others are likely to be okay with it. You can't tip-toe around everybody's little "PC" titles.

    Agreed with the caveat that while race, or the term may no mean much it may mean a lot to the other person. And in particular it seems to me that many whites (caucasians or whatever you want to call them) currently view race as a non-issue and approach the subject that way. For other groups, however, it is still a big issue, and while their race or the term you use may not figure prominently in your mind, it probably figures prominently in their minds. And certainly, given their history, it is understandable that some are more sensitive than others.

    For example there is probably not term for labelling African Americans, or Africans that has not been used negatively at one time or another. And certainly the term 'Indian' is a misnomer based on Colombus' faulty belief of what he had discovered.

    I'm not saying be PC, just keep in mind others have a different perspective and different levels of sensitivity. And for myself, I have not problem with either of the terms homosexual or gay, well depending on your context and tone of voice.
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    Oct 04, 2007 10:24 AM GMT
    homosexual? when was homosexual a pejorative term to describe gays? (unless you mean that any given word has limiting parameters in it's description) do you mean if it is levied at straights?


    frankly, i'm sick to death of this argument. we all know the words that offend. it's quite simple. you have a choice. do you want to offend or not? look to your own motives!
  • GQjock

    Posts: 11648

    Oct 04, 2007 10:52 AM GMT
    Words are mainly nouns are terms terms to label or name something .... their meaning is always a consensus of a population or a group of people
    ...some take on a pejorative meaning at times depending on the time and the group's perspective
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    Oct 04, 2007 12:02 PM GMT
    A few years ago, I innocently stumbled across another source of potential offense when I inquired about a Native American's tribe. He icily replied that it is a nation, not a tribe.
  • jc_online

    Posts: 487

    Oct 04, 2007 12:23 PM GMT
    There is an excellent organization working toward inclusion of all Americans, check them out at http://www.nccj.org/

    My opinions on this topic are lengthy and tend to come off as lecturing when I attempt to explain; suffice it to say that we, as white and male, need to step outside of our understanding as part of the dominant culture, and attempt to view others' perspectives with understanding and respect. We must also work as a progressive movement to create paradigm shifts. The challenge is to examine your white privilege and your male privilege - then do something to change it.

    Is it noteable that no one responding to this thread identifies in their profile as anything other than white. Let's step back, and wait for someone other than those that look like us to respond. Just give it a try.
  • cityguy39

    Posts: 967

    Oct 04, 2007 12:44 PM GMT
    I'm with Mindgarden, I'm not sure what turn this thread will take. But speaking as a black man yes I said black man. I refer to myself as black. Yes the origin of my blood line may come from Africa, but it's not a place I identify with. Some people might be offended by the term black, I'm not particularly found of the term african american. It's a place I hope to visit one day but that's about it. My race seems to be one inparticular that has had many terms to describe us. Some more offensive then others. When it come to offensive terms esp ones that have ties to someones race you should tread very lightly. As for the broader question. I think we all have to be careful about offensive terms, some are very obvious, some are fuzzy. I think the biggest factor in offensive terms is the person using the term and the intended destination of the term.

    Doug
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    Oct 04, 2007 2:06 PM GMT
    dakuk: some people prefer to avoid the term homosexual because it has a clinical connotation. It was historically used to describe gay people as having an illness that could be treated. In contemporary times, certain homophobic people try to legitimise their prejudice by using scientific-sounding language as if they are entering honestly into some sort of debate. In reality their prejudiced views are entrenched.

    More generally, perhaps 'offensive' is an incomplete description of why we should avoid certain word. On the original words mentioned, Oriental and Negro, there is a large body of literature and langauge from the colonialist era that use these phrases. Think of the phrase 'Oriental mindset' for example that was used as a propaganda phrase to dehumanize the Japanese people during WWII. Read R. M. Ballantyne's "The Coral Island" for example where 3 white British boys are shipwrecked on an island and procees to rule over the 'negroes'. I need not provide an exhaustive bibliography. In any case, a great many people nowadays are blissfully unaware of such matters; they may not be offended by the use of these words. But they still carry a baggage. I do not use them because I reject utterly the ideology of colonialism; to do otherwise would demean me. I advise you to do the same.

    Do not be fooled: the words we use both define us and limit us. I have picked up words like 'dude' and 'sick' that define me as kitesurfer; I routinely use words like 'quantum' and 'eigenvalue' that define me as a physicist; but if I see the world as full of 'Orientals', I limit myself on how I see Koreans and Japanese by overgeneralising their culture and history. A fantastic case in point: Victorian society, one of the most prudish or fetishized (depending on how you see it) societies in the history of the world, lacked the word 'taboo' until it was brought in from polynesian 'tapu'. How can we question what we do not have a word for?

    Incidentally, it is amusing to see the pejorative phrase 'political correctness' again.
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    Oct 04, 2007 3:34 PM GMT
    In society today it is the group the word is used against that defines what is offensive and what is not. For instance the "N" word was always offensive to African-Americans until fairly recently when rappers have been using it to "reclaim" the word. However, if a person that was not African-American used that word against an African-American then offense would probably be taken. Similar with the word "faggot" a word I heard used quite a bit by the character Brian while watching Queer as Folk. If it is a straight homophobe like Justin's Father using that word it is offensive, if it is Brian then it isn't. Somewhat confusing I know.

    I personally do not find the word "homosexual" offensive, I actually prefer it to "gay" which seems to take on a connotation of a lifestyle or a manner of acting which I cannot relate to. Homosexual is very exact in its' meaning, gay is not.
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    Oct 04, 2007 3:56 PM GMT
    I agree with you Tiger, though I wouldn't posit it solely as something from the 'colonialist era', or at least it seems like too convenient of a burial ground, and one that has decreasing relevance even to the British.

    I would say most groups of people tend to see themselves in at least some way superior to others -- and the Japanese and Chinese certainly aren't immune to this. It's also probably true that Europeans, and their farflung descendants, have taken this to a further degree than others, and there is probably precious little written before the last 50 yrs by 'Western' authors that looks respectfully at cultures and races other than those of a European/white background. And certainly there was plenty of purported 'science' written using the terms negro or oriental in ways that were hardly respectful, and often derogatory, to those cultures.

    But is it still wrong to use the terms if the mindset has changed? If I'm blissfully unaware that oriental is negative, and not using it in a negative term need I be encumbered by colonial baggage? And while oriental may be vague, so is European, or African, or Latin American etc as they don't distinguish between the myriad complexities. I don't know, but at least the mindset and way of thinking is as important as the term.

    And thanks for sharing cityguy39, but you do highlight the issues that stil exist, and the difficulty we still have in coming up with a term or label or whatever you want to call it that is acceptable to those involved.
  • imaxim

    Posts: 94

    Oct 04, 2007 5:22 PM GMT
    Growing up, I've always identified as 'black'. I never considered myself 'mixed' until I started dealing with the gay community where race is such a huge issue (but that's another story). Anyway, I'm not sure there is really any confusion here on what terms to use... I've never seen anyone get upset about being called "Asian" and rarely about being called "black" (I find insisting on "African-American" to be extremely pretentious).

    The question seems to be why NOT to use certain terms. Bear in mind that I haven't read whatever thread you guys are referring to. For "oriental", my understanding is that the term is generally intended to indicate nonhuman items like rugs and food, whereas "Asian" is a term for describing people. I first heard that explanation in the early 90s; I'm not sure exactly how long it has been the case.

    For 'negro', I've generally only seen that used as a milder form of pejorative than the other N word, except of course when it's used in an actual Spanish context. Inherently it has no negative meaning, and I suppose some people who use it may be thinking that it's somehow friendlier than 'black'... but rarely comes off as such.

    So, I've always found 'Asian' to be a pretty safe term, and I think 'black' is fine unless you are speaking in a formal situation or talking in some other sensitive context where race is a hot issue (in which case you'd use 'African-American' just to be safe). Sure, some people are going to be offended just for the sake of being difficult, but by and large, it's just not the minefield it's being made out to be.

    One other thing that also helps is to remember that these are adjectives, not nouns. People are generally more receptive to hearing themselves described as "Asian people" or "black men" than as "Asians" and "blacks". Just a thought; not accusing anyone here.
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    Oct 04, 2007 8:25 PM GMT
    Because of my immigrant background, I don't know a lot of the literary history and therefore haven't been able to understand why the term "oriental" is offensive. I respect the perspectives of my fellow American-born Asians so I've learned to avoid using it.

    Once I was on a message board and used the word "WASP" which a few (white) guys found offensive. Anyone know if this is indeed offensive and why?
  • MSUBioNerd

    Posts: 1813

    Oct 04, 2007 8:31 PM GMT
    Whoo! Another term which applies to me, so I get to call it non-offensive. ;) WASP is an acronym for White Anglo Saxon Protestant, which for a long time was the politically/economically/etc dominant group in the US. Though it no longer actively applies to me, I did grow up as a WASP (no longer being religious, I'm not truly Protestant anymore), but my impression is that people being offended by the use of this term are people who are thin skinned and easily offended. It's a descriptor of an often privileged group, nothing more.
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    Oct 04, 2007 9:29 PM GMT
    Does it really matter why? Something's offensive as long as it offends.

    And to say that they were once accepted, please make note at who had the power at those times and what the status of the people being describe was at that time. and tell if they truly had that much of a say so or not.

    Sometimes fussing over definitions are the first step to social awareness and realizations of power.

    but for as negro, I find it offensive. But yes many members in my family use the terms nigga and negro. Such as negro please, which is a comical statement in black culture.

    Nigger however is an entirely different story.

    There are a lot of unwritten rules that define if something is offensive or not and if so how it should be used and by whom. The best way to know is to ask. I've had many white friends ask me about it and I answer. Being several minorities in one, I am use to educating people on these matters.

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    Oct 04, 2007 9:49 PM GMT
    paradox: Speaking as a Native American... yes, technically its a "nation" as opposed to a "tribe", and legally speaking, most "tribes" are actually soveriegn nations. Neither term offends me, though I know other NAs do take offense at the word "tribe". I think it has to do with the recent movement among all the First Nations to reclaim our culture by exerting that status of "nation". I do find it interesting that I can ask another NA what their tribal affiliation is and there's no attitude slung back at me, but let a non-native ask the same question and you see the kind of icy attitude that you experienced. I'm sorry that happened...

    I find offensive words to be a curiosity in that some are not always offensive... for example, my friends (and by extension, other gay men) can call me a faggot and it doesn't bother me... If someone else calls me that and I sense hatred or negativity behind their use of the word, I'm ready to fight. "Half-breed" is another one... and except for Cher's old song of that name, I've never heard it used any other way but negatively. Therefore, it tends to put me in fighting mode.

    I think the offensiveness of some words depends on the energy/intent of the user... others on the context... and some on the historical/cultural meanings.
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    Oct 16, 2007 1:57 PM GMT
    tigertim, i take your point, i hadn't thought of it like that.

    it's funny i know of much older gay men who only want to be called 'homosexual' and don't want to associate themselves with the whole 'gay' thing.
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    Dec 01, 2007 2:55 AM GMT
    The only way I and I think anyone is offended is from the meaning we give to the words spoken to us. Fag doesn't bother me, I'm rather proud of it. And I say so. It disarms those who think they are offending me.
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    Jan 19, 2008 3:53 AM GMT
    NativeDude said sense hatred or negativity behind their use of the word...I think the offensiveness of some words depends on the energy/intent of the user...


    thats about the jist of it in a nutshell.
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    Jan 19, 2008 4:01 AM GMT
    scottNV saidthats about the jist of it in a nutshell.


    I find the word 'nutshell' highly offensive to the mentally ill community. icon_smile.gif
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    Feb 03, 2008 10:42 PM GMT
    NativeDude said
    I think the offensiveness of some words depends on the energy/intent of the user... others on the context... and some on the historical/cultural meanings.


    I agree with you. However, there are words that are offensive regardless of the energy or the context that it's used in. For example, I'm Filipino. They main term we use amongst each other is FLIP. When someone that's not Filipino uses it it's offensive. I personally don't like the word and I wish other Filipinos would stop using it as well. I think that part of the reasons people still use it is because they don't know what it menas. FLIP was created by members of the US military to describe the Filipino people, and not in a positive way. I have a friend that is Native Alaskan and she said that Redskin is an offensive term. Yet no one blinks an eye with its' use largely in part because no one knows the historical meaning behind it.
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    Feb 03, 2008 10:47 PM GMT
    Spot ON! Mindgarden! Please tell when did the above listed terms became offensive????


    I'm confused.