International students, these racial slurs should be avoided at all costs in the US (and everywhere else)

racist bad words
You may hear these bad words hurled at certain races in the US -- using them, however, could get you in serious trouble. Source: Timothy A. Clary/AFP

It’s easy to spot racist, bad words and phrases, right? In the US, the answer is yes and no. 

As an international student, you’ll not be exempt from the vagaries (and let’s be honest here, the downright despicable) of American life. 

You may have gotten racist, bad words and phrases thrown at you, such as being told to go back to your home country or even slurs about where you’re from.

You may have understood it clearly (and painfully). You may have not understood it.

While racism is prevalent in every part of the world, it is especially rooted in US society – hence the phrase “systemic or institutional racism”

The term refers to the systems set in place that disproportionately affects non-Whites, particularly African Americans and puts them at a disadvantage compared to White persons. 

Being aware of this is important. You need to know whether what’s being said to you is okay or not. You too need to know whether it’s right for you to use certain words you hear in the US.

Sometimes, even Americans get genuinely confused over whether certain things are discriminatory bad words to the African Americans or not.

Indeed, one Pew survey found that most Americans believe their country can’t agree over what is considered sexist (65%) or racist (61%) language; and about half (48%) say it is hard to know what other people might find offensive.

The challenge is greater still for international students like you, who are new to this country and its cultural nuances.

But what’s clear is that although you’re in a land that protects free speech, that doesn’t give you a pass to say anything you like, especially bad words that can hurt any race.

If you’re heading to the US, here are racial slurs you should absolutely avoid:

racial slurs

The Black Lives Matter movement was re-ignited in 2020 in light of George Floyd’s death. Photo: John Moore/ Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

1. N-word 

Among all the bad words, the N-word is the #1 racial slur you should never, ever say, or even consider saying. 

The word can be traced back in history to slavery when the first documented slaves arrived in the US. Africans were referred to using the Spanish and Portuguese words for black – negro.

“It’s really tied into the idea that African people aren’t really human beings,” says Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University.

“They were more like an animal than a human being, a beast of burden, could be bought and sold, could be thrown overboard and literally had no rights. So when the N-word is used that’s essentially what it’s used for.”

2. Kike

Kike is an antisemitic ethnic slur for a Jewish person.

There are multiple theories about the emergence of this term. A popular theory suggests that it derived from the Yiddish word for circle (“kikel”).

This refers to how the first Jewish immigrants signed their entry forms at Ellis Island with a circle as opposed to an “X,” which Jews associated with the cross of Christianity. 

Immigration officers described those who signed forms with a circle as “kikel,” eventually being shortened to “kike.” It is a highly offensive term.  

3. Chink

“Chink” is one of the bad words often used against any Asian-looking person.

Some say the word originated from the word China. Others say it came from the word “qing” (pronounced as “ching”), as in the Qing dynasty.

Its origins in the US may be innocent enough as a term to describe those who were of Asian descent.

But it was later misused by racists in the early 20th century when Chinese migrants were seen as a threat to the living standards of whites in North America.

They saw the Chinese as invasive, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. The law banned Chinese from migrating to the US.

While the US is the most inclusive it’s ever been today, and Michelle Yeoh a frontrunner to win the Oscar’s this year, Asian hate remains in some communities.

One Ipsos survey found 82% of Asian Americans say that they faced discrimination as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its link to China.