The Vocabulary of Race (1972)

Ken Johnson

Source: Thomas Kochman, ed., Rappin' and Stylin' Out: Communication in Urban Black America (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1972): 140-151.

Editor's Note:

Ken Johnson brings a varied background to his research interests. Born and raised in Chicago's South Side black community, he worked in the post office for five years and served two years in the army before attending Wilson Junior College. A graduate of Chicago State University (Chicago Teachers College South), the University of Chicago, and the University of Southern California, Johnson is an associate professor of education and ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Author of the SRA series Teaching the Culturally Disadvantaged: A Rational Approach and several articles dealing with the education of minority children, his special interest is in the teaching of black children who speak black dialect, and in those social, cultural, and linguistic factors that affect learning, especially within institutionally defined contexts such as the classroom.

Insofar as the article deals traditionally with the relationship of vocabulary and culture, it is a product of the author's general research interest in sociolinguistics. Yet it almost goes without saying that the motivation for writing this article comes as much from his being black as it does from his pursuit of scholarship, especially as the racial terms discussed herein are a well-established part of his own lexicon and usage. That black people in general should possess and use a different vocabulary from whites is understandable given the respectively different nature of the black and white experiences in this country. In this respect, by discussing racial terms with reference to the social situation in which they are used, Johnson's article succeeds in illuminating the collective perspective and state of mind of black people which has evolved from the black experience, and which has given rise to those perceptions that are at the root of word creation and dissemination.

"Culture" is the term used to refer to a shared way of life. Behavior patterns, values, and attitudes achieve cultural (in addition to individual) dimension when they are shared. The basis for a collective or cultural world-view is invariably experiential. Individuals perceive the reoccurrence of an event in which they played a part. They remark to their peers about the nature of the event and the parts various people played in it. Other individuals note having participated in a similar event. Comparisons are made, essential features of the event are noted and general parameters drawn. Among other things, roles are identified. If the situation was potentially dangerous, successful maneuvers which avoided unpleasantness or escaped punishment were carefully learned and catalogued to be used when a similar situation reoccurred. Successful escape or avoidance maneuvers become accomplished coping mechanisms or survival techniques.

In the United States, historically, a black-white context has invariably been potentially fraught with peril for the black man. Avoiding difficulty generally depended on an accurate assessment of the kind of white man with whom the black man was dealing with respect to at least one basic criterion: his attitude toward blacks as a group. The importance for the black man of correctly identifying this attitude gave rise to the occurrence within the black lexicon of a wide variety of racial identity labels for whites. These labels briefly designated the attitude of the white man or woman toward them and consequently the predictable behavior pattern that would occur within any given black-white context.

It ought to be clear that the terms emerged within the black vocabulary as a consequence of black people's uniquely disadvantaged position in white society. Whites, dealing with blacks in those contexts from a position of dominance, did not feel that they needed to differentiate among blacks according to their attitudes toward whites in order to manipulate the black-white situation to their advantage. Therefore, racial identity labels for blacks in the white American lexicon fall into a different semantic category, one generally describing black physical features and overt black behavioral mannerisms like "spade," "spook," "jigger-boo," etc. Consistent with their respectively different experiences in the United States, black people have many racial labels which characterize themselves; significantly, whites have no racial labels of self-reference. This is because racial self-consciousness was never a factor that mattered in the white people's contexts.

In a general sense, then, one can see that there exists a relationship between vocabulary and culture, that vocabulary terms serve as an index to the cultural world-view of a group. Traditionally, the number of "snow words" in Eskimo have been cited to indicate the importance of snow in Eskimo culture. However, it must be remembered that while the number of words in a language forms a general index of importance, a semantic analysis of these synonyms would more precisely identify the perceptions underlying their abundance and reveal the larger cultural significance of these terms. For example, words for "snow on the ground" and "heaving falling snow of long duration" are not only descriptive of natural phenomena; in a deeper cultural sense they signify the options or decisions that the Eskimo could make, given the set of snow conditions designated by these terms ("I can't go hunting today," etc.). Underlying vocabulary items or names (labels), therefore, are perceptions that are ultimately linked to options and imperatives which have an impact on our existence, survival, or preferred way of living.

So the number of racial identity labels that blacks have for whites or for themselves might reveal generally that racial awareness is a primary concern among blacks. A more detailed analysis of these terms reveals a differentiation among them which reflects not only a range of finer perceptions but also, linked to them, a different set of options and imperatives that are available to the black person as a consequence of the situation that the perception and name defines. So identifying a white person as a "cracker" introduces a definition of situation which structures for the black person a behavior pattern (act and response) which is different from the pattern introduced by the term "blue-eyed soul brother."

The purpose of this paper is to examine one area-race-in which experience differs between the dominant American culture and American black culture, and to point out the "lexicon of race" that has developed in black culture. Specifically, the purpose of this paper is to point out and discuss the labels black people have formulated to indicate racial identity. These racial-identity labels are part of what can be called "the black lexicon" (words that are used exclusively by black people) formulated to designate concepts derived from the unique experiences of black people within their culture.

Racial-identity labels for white people which blacks have formulated can be divided into negative, neutral, and positive categories. Negative labels are derogatory; neutral labels carry no value judgments; positive labels are complimentary. The following words for white racial identity are divided into these categories; a meaning for each word is given and discussed.


Blue-eyed devils or Devils. Clearly a derogatory label for white people because it equates them with the greatest character of evil, Satan. This label is usually used in a collective sense and is usually pluralized (even when the plural ending is not pronounced, the plural meaning of the label can be inferred from context--many blacks who speak black dialect do not pronounce the plural ending "-s"). The adjective "blue-eyed" clarifies to whom "devil" is applied. This label for white people was first used by the Muslim leaders Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. After they introduced the term, it gained wide use in black culture.

O-fays or Fays. Pig Latin pronunciation of "foe." The label refers to the combatant nature of race relations in which all white people are seen as the enemies or foes of all black people.

The Man. Particularly interesting because of the connotations the word "man" has in American culture. Black men have had a difficult time achieving manhood in American society because of the emasculating effects of racism. Therefore, "man" can only be used to refer to white men. The use of "The Man" to refer to whites implies the bitterness that black people--especially black men--have because of the denial of black manhood. The label can also be used to refer to white policemen.

Honky. Not exactly a black word because it was originally used by whites to refer to immigrants from Eastern Europe. It is a shortened version of "Bohunk." It became a black word when it was first used by Stokely Carmichael to refer to all whites. Also, the particular pronunciation of the word is black: honky instead of hunky. The pronunciation change indicates the intensity of the hate black people have for white people. The pronunciation of the first syllable has been changed to conform to the pronunciation given to the word "hungry" when one is intensely hungry--hungry is to be just hungry; hongry is to be famished.

Peckerwood. Originated in the South, and refers to all whites. When white people do strenuous work in the hot sun, there is a tendency for their necks to turn red. Their red necks resembled the red necks of woodpeckers; thus "peckerwood" was coined to refer to whites. This label is similar to the white label "red neck," which was probably coined for the same reason.

Cracker. Did not originate in the black culture; however, the meaning black people give to the term has been derived out of the black experience, and that is the reason it is included here. According to McCall and Scott, "cracker" has two probable sources,1 the first deriving from the use of the whip during the herding of cattle which was used by early Georgia settlers. The whip made a cracking sound; those who used it were called crackers. The second meaning could have been derived from the Georgia settlers' staple diet of grits, or cracked corn; anyone who had this as a diet was called a cracker. When black people use the term, however, it takes on an extra dimension. Black people use it to refer to all white people who are especially prejudiced (not only prejudiced residents of Georgia ) . This extra dimension is consistent with the two probable etymologies of the label, since the white people to whom the label applies according to both etymologies are the most prejudiced against black people. "Cracker," then, is a derogatory term especially referring to any prejudiced white person.

Captain. Stems from slavery, when black people were under the charge of an overseer who was often referred to as "Captain." The label continued to be used after slavery whenever black people worked under the supervision of white man. It is especially used in prisons throughout the South to refer to the white supervisor of black work gangs. The label is included under the negative category here because it implies the superior-inferior relationship of white and black men, and because the captain who commands black work gangs during slavery, in prison work gangs, and in other work situations is usually a hated and feared person.

Mr. Charlie. Any white man who is in a supervisory position over a black man in a work situation. It especially refers to the boss or foreman on a job, although it is sometimes used to refer to any white person It is derogatory because black people resent the superior-inferior nature of work situations with whites usually in the superior role. The use of the term "Mr." in the label also carries a loaded meaning: black men are frequently referred to without the use of "Mr." and using this word with the first name "Charlie" emphasizes the superior position of white men. In addition, "Mr." always preceded whatever name (first or last) black people called white people during and after slavery, especially in the South.

Chuck. Used in the same way that "Mr. Charlie" is used; however the use of the nickname for "Charles" is particularly derogatory because black people do not like to be called by their nicknames until they are acquainted with persons over a period of time. (The use of "Mr. Charlie" instead of "Mr. Charles" also emphasizes the derogatory nature of the label.) The nickname "Chuck" implies a familiarity that places a white man in the same position as black men.

Charlene. Feminine version of "Mr. Charlie"; refers to a white woman who is in a position of authority (particularly in a work situation) over a black person.

Miss Ann. Usually refers to white women who have a supercilious attitude toward black people. It especially refers to the white woman who has black people working for her as servants, although it can be used to refer to all white women. Like the use of "Mr." in "Mr. Charlie," "Miss" in this label emphasizes the relationship between black people and white women.


Paddy. Neutral label that refers to all white people.

Republican. Interesting because it implies the Democratic affiliation of black people: a black Republican is so rare that the word can be synonymous with "white people."

Whitey. Neutral descriptive label that refers to all white people; it can be used in a derogatory sense as well. The inflection or the context usually indicates whether the label is being used in a neutral or a negative way.

Gray. Implies the "dead" nature of white people in their physical appearance and actions. Black people equate the lack of pigmentation with lifelessness. Also, the actions of white people--especially the moderate unimpassioned behavior of middle-class whites--are seen by black people as lacking life. "Gray" implies all of this, and in this sense the label is slightly negative.


Blue-eyed soul brother or Blue-eyed soul sister. This is the most complimentary label black people have for whites. "Soul brother" (or "soul sister") is used to refer to black. "Soul" is anything indigenous to black culture; "brother" (or "sister") connotes kinship. Thus "blue-eyed soul brother" or "blue-eyed soul sister" is used to label whites who understand and appreciate black culture, and whose actions toward black people are without the reservation, strangeness, and racism that characterize the actions of many white people.

Pearls. Metaphoric label referring to attractive white women, especially to young, attractive white girls. The complimentary label equates these attractive white females to a gem.

Blondie. Descriptive label referring to any white woman; connotes the color of hair that is considered most desirable, according to the white culture's beauty standards. The label is clearly one for white women, because blond hair is not natural for black women. "Blondie" can also be used as a neutral label for white females.

Stars. Refers to white women in movie terms, connoting all the glamour associated with movie stars. The term can be used only to label white women, because there are almost no glamorous black female movie stars.

Golden Girl. Refers to the hair color of white women; "golden" connotes value, and the label is complimentary.

Pinkie. Refers to the skin color of white women.

This list of black labels for white people was collected in Chicago; however, most of the labels are used in other parts of the country. Some labels are used much more than others, and these are certainly known by black people in any area of the country, "Blue-eyed devil," "o-fay," "fay," "The Man," "hooky," "peckerwood," "Mr. Charlie," "Miss Ann," "paddy," "whitey," "gray," and "blue-eyed soul brother" or "sister" are the ones commonly used to refer to white people; other labels have a more restrictive geographical currency occurring in the usage of southern or Chicago-area blacks only. Most blacks, however, would know the referent when these labels are used in context.

The significance of black people's labels for white people lies in their abundance and the types of white persons characterized. For example, the number of negative or uncomplimentary labels for white people in the black lexicon exceeds the number of neutral and positive labels. This greater number of negative labels indicates that black people see white people as an enemy or an oppressive force most of the time In fact, "o-fay" and "fey" clearly refer to white people as the foe. "Blue-eyed devils" implies that life for black people is a kind of hell ruled by white devils.

Other negative labels reflect the inferior social position which black people occupy in relation to white people. For example, the negative labels "captain," "Mr. Charlie," "Chuck," "Charlene," and "Miss Ann" all refer to the inferior social status of black people.

The neutral labels do not connote the meaning of foe or refer to the inferior social status of black people. Instead, they relate to the dominant physical difference between white people and black people (skin color), as in "gray" and "whitey"; other labels (like "Republican") refer to an extensional characteristic that is predominantly white. It must be pointed out, however, that all of the labels that have been included here in the "neutral" category can be used in a negative context. This implies that it is difficult for black people to think of white people in a neutral way. (Some of the "positive" labels, too, can be used in a negative way. )

Only one label-"blue-eyed soul brother"-favorably refers to white men. On the other hand, a number of labels for white women can refer to them in positive ways: "blue-eyed soul sisters," "pearls," "stars," "golden girls," "blondie," and "pinkie." This means that white men are seen as a much greater threat than white women. Only two labels, "Charlene" and "Miss Ann," refer to white women in a negative way.

In addition, the positive labels for white women refer to physical characteristics. The positive labels refer to white women on the basis of eyes (blue), skin (white), and hair (blond). This may mean that the beauty standards of the dominant white culture have been accepted by black people, and this acceptance is reflected in the use of labels referring to the physical traits which are considered beautiful to the dominant culture. However, the acceptance of white beauty standards as the only beauty standards is changing. The black revolution has caused black people to develop standards of beauty based on black physical characteristics. "Black is beautiful" is a reflection of this change in attitude, as is the recent connotation given to one of the labels black people use to refer to black women: "sapphire." Originally the label referred to any black woman. Now, with the additional positive attitude toward themselves that blacks have gained from the black revolution, the label can refer to an attractive black woman.

This list of black people's labels for white people is still evolving. As new relationships between black and white arise, and as new situations in the racial crisis emerge, the black subculture will generate new labels to refer to white people.

Black racial labels of self-reference

Black people also have many words to refer to their own racial identity, which indicates the significance of blackness for themselves. This can be understood, even expected, by virtue of the fact that in almost every social context where black people have interacted with whites in America--whether in seeking employment, or housing, or pursuing social relations in general--their own race has always been a factor that blacks have had to consider in evaluating or understanding the white response to their initiative. Because of this many labels which black people have for themselves are descriptive of the postures maintained in their relationships with whites in those contexts. In addition, other labels identify the physical characteristics of blacks that they themselves have been taught by whites to notice and disparage, or they refer to the sense of group cohesion or brotherhood that blacks have developed because of a common black experience.

Like the labels that black people have for whites, these labels of self-reference can also be divided into negative, neutral, and positive categories. The following list of words for black racial identity are divided into these groups. Like the list of white identity labels, this list was collected in Chicago. All of the labels, however, are used throughout the country and are well known to black people.


Uncle Tom or Tom. Derived from the character in Uncle Tom's Cabin. He was docile and always subservient to white people. When the term is used to refer to a black person, it means that he follows the wishes of white people, never acts aggressively toward white people, and accepts the inferiority status imposed on him by white people. The most negative connotation of the term applies to black persons who betray other blacks to whites. "Uncle Tom" or "Tom" is the most negative label black people can apply to other blacks.

Dr. Thomas. Same connotations as "Uncle Tom" or "Tom," but applied to professional, middle-class persons--especially those who are intellectuals with degrees.

Handkerchief Head. Refers to the headband or kerchief worn by rural blacks in the South, especially while picking cotton. The label can be used with all the connotations of "Uncle Tom" or "Tom." In addition, the label refers to black people whose behavior is unsophisticated, uncouth, or rural ("country," in the black lexicon).

Oreo. Brand name for a cookie made of two chocolate wafers with a white sugary paste between them. It is "black on the outside, white on the inside," and this is the meaning of the term when it is used to describe black persons. An "oreo" is a black person who is physiologically black but mentally white--that is, a black person who thinks like white people on social issues. The label is used especially to refer to middle-class blacks and other blacks who are not militant or who are not in sympathy with the goals of the black revolution and the strategies for reaching these goals.

Mose. Derived from the biblical character, Moses, and refers to old black men--especially to those whose behavior is that of the stereotyped rural black. The term is often used as a collective noun, in spite of its singular form. Also, the label is often used in a humorous context.

Sam. A common name of black males, it is used to refer to any black male. In addition, the story character, Sambo, was black; perhaps the label derives from "Little Black Sambo."

Jig. A label in the white lexicon used to refer to black persons. Black people, however, took the white label "jig" and added "boo" to make "jigger-boo." The added term "boo" in this context is probably the black dialect pronunciation of their term of self-reference, "boot," with loss of final "t." The second part of the term, with the "black" pronunciation, by merging with the conventional interjection "boo!," absorbs the connotation associated with things spooky or frightening when designating black. These "frightening" connotations are also part of the terms "boogie-man," "booger-bear," and "boogie-woogie."

Booger-bear. Any ugly black woman.

Boot. Metaphoric label referring to the black skin of black people, which is like the black leather of a boot.

Shine. Derived from the sheen that the skin of some black people has.

Slick. Derived from the plastered hair that many blacks have. The hair is greased to make it straight, in an attempt to attain the beauty standards of whites.


Spook. Because of their skin coloring, black people are difficult to see in the dark. "Spook" is probably derived from that--like spooks, black persons can be heard but not seen. The label may also have been derived from the black servants or domestic workers who perform their duties around white people without making their presence felt.

Spliv or Splib. Can be pronounced either way; "spliv" was probably the original pronunciation. Some black people who speak black dialect change the final "v" to "b"; thus the secondary pronunciation.

Head. This label probably derived from the exaggerated concern over hair. Kinky hair has often been a stigma for many blacks, and they have constantly attempted to hide or disguise the stigma by straightening it.


Soul brother or Soul sister; Brother or Sister. The most complimentary label one black can use to refer to another. The label implies a situation which creates a family relationship in which all black people are brothers and sisters. "Soul" in the label emphasizes that the relationship is black, because "soul" refers to anything indigenous to black culture. In referring to each other as "brother" or "sister," black people recognize the kinship that they derive from the struggle against racism. The use of the labels "soul brother" or "soul sister" verbalizes and makes this struggle conscious. Stated another way, black identity is attained from the relationship all blacks have with white America. Black identity is forged in the heat of the fight against white racism, and this identity makes each black a brother or sister of every other black.

Club member or Member. Also connotes the kinship or "all-in-it-together" aspect of being black in white America. The label is complimentary, because the struggle against white racism is viewed favorably by black people. To recognize another black as a "club member" or "member" is to recognize that black person's membership in the group which is waging a noble struggle.

Blacks. Although this label is used by both whites and blacks, it is included in the black lexicon of racial labels because it originated in black culture. The label acquires increased interest when contrasted with connotations and interpretations of "black" before the black revolution. Prior to the black revolution, to call a black person "black" was an insult, because black skin was looked upon as a thing of shame. The increased use of "black" is a healthy sign; it means that black people have accepted the identifying label as something positive--a desirable quality and something to be proud of, not ashamed of. The adoption of "black" to refer to themselves in a positive way means that black people have accepted their physical appearance--their deviation from white-skinned America--as something beautiful. This is what is implied by "Black is beautiful." Calling themselves "black" was the first and most important step in raising the self-concept of black people.

Afro-American. Prior to the black revolution in America black people denied their African heritage and ancestry, and they did everything to hide it. With the increase of pride in being black accompanying the black revolution, African heritage is looked upon as a positive quality of black identity. Thus many black people, especially the more militant ones, refer to themselves as "Afro-Americans" to emphasize their African roots.

Sapphire. Refers to black women and can be used in a positive or negative way. In its positive use, the label refers to a black woman, especially an attractive black woman, as a gem (attractive white women and girls can be gems, too; the label for them is "pearls"). In its negative use the label refers to an overbearing, dominating black woman similar to Kingfish's wife in the Amos and Andy series.

"Negro" and "colored" were not included in the list of racial identity labels, although many black people refer to themselves and other black people in those terms. These two labels were not cited because they are not exclusively black--they are used by both black and white. Another reason they were not included is that these two labels were not generated out of the black experience or black culture. Instead, these labels are part of the white lexicon of racial identity labels.

"Black," on the other hand, was included because it was generated by the black experience and black culture. Admittedly, "black" was used by whites in the past to refer to black people. When used by whites, it was solely a descriptive label; it did not connote the identity meaning as when it is used by blacks.

"Nigger" has also been omitted from the list of racial identity labels which black people have for themselves because it did not originate in black culture. Black people often refer to other blacks as "niggers." They don't, however, use this label in the exclusively negative sense that whites use it. "Nigger" can be a derogatory label, a neutral label, or a positive label--a term of endearment--when used by black people. Black comedian Dick Gregory once stated that he resented being called "nigger" by whites because they "didn't say it right." What he meant is that the way whites used the word "nigger" could not have a neutral or positive meaning as it can when blacks use it.

In addition, "colored," "Negro," and "black" have acquired new connotations with the impetus of the black revolution. The three labels identify three kinds of black people: colored people are those who are docile, who don't meet white racism head on, and who have some of the qualities of an Uncle Tom; Negroes are those who don't like the status of black people in America and who don't accept the situation between white and black, but don't do much to change the situation- in other words, the traditional Negro; blacks are those who refuse to accept the situation between whites and blacks and who actively and militantly attempt to alter the situation. The three labels are somewhat age-graded: older black people often conform to the meaning of "colored"; middle-aged black people often conform to the meaning of

"Negro"; young black people often conform to the meaning of "black." The number of labels which black people use to refer to each other indicates that the identification of types among themselves has been an important determination for black people to make. As with the creation of labels for white people, there is an experiential basis for the creation of racial terms for blacks. Said another way, it has been important for black people to know exactly what kinds of other black people they encounter, just as it has been important for them to know exactly what kinds of white people they encounter.

Significantly, most of the racial identity labels of self-reference fall within the negative category. This is because traditionally it has been difficult for black people to think of themselves in positive terms (which is understandable, given the racial situation of America, where black people have traditionally occupied an inferior status to whites). As the black revolution progresses, however, black people will find it less and less difficult to think of themselves in positive terms, and the number of positive labels should increase. Nevertheless, the greater number of negative labels blacks have developed for black racial identity is a sad and tragic reflection of the American racial situation.

Of the negative labels of self-reference several refer to the inferior-superior status relationship of blacks to whites: "Uncle Tom," "Tom," "Dr. Thomas," "handkerchief head," and "Oreo." These labels imply the combatant nature of race relations in which traitors can develop to surrender the cause of black people. These labels also imply the inferior status of blacks to whites in the same way that the white racial identity labels, discussed above, imply the inferior status of blacks.

The negative labels such as "shine," "slick," and "boot" refer to the physical characteristics of black skin that identify black people in a negative way. At the same time, however, the later "black" also refers to the physical characteristic of black skin that identifies black people--but it has a positive meaning. This points out the fact that black people have traditionally viewed their black skin as an inferior mark, even a mark of stigma. "Black," however, is a new label, and it connotes the positive feeling toward blackness which black people have acquired during the black revolution. The same is true for the positive label, "Afro-American."

The two positive labels, "soul brother" or "soul sister" (or "brother" and "sister") refer to the kinship feeling blacks have acquired in their struggle against white racism.

It is clear that racial identity labels are directly related to the experience black people have had within black culture and when interacting with whites in the larger cultural context. These racial identity labels in the black lexicon are an index of the antagonistic nature of the contact between blacks and whites in America. They are suggestive of the roles that all members assumed in their dealings with each other, ultimately reflecting the attitudes that blacks have toward themselves and toward whites.


1.Bevode McCall and Taylor C. Scott, "Georgia Town, U.S.A.," Synergist, Spring, 1970, pp. 1-l 3.