Five Common Expressions That Perpetuate Oppression


I’m writing this blog as a 51-year-old white, cisgendered, able-bodied, educated woman. In the landscape of privilege, I’m standing on the upper slope of the mountain. And I’m finding that a mighty uncomfortable place to be right now.

That’s not because I envy the view of those standing on the peak, though I’ve certainly done my share of whining about them. How my life would be easier, I’ve often bellyached, if only I were a white man or one of the wealthy. Maybe I wouldn’t have suffered from mental illness, divorce, and financial hardship if I’d been born with a male appendage, or if I’d instinctively known which fork to use and how to parse an investment portfolio.

But over the past two weeks, I’ve watched the persistent ugliness of racism exposed in raw and unrelenting ways. And I’ve had to take a hard look in the mirror, peeling away my habit of self-pity to recognize that I’m someone whose “invisible knapsack” of white privilege, as Peggy McIntosh would say, is huge. So big, in fact, it’s amazing that someone who’s only five-foot two can even lug it around.

Standing on the upper slope of white advantage, I’m struggling to account for the weight of all the different forms of privilege I enjoy. And feeling confused and helpless about how to help those whose lives are so much harder than mine simply because of the color of their skin. I’m just one petite woman, stumbling along under the weight of my own daily burdens.

What can I possibly do to help eradicate systemic racism? After all, they call it “systemic” for a reason. Racism is everywhere, ingrained into every aspect of our society, including our language.

But maybe that’s a place we can all start—with our language. Language is never a neutral tool. It shapes us as much as we shape it, and we can consciously combat racism by examining the words we use.

Does your organization endorse values of diversity and inclusion? If so, then these five common expressions have no place in the vocabulary you and your team use because they perpetuate oppression:

1. Get gypped—This expression is a racist slur against the Roma people, called “gypsies” by outsiders, who attributed their dark skin to an Egyptian heritage. For centuries, “gypsies” have been maligned as thieves, so to “get gypped” means to be cheated as if you were mistreated by a dishonest gypsy.

2. Sold down the river—This synonym for cheated or swindled comes to us directly from slave culture. It describes how a Northern slaveowner would handle an intractable slave: the slave would be shipped down the Mississippi to a Southern state.


3. Grandfather clause—Today, this phrase is often used in an inclusive way, to describe an exception made for people who fall outside the parameters of a policy change. But the first use occurred around the turn of the twentieth century, when many Southern states enacted grandfather clauses to avoid granting former slaves the right to vote. When property requirements were introduced, those who had the right to vote before 1866 were grandfathered in, which meant that many African Americans were actually grandfathered out.

4. Peanut gallery—This may seem like a lighthearted way to dismiss critics, but it stems from the dark days of segregated theaters. During the Vaudeville era (from the 1890s to the 1930s), the peanut gallery held the cheap seats, where African Americans were forced to sit.

5. No can do—This bit of slang originated as a way to mock the limited language skills of Chinese immigrants.

Such examples show just the beginning of a list that is appallingly long. The knapsack of white privilege is fabricated from a lexicon that’s infected with racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and the list goes on. While we can’t completely avoid the contagion, we can at least distance ourselves from it by becoming more aware of how some of our everyday word choices make us complicit in the oppression we hate.

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