Racist or Not?

A student keeps using the word “half-breeds” to refer to  people of mixed ancestry (indigenous and European) in Latin America. That’s racist, right? I know the term makes me feel very annoyed (it has been used to refer to me on various occasions) but does it sound racist to an English-speaking ear?

I’ll be crossing it out in the student’s responses anyways.

 

47 thoughts on “Racist or Not?

  1. I have to admit that I’ve been immersed in fantasy culture for so long that the use of “half-breeds” doesn’t really ring on my radar. HOWEVER, I am all African American so its not like its my call. But despite my seeing in fantasy culture I’ve never used it in regards to actual people.

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  2. Yes it is racist. It’s also rather dated. I’m curious where your student is learning this? Danny, are you saying it is used in fantasy lit? Maybe that explains it.

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    1. Yes I am. You can especially see it in your usual fantasy material that deals with humans, elves, goblins, trolls, etc… Often times such “half breed” characters will pasts in which they dealt with discrimination from both halves of their heritage. My prime example being Tanthalus Half-Elven from Dagonlance who was the product of a elven woman raped by a human male during a war. He had no ties to his human heritage and even though her family took him in and raised him there was obvious scorn because of lineage (but I will say that as far as I recall there no scorn directed at the elven woman who was raped, not that it makes it better to scorn a child who had no say in his creation though…)

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  3. In the title “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, Rowling shies away from this old colonialist/racist term. (And yes, as far as I can see, the UK title is the same as the American one.)

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  4. Yes, it’s a racist term, but I don’t hear it much any more (my state has a lot of people who are part Native American, as am I).

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  5. Some of the commenters are saying it’s a racist term but no one says why. I guess it depends on what your definition of racism is and how it fits into that definition.
    But if you cross it out, then you’re imposing your value system on your student., or in this case not even your own value system (because you’re in doubt of whether it’s racist) but someone else’s value system.
    As I see it your job is to grade the paper on the merits not to enforce your commenters’ view of what is or is not a racist term. The student has a right to flout convention. If he thinks it expresses the concept and it does express the concept, then I think you’re morally obligated not to strike it out.

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    1. I’m trying to teach students how to write in a correct and good English language, AYY.

      Besides, if you think that anybody is ever free of their ideology, you are sorely mistaken.

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      1. But it is correct English. You’re confusing your philosophical views with correct English.
        He has the right to offend, just like Martin Luther King or any other civil rights advocate had the right to offend.
        BTW, it’s not racist because it doesn’t disparage a race, and can be used beyond race. It might be disparaging when used in a particular context, but he has the right to be disparaging. .

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        1. “He has the right to offend, just like Martin Luther King or any other civil rights advocate had the right to offend.”

          -MLK is not a student in my course. The only person who decides what has the right to happen in my classroom is me. Last year, I had several students hand in essays that parroted ridiculous anti-immigrant propaganda. Obviously, I refused to accept these essays.

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          1. So I’ll give an F to any student who supports the troops, who supports capitalism, who is pro-natalist, who loves taxes, who is against abortion, who is pro-sionist, who love New-York Yankees, etc..

            Being a endoctrination professor is sooooo coooooool! 😉

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            1. “I support capitalism” is not a cliched expression. Neither is “I’m against abortion.” However, “I support the right to life” is, so that should be pointed out to the students. I always warn at the very first class meeting that the written component is important in my courses and that we will learn to avoid cliches. I don;t like the “support the troops” cliche just as much as I don’t like “armed to the teeth”, for example. Or “the land of the brave.” I once got over a dozen essays handed in to me with “the land of the brave.” Obviously, I didn’t celebrate that feat of linguistic powers.

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          2. Clarissa,
            I’m just amazed that someone who came from the former Soviet Union,and was directly exposed to a society in which people had to censor their speech so as not to offend the governing ideology, would insist on imposing something like that on her students You of all people should be a defender of the student’s right to say something that you find annoying or “icky”.

            Yes you have the ability to decide what people have the right to do in your classroom, but the Communist Party also had the ability to decide what people had the right to say in the Soviet Union. The question is not about power, it’s about whether you are morally justified in imposing an ideology on your students..

            And what principled explanation would you tell the student if she asks you why she should avoid the term?

            If you didn’t accept the immigration papers because of what they parrotted, then you were wrong about that too. Isn’t your role as a professor to evaluate the way the students present their arguments wheher you agree with them or not? Of course someone you disagree with is going to parrot arguments of which you disapprove. That just means the students did some research. The people who came up with arguments that you approved of also parotted what they had researched. is everyone supposed to come up with arguments that no one ever thought of before you would even accept their papers?

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            1. I don’t understand what this strange verbiage comparing me to the Communist Party is supposed to be in aid of. I already explained at length that one of the main objectives of my course is to teach students to write well. Well, in this case, means according to the accepted standards of academic writing in North America. I lower their grades for using words like “actually” and “basically.” I also lower grades for LOLs and smiley faces. Does that violate their freedom of speech, too?

              The only point of this post was to find out if “hald-breed” fits an accepted standard of academic speech in the US. From the discussion, it has become obvious it doesn’t.

              “That just means the students did some research. The people who came up with arguments that you approved of also parotted what they had researched.”

              -It always amazes me when people try to inform me about what happens in my classroom. I explicitly FORBADE the students to use any Internet sources in the writing of the essay precisely because they are not equipped to distinguish useful sources from the useless ones. Some students didn’t follow the instructions and copy-pasted crap from a ridiculous, hate-mongering website. If they had copy-pasted stuff from a peace-loving, nice website, the result for them would have been the same. This was all discussed at length on this blog and it bores me to repeat it all.

              It really annoys me when people think that, in spite of my 21 years of experience in teaching, they have important information to impart to me about pedagogy. Do you go to the websites of surgeons and tell them how to operate, too?

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        2. I think you are right that racist isn’t exactly the right word, but it is meant to be dehumanizing in the same way, and is certainly an unacceptable, strongly pejorative word that would not be used in speaking or writing in the US today (unless quoting a character from the past) without censure. I believe that was what Clarissa was asking. Are you suggesting students should be free to use white trash, nigger, kike, freely in their essays also??

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        3. But it is correct English. You’re confusing your philosophical views with correct English.

          Though part of correct English is evaluating whether word choice is suitable to the subject, audience, and purpose of the piece. “Half-breed” in this context has a lot of potential to be alienating and insulting to the people to whom it refers. It would therefore be a poor choice of words in a paper that intends to treat people of mixed ancestry respectfully.

          If the author’s intent is a respectful attitude, the word choice is incorrect and could thus receive meaningful correction. If the author’s intent is a disrespectful attitude, that should likely be made explicit by the content of the rest of the essay; if it isn’t, a request to clarify the writing might also be in order.

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      2. “Besides, if you think that anybody is ever free of their ideology, you are sorely mistaken.”

        If my student writes that he support the troops, I’ll give him an “F”! 😉

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        1. I agree because “support the troops” is a cliche. I don’t like cliched speech. An intelligent analysis of the role of the military would never use this kind of old and tired expressions.

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          1. If the course is about historical content, I agree. But, if the purpose of the evaluation is to verify grammar skills, I have no problem with the “I support the troops” cliché.

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            1. Likewise I have no problem with “armed to the teeth.” To quote Machiavelli: “The Swiss are armed to the teeth and free as the air.”

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              1. When “rosy-fingered dawn” was first mentioned, it was a work of genius. Using this expression seriously today, however, will only provoke laughter. The same goes for “pearly teeth” and “swift-footed” whatevers. 🙂

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  6. Where I live now, the term is not common. However, when it is used, it’s intended to convey the message that a particular individual doesn’t fully belong to or in a particular culture.

    Occasionally, I’ve read the term used by an individual to describe themselves and their own struggles with identity.

    And occasionally, I’ve heard it spoken by one person describing another. In those cases, the speaker seemed pleased by the effect — which was to shame the other person and invalidate what s/he said.

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  7. Yes, it’s racist, because it implies that the person so described is less than fully human. “Half” has a connotation of not being all there.

    In English literature, especially of the colonial period, “half-breed” or “half-caste” was often used in a derogatory way, and characters in books who were described in such a way were very rarely the heroes and were often smaller than life. Such people rarely played an important role — and if they were treated like that in literature, it is a reflection of the way they were treated in real life.

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    1. I have to agree with Steve on the colonial history, but I in India, which has an immense cross-section of diversity, people are often referred to as “mixed” or “half-and-half”, and people from particularly mixed families (grandparents from four different ethnicities, say) are sometimes referred to in jest as khichuri, khichuri being a dish of mixed rice, lentils, spices, and lots of vegetables. If you think about it, there is not much actual difference between calling a person a khichuri and calling her a mongrel. But I imagine the latter would be immensely offensive, not because of any intrinsic lack, but because of a value-system we’ve internalised. Dog bad, food good.

      Incidentally, every single western person I’ve met who isn’t a South Asia specialist insists this practice is racist, but then such a value-judgement seems me symptomatic of neo-colonialism, whereby the more humane, more democratic, and generally superior Occident tells us gently how deeply uncivilised we are, and shows us the light of proper civilised discourse. I harbour a healthy suspicion, therefore, of approved, politically correct speech emanating from a more powerful culture not my own.

      I appreciate that this particular interaction of power might be absent in your interaction with your student, but I wanted to illustrate how ‘half-breed’ does not necessarily imply sub-human any more. Your student might need a little talk on acceptable terminology, but he may not be inherently racist (and no, you didn’t imply he was).

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      1. The thing is, I wasn’t disturbed by the “half” part of this expression. I’m half-Ukrainian, half-Jewish, it’s something I always say because it’s who I am. It’s the word “breed” that bothers me. This is a part that has icky connotations, in my mind. But I’m not really sure which is why I was asking.

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      2. Another speech about the superiority of your culture, on a thread that asked specifically about English usage, discussing a student in the US. There are acceptable ways to refer to mixed people here, believe it or not. But that wasn’t the question. I am sure there are pejorative terms in India as well.

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  8. I think of “breeding” as something that applies to livestock, although there was a time when “good breeding” might have been taken as a compliment. I don’t like the sound of it. I don’t think it reflects well on the student saying such things, but what are you doing to do, invoke Authority? I’m not sure the ends justify the means.

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        1. That’s ridiculous. The content isn’t racist because it doesn’t disparage a race, and even if it was it’s not her role to police her students’ beliefs.

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      1. I hope you provided an alternative for him and gave him the reason why you felt it was better to avoid such terminology.

        “Breed” has always implied livestock to me as well. I think the word was used derogatorily and intended as a means to dehumanize or demean another. It depends how it is used as well. A good many Native Americans claim pure ancestry as well, and people who are not 100% anything could feel slighted by the focus on percentage.

        I’m of mixed heritage, although most people would group me as Northern European. They are ignorant and know nothing.

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  9. http://uwo.ca/english/canadianpoetry/cpjrn/vol50/andrews.htm

    From a Canadian Perspective (not that I’m suggesting that this student has the capacity to reclaim the word “halfbreed” if he himself is not as such)

    Letter To Sir John A. Macdonald
    Marilyn Dumont

    Dear John: I’m still here and halfbreed,
    after all these years
    you’re dead, funny thing,
    that railway you wanted so badly,
    there was talk a year ago
    of shutting it down
    and part of it was shut down,
    the dayliner at least,
    ‘from sea to shining sea,’
    and you know, John,
    after all that shuffling us around to suit the settlers,
    we’re still here and Metis.

    We’re still here
    after Meech Lake and
    one no-good-for-nothing-Indian
    holdin-up-the-train,
    stalling the ‘Cabin syllables / Nouns of settlement,
    /…steel syntax [and] / The long sentence of its exploitation’
    and John, that goddamned railroad never made this a great nation,
    cause the railway shut down
    and this country is still quarreling over unity,
    and Riel is dead
    but he just keeps coming back
    in all the Bill Wilsons yet to speak out of turn or favour
    because you know as well as I
    that we were railroaded
    by some steel tracks that didn’t last
    and some settlers who wouldn’t settle
    and it’s funny we’re still here and callin ourselves halfbreed.

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  10. Whoops. I didn’t mean to suggest that the student was a male. Or that one should end a sentence with “as such”. 😛

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  11. I assume he must be referring to those of Hispanic and Native American descent. I would say that the term ‘half-breed’ is insensitive at best. But not necessarily racist. It may just be the easiest way to describe this particular group of people. My question is, how would he describe a typical American who may have a dozen different bloodlines…mutt?

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    1. Mixed race is fine. Or ‘of mixed heritage’. There are other acceptable terms I’m sure, depending on the context. Some people refer to themselves as mutts, but I think it would be presumptuous to refer to someone else as one, at least directly. In a story? I don’t know why you would.

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  12. I thought “half-breed” referred only to dogs or other animals.

    In wiki Half-breed value is written that “the term is considered an impolite and rude offensive slur by almost everyone”.

    In Harry Potter books villains use it as a slur:

    “Filthy half breeds! Beasts! Uncontrolled animals!”
    —Dolores Umbridge insulting centaurs in the Forbidden Forest

    and in HarryPotter wiki is mentioned that :
    “Half-breed” may be an offensive, rather than proper, term, as it seems to appear as an insult.

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      1. My father was Russian and mother is Jewish, yet I would never describe myself as “half-breed” because imo breed is mainly used as порода (скота, птицы), not as a nationality. The student wrote about half-indigenous people, would he use the term about half-US, half-Canadian people too? I doubt, but may be…

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  13. “Half-breed” is generally considered to be an impolite and racist term, as are related obsolete terms “mulatto” (1/2), “quadroon” (1/4), “octoroon” (1/8). “Mixed race” is the preferred usage. If the mix is not considered racial, the ethnicities involved are stated in hyphenated format “Scots-Irish”, “Irish-German”, and so on.

    In the U.S.A., the “one-drop” rule on social assignment to the black “race”/group held for a very long time in social practice and in law, and still exists to some degree. Many blacks in the past crossed the color line, ie, “passed”, and a sizable percentage of socially white Americans have black ancestry by DNA testing.

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