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12 Culturally Appropriative Words and Phrases To Stop Using Today

Our guide to understanding the origins of commonly misused language you should banish from your vocabulary.

I’ve got a leopard tattoo on my forearm. Its lines are abstract and whimsical and its spots seem to float right off my skin in places. It’s a gorgeous piece of art, and like the majestic creature itself, it garners quite a bit of attention. People almost always ask, “Why a leopard?” The truth is, I relate to leopards: The strongest of the big cats (big cats are so freaking cool!), they’re fierce, and yet lazily lounge in tree branches during the day; they’re known for incredible resilience and agility—and for choosing fun-loving partners. They’re just like me. So whenever someone asks me what my spirit animal is, the answer has always been easy—it’s right there on my arm. 

That is until recently. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shayla Stonechild for the cover of our March/April issue. Shayla is Plains Cree and Métis from the Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nations (in what’s now Southern Canada), and as part of our video coverage, I asked her a question I’d asked many previous cover models for our 108-Second Interview series: What’s your spirit animal? 

“I don’t have one,” Stonechild said coolly, “because that’s cultural appropriation.” Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about cultural appropriation. As a white woman working in an industry with a history of spiritual bypassing and white supremacy, I do my best to stay curious, undefensive, open-minded, and to ultimately do better each and every day at identifying my own blind spots: And this whole spirit animal thing was definitely one of them. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve called pizza my spirit animal (which, as it turns out, is one of the worst kinds of cavalier appropriation there is). In my own ignorance, I thought “spirit” animal—or “spirit” anything—meant it was something that shared my spirit, like a kindred spirit. WRONG. 

Stonechild explained that certain Indigenous cultures use totems: animals or objects that are believed to have spiritual significance and are adopted as an emblem. “In some specific clans, there’s a clan totem animal associated with it,” she said. “So that’s why it’s cultural appropriation.”

So in the spirit of continuing to learn and grow in respect for what does not belong to us, here are 12 other terms and phrases you may not have realized are either appropriative or deeply steeped in racism:

1. Tribe

Say it with me now, your pals are not your tribe. In the yoga space in particular, I’ve seen a lot of “high-vibe tribe!” floating around on social lately, and it always makes me cringe. European colonists historically used tribe derogatorily to describe Indigenous people who inhabited the lands they set out to colonize: In fact, the word tribal was used synonymously with “savage”—so you can understand why it’s so offensive when appropriated (or otherwise).

2. Tipping Point

I’m a huge Malcom Gladwell fan, so you can imagine my surprise to learn that historically, tipping point has not actually meant the moment when a trend or phenomenon takes hold. When tipping point first came into common vernacular, it was almost solely in reference to the tendency of white families to move out of a neighborhood once it reached a certain percentage of minority inhabitants. According to Merriam Webster, tipping point served as a precursor to the term white flight.

3. No can do

It’s unclear whether or not Hall and Oates knew this phrase originated in the 19th century from pidgin English and was used to mock Chinese immigrants—but now you do.

4. Guru

The title comes from Hindu and Buddhism and is reserved for the highest spiritual leaders. So it’s wildly inappropriate to call yourself a marketing guru (see also, sherpa). And that life coach you hired off instagram? Chances are she’s not a guru, either. 

5. Hold down the fort

This phrase, which commonly means to keep an eye on things while someone is away, originated when colonists were displacing and gruesomely fighting Native Americans.

6. Ninja

Rather than the elite fighters we’ve seen glorified in pop culture, in traditional Japanese culture, ninjas were foot soldiers from lower-class farming families who turned to mercenary work. In a 2015 critique of commoditization and exploitation of Asians in the tech industry, programmer Brian Kung wrote, “Cultural appropriations like “Zen master” aphorisms, ninja job listings, and the subversion of Eastern religious ideas toward corporate gain are not homages to Asian cultures that birthed them. Instead, they perpetuate stereotypes, disrespect and exploit Asian culture, and reflect an industry-wide disdain for Asian people and culture that manifests itself in yellow peril and “bamboo ceiling” hiring practices.”

7. Powwow

Next time you want to take 10 with your team, please remember that a powwow is a celebration of Native American heritage, art, and community that colonization attempted to erase.

8. Off the reservation

Often used to describe someone who’s gone rogue (a phrase that first described elephants who’d been separated from their herd) in its original, literal context, off the reservation was used in the 19th century to describe Native Americans who were in noncompliance with the U.S. government’s virtual imprisonment of Natives relegated to reservations. 

9. Call a spade a spade

This once innocent phrase for calling something like it is (the reference was actually to a gardening shovel, and not playing cards at all), took on racist connotations in the 1920s when “spade” became a slur for a black person. 

10. Indian Summer 

We relish those warm, late October days when it feels like we’ve been gifted one last bit of summer’s glory—but the reality is, this phrase came from the derogatory inference that Indigenous people are always late. 

11. Nitty gritty

The idea of getting down to the nitty-gritty came from the 18th century English slave trade, when nitty-gritty referred to the worthless debris left at the ship’s bottom compartment after slaves had been evacuated—and evolved to include the slaves themselves. 

12. Climbing the totem pole

Totem poles are sacred to the Indigenous people who carve and celebrate them. According to Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., founded by Gwawaenuk Nation member Bob Joseph, “in some First Nation communities, being low on the totem pole is actually a higher honor than being on the top.” So no matter how you dice it, using it colloquially is just wrong.

 

For more about cultural appropriation in the wellness community, read our guide here.