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A racial epithet is a derogatory term based on someone's racial background, used as an insult. These slurs are used against members of a racial group or their allies, as in the case of slang terms where people append “lover” to an epithet to imply that someone advocating for a specific group is as contemptible as the group itself. Many languages have racial epithets, and different cultures may have varying norms about their use; within English-speaking languages, these epithets are quite culturally diverse.
The history of racial epithets is ancient. Numerous ancient languages record instances of race-based insults. Some were made out of terms groups used to refer to themselves, while others were derived from slang terms created by outsiders. A racial epithet can also combine the use of an insult with an ethnicity, like “Mexican pig.” Referring to someone as “Mexican” is not offensive, but the combination of the neutral descriptor with the insult can create a charged racial epithet.
Public attitudes about racial epithets are highly variable. In some communities, there may be a high tolerance for race-based insults, and this may play into racist social attitudes. Racial epithets can also interplay with other political and social issues. For example, in nations with rising anti-immigrant sentiment, epithets aimed at immigrants may also weaponize traditional racial epithets to inflame popular sentiment and exploit race-based fears among the general public.
Epithets can be used in bullying and intimidation tactics as well as threats, like defacing a student's locker with a slur or writing a letter that may open with a racial epithet or use slurs to refer to members of someone's family. In some regions, the use of a racial epithet, particularly in charged language like suggestions that violence should be committed, is a crime. It may be considered hate speech, and can subject the speaker to penalties. Hate crimes laws vary considerably by jurisdiction, and sometimes come into conflict with free speech protections.
Awareness of racial epithets can be important for travelers, even if they are traveling to nations that speak their own language. Considerable linguistic divergence can be seen between two countries that ostensibly speak the same language, and this can include insults. A term that may be harmless or acceptable in one regional dialect may be considered a profound insult in another. It can help to talk to native speakers familiar with the issue to get advice on descriptors of various racial and ethnic groups to avoid.