Final Word

The honky-tonk rhythm of racism


Racism and the apparent irresistible urge to attach derogatory names to those who look different to us, seem to cut across all racial and ethnic divides.

Concerns about the apparent resurgence of racially inspired derogatory names for groups of people in South Africa, prompted me to try and develop a better understanding of this phenomenon.

Having worked in the US and having been blessed with opportunities to travel quite widely, I knew that the use of racial or ethnic slurs is not unique to my homeland. But are we worse than most and is the notion true that it is mostly a white thing?

Some research quickly revealed that both notions are myths. What should also be said immediately is that context and intent are all-important when some of these terms are used.

For starters, one of the more colourful slurs, if you will pardon the pun, used by black Americans for white males is ‘honky’, and we will return to that one later.

The role of context and intent is well illustrated by the word ‘boer’ for Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans. It could be used as a slur, or to refer to a farmer and sometimes, especially among the coloured community, to the police.

What was a revelation to me was the discovery of a “List of ethnic slurs by ethnicity” on Wikipedia. It records ethnic slurs that are, or have been, used in the English language and  encompasses no fewer than 30 categories of slurs.

The individual terms from 15 categories of “individual ethnicities” number more than 160. And it is definitely not even a complete list. Under the “individual ethnicities” South Africans and slurs like “rock spiders”, “hairy backs” and “clutch plate” for Afrikaans speakers are, for instance, not included.

What could easily be a category on its own are slurs for some sub-groups within particular ethnic groups. Some examples are:

  • In America we have ‘hillbilly’ for rural dwellers or someone from the ‘Deep South’. The South African equivalent would be to call someone a ‘real Japie’, from ‘plaasjapie’ like in ‘Jaap from the farm’;
  • ‘White trash’ also originated in America as a term for people regarded to be of lower social standing, but is nowadays also often heard in South Africa;
  • Two other terms that have also migrated from the US to South Africa is ‘Uncle Tom’ for a black man who has ‘sold out’ to whites and ‘coconut’ for someone who is black on the outside, but think and acts as if he is white; 
  • An Asian with the same problem as a ‘coconut’ is sometimes called a ‘banana’ by fellow Asians; and
  • To complete this particular racist fruit salad, some American Indians are sometimes referred to as ‘apples’ by their kin for being red on the outside but white on the inside.

A good example of a racial slur that has migrated is the term ‘coolie’, that is, or at least was, often heard in South Africa in reference to people of Indian descent. It turns out that it was first used in North America for unskilled labourers (often Chinese, building railroads there) and probably derived from the Mandarin word ‘ku-li’, literally meaning “bitter labour”. It also found its way to places like Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago as a term for Indo-Caribbean people.


For me one of the more interesting racial slurs is ‘honky’, widely believed to have originated among African Americans as a term describing white men who in the early 20th century would drive to black neighbourhoods for the services of prostitutes. Afraid to get out of their cars, they simply ‘honked’ their car’s hooter to attract the attention of black prostitutes.

But there is also the possibility that its roots are in the West African language Wolof and the term xong nopp, meaning “red-eared person” or “white person”. It could have come to the US in the days of the slave trade.

But then the term ‘honky-tonk’ was first recorded in 1875 in reference to the lively pubs (or saloons, to the Americans) in the days of the Wild West.

Another theory holds that it is a variation of ‘hunky’ and ‘bohunk’, derogatory terms for Eastern European migrants, doing manual work in American factories. It was later taken over by African-Americans as a slur term for all white people.

These are only the more plausible theories. And, when it comes to the question of where the term ‘honky-tonk’ for a particular type of country music or entertainment comes from, things become even less clear – almost as convoluted as the arguments in favour of slur words used by those who at the same time claim not to be racists. 

Finally, if the ‘honky’ was in Australia and was having casual sex with an Aboriginal woman, he would have been called a ‘gin jockey’.

by Piet Coetzer

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