15th 2011
Is “gringo” offensive?

Posted under: American history, bad language, race, unhappy endings, wankers

Latina feminist columnist Daisy Hernandez talked on NPR this week about her relief when she learned that the Arizona mass-murderer wasn’t Latino.  I heard this when it was first broadcast on Wednesday afternoon, and thought that it was terrific, because she explains how the world looks from her perspective, and it’s not a perspective that most white people would probably imagine on their own:

It’s safe to say there was a collective sigh of brown relief when the Tucson killer turned out to be a gringo. Had the shooter been Latino, media pundits wouldn’t be discussing the impact of nasty politics on a young man this week — they’d be demanding an even more stringent anti-immigrant policy. The new members of the House would be stepping over each other to propose new legislation for more guns on the border, more mothers to be deported, and more employers to be penalized for hiring brown people. Obama would be attending funerals and telling the nation tonight that he was going to increase security just about everywhere.

In short, the only reason the nation is taking a few days to reflect on the animosity in politics today is precisely that the shooter was not Latino.

I thought that this was a completely sensible thing to point out, but apparently NPR was hit with e-mails and comments about how “gringo” is an offensive word.  I have never heard this–and I live in the American West, where both white and Latin@ people use the term casually and usually playfully.  (Example:  “Have you tried that new restaurant?”  “Yes, we went there last night–it was okay, but kind of gringo Mex, you know?”)  I’m no linguist, but I’ve never heard anyone express any concerns about the term “gringo.”  It probably is used by some derisively–but it seems to me like white people should suck it up.  Whites own most of the wealth in this country and for now, they’re still a majority–putting up with “gringo” seems like a small price to pay for all the advantages of whiteness in the United States.

To me, this sounds like a major exercise in deflection.  People didn’t like hearing a plausible counterfactual scenario about what would have happened in a politicized border town like Tucson if the mass-murderer and would-be assassin of a U.S. Representative turned out to be Latino–but they could hardly argue that counterfactual point.  So they seized on Hernandez’s use of the term “gringo,” and asked, when will the oppressed white majority in this country get the respect it deserves? 

Gimme a break.  The only people I’ve seen or heard mention the murderer’s race are a couple of commenters on this blog.


33 Responses to “Is “gringo” offensive?”

  1. AltoidsAddict on 15 Jan 2011 at 9:42 am #

    As to whether “gringo” is always offensive, the answer is definitely no. When I lived in Costa Rica for a short time, one of my first lessons in slang was to gauge the nationality of whoever was calling me “gringo” before deciding how to react. To Ticos, “gringo” is a descriptive. To Panamanians, particularly those who were driven out of the country by U.S. troops mounting anti-Noriega campaigns (and letting plenty of civilians get caught in the crossfire), “gringo” was the worst possible slur. In a place not far from Ye Olde Cowtown, where every cuisine seems to come with a habanero pepper, “gringo” means “not spicy.”

    Becoming offended at the use of “gringo” in a context where it is clearly used descriptively and not pejoratively is yet another exercise of racism. It’s the same part of prejudice that lumps all Latino/as into one heading of “Mexican.” Meanwhile, every country has multiple variations of Spanish and other languages, slang changing radically with borders, distinct cultures and identities. But those who became offended only think of “other” as one monolithic “other.” They’re all alike, those brown people with their spicy food, so as white people we will decide that their words all mean the same thing – and we will assign a meaning that helps us feel less responsible for our racial politics.

  2. Digger on 15 Jan 2011 at 9:50 am #

    Following on AltoidsAddict, the Urban Dictionary has an entry for gringo that reads: “A white person.

    You call us Mexicans we call you Gringos
    simple as that.”

  3. Feminist Avatar on 15 Jan 2011 at 10:04 am #

    I guess though if you see gringo as defining an ‘other’- which is what it does- whether used in a derogatory way or not, it does become complicit in the politics of race. And, it is a label that is placed upon ‘the other’ by a different group- rather than a label accepted by the labelled community- so in that sense, perhaps the labelled community (in this case gringos) do get a say in whether they are offended by it. On the other hand, this is something the white community are happy to do every day.

  4. AltoidsAddict on 15 Jan 2011 at 10:28 am #

    “Gringo” is no more prejudicial than “white,” “Latino,” “black,” “American,” or any other descriptive “big-tent” term – each of which changes meaning whether it is said with a sneer or a smile. It may denote an “other” in a pejorative sense ONLY if gringos were not allowed distinctive identities both within and outside of the term. Every term for a people contains racial and cultural history, but beyond that, there’s a lot more to it than a binary “get offended/totally benign” division.

  5. Indyanna on 15 Jan 2011 at 11:12 am #

    Given the drumbeat of indignities that rain down on this vexed planet, I think you’d have to have considerable extra time booked into an average day to get too worked up over this one. On the other hand, there’s the possible argument that “not being offended” is one of the diagnostic markers of what the 18th century liked to call “condescension,” and maybe of a kind of affably privileged or entitled status in an otherwise abrasive world. Has anyone ever done an ethnographic recovery of that old piece of balming schoolyard doggerel “Sticks and Stones?” I learned it on the schoolyards of whitebread Long Island, but I’m guessing that like most of the people living there, it migrated out from Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Is “names will never hurt me” a message to soothe the abused or to (re)assure the at last hopefully secured?

  6. Notorious Ph.D. on 15 Jan 2011 at 11:34 am #

    In the part of the country where I live — where we have a sizable Hispanic population — we generally hear “anglo” rather than “gringo.” Perhaps members of the Hispanic population use “gringo” among themselves, but no one’s ever used it in my presence, which makes me think that there is a consciousness that it might be offensive.

    (As an aside, I’ve always been amused when Spanish scholars refer to all American and British scholars as “Anglosajona.” Makes me feel like I ought to be wearing a helmet with horns on it, like Wagner’s Brunhilde.)

  7. Feminist Avatar on 15 Jan 2011 at 11:39 am #

    I think it’s different from ‘white’ or ‘black’ in that those terms are generally recognised by the communities that the label pertains too. Not all white people recognise themselves as gringos. At the same time, terms like ‘black’ have a political history as the black community fought for a term that they felt was neither demeaning (like ‘nigger’), nor complicit in power hierarchies, like ‘coloured’. In the same way, the white community has the right to contest how they are labelled by others- especially over a word that is used as an insult in many (if certainly not all) contexts and on a forum where the intent of the language could be construed as ambiguous (we can’t read the body-language of the writer).

    Plus, gringo is a slang word- even in Spanish. It’s not the langugage’s official designation for the white community (or for foreigners more broadly), so I don’t think its fair to say that this is an issue of linguistic superiority (ie insisting on English labels over Spanish labels).

  8. LadyProf on 15 Jan 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    The lack of nuance is a shame. Now that oppressors have seized the best rhetoric for themselves, we have a binary where “gringo” must be either as polite and innocuous as “white person” or vile race discrimination that we all have to drop everything and deplore. There’s no category of “reductive and dismissive, yeah, but not deserving of condemnation because the group that the word slurs has a heaping helping of unearned privilege.”

  9. Dr. Koshary on 15 Jan 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    All the observations about the subtleties and nuances of racial politics are well taken, and I suppose it’s true that, in the fine grain of things, ‘gringo’ is not the ideal term to use, and could be seen as slightly pejorative in Mexican Spanish. On the other hand, GET THE FUCK OVER YOURSELVES. Racial slurs carry the most semiotic power when they come from the group at the top of the racial hierarchy describing a group with lesser access to power and agency within the system. As LadyProf said,
    There’s no category of “reductive and dismissive, yeah, but not deserving of condemnation because the group that the word slurs has a heaping helping of unearned privilege.” Truly.

    No doubt the carefully calculated pearl-clutching outrage is amped up in reaction to Daisy Hernandez’s point: from the perspective of a lot of people who felt like they can be turned into a scapegoat at a moment’s notice, it looks very much like the entire public discourse resulting from the shooting turned upon the shooter’s ethnic identity in the context of Arizona designations. Those observations are hard to swallow, because they give the lie to our fantasies of totally impartial justice. When ethnic politics are wrapped up in so many serious political-economic conflicts, it can be a relief to know that the shooter wasn’t ‘one of ours’.

    In fact, sometimes it works out the opposite way. When Israeli PM Itzhak Rabin was assassinated, a lot of grieving Israelis consoled themselves with the thought that, at least, the murderer was an Israeli Jew; therefore, they reasoned, the police could simply book him, the system could try him impartially, and there wouldn’t be another Israel-Arab war touched off by the assassination. (They weren’t 100% correct about the simplicity and impartiality, but that’s a whole other story, and I’ve digressed enough.)

  10. Perpetua on 15 Jan 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    @ Dr. Koshary – I had to laugh at the part of your post where you use the phrase “pearl clutching” because that was *exactly* my response to the people who wrote those breathy, offended letters to NPR. I heard them read excerpts aloud on the radio last night and I thought my eyeballs were going to roll out of my head. Listening to the letters of complaint reminded me of white people who are always outraged! yes, outraged! about the phenomenon they refer to as “reverse-racism.” White people: they like their privilege. And the greatest privilege of all: never never to be insulted by any way, or called on any of their crap.

  11. Notorious Ph.D. on 15 Jan 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    @ Dr. Koshary & Perpetua: And in spite ot the content of my earlier comment, I’m totally with you both on this point.

  12. koshem Bos on 15 Jan 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    Let those who are offended by “gringo” be offended. I am not. I also accept the “them” and “us” attitude that exist especially when the Latino group is large enough to form a community. Sometime gringo is a short hand for you the richer people. That typically a fact and doesn’t offend me either.

  13. Comrade PhysioProf on 15 Jan 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    Yeah, this is exactly the same deflecting bullshitte that racists pull out of their asses about how unfair it is that it’s ok for black americans to call them rednecks but not ok for them to call black americans niggers.

  14. Catrala on 15 Jan 2011 at 3:48 pm #

    As another data point, in Chile “gringo” refers to someone whose native language is English. In the context I’ve used it, and heard it used, it’s never been a slur, simply a description of belonging to a linguistic group.

    But there are situations I’ve been in with Spanish speakers from other parts of the world when it has been used as a racialized slur. This (NPR) was obviously a situation in which it wasn’t meant as a slur, and as other commenters have noticed, there is a complicated power dynamic when the word is used in the US dependent on the speakers group belonging and geographic location. I never hear it in my part of the US, for example.

  15. thefrogprincess on 15 Jan 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    “Gringo” isn’t a word I’ve ever used, but I also don’t live in a part of the country where it would be used all that frequently. So I can’t really speak to whether it’s “offensive” or “derogatory,” other than to say that the political import of using such a term is much less significant than its counterparts.

    That said, I’m with Historiann on this: this is a major deflection of a reality that’s too uncomfortable for people to accept. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that it’s these kinds of issues that keep the gulf between white Americans and Americans of color wide open. It’s the fact that Latino communities (and in different contexts African American communities) hope to hell that somebody who’s just committed a major crime isn’t one of them. It’s the fact that I rarely feel comfortable leaving a store without my merchandise in a bag, or if I do choose not to bag my stuff, I walk out with the receipt on top of my purchase so there’s no question that I’ve bought it.

    It’s at this level that I find that only the most progressive and self-conscious white Americans grasp this: that people of color go through the world differently than do white people. Everyone else gets defensive real quick, in the same way that these NPR listeners have. To me it’s a no-brainer that we’d be having vastly different conversations if the gunman had been black, Latino, or Muslim, and as a nation, we should be willing to confront that reality.

  16. Feminist Avatar on 15 Jan 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    I completely agree 1) that the concern over a single word has been a major deflection of the significant issues at the centre of the post and 2) that labelling, but particularly insults are given significance by the place in the power hierarchy of those that use them. But, I don’t think that means they should be ignored when they come from groups lower in the racial hierarchy. Partly, because to be able ignore insults is an act of privilege in itself- so the concern over a term like ‘gringo’ might reflect that power hiearchies are in a state of flux. And also because- at least in other historical contexts- measuring what people are willing to say about and to those higher in the racial/social hierarchy and the responses of the elite are quite a useful measure of impending social change.

    So, if there is a positive to come out of this, it is that the willingness of people to dialogue on issues of race (even if it is defensively and not on the issues that we might think are most pertinent) points towards a rebalancing of race relationships. On the other hand, detracting from discussions on more, or other, pertinent issues is a fairly effective defense mechanism- slowing down change through energy sucking distraction.

    And, that is the theory of James C. Scott applied to contemporary America.

  17. gxm17 on 15 Jan 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    I’m a bit baffled by this post. First, it seems to me that it’s probably a good idea to stay away from racial slang terms during a news broadcast. If I replace the word “gringo” with “dago” or “raghead,” it makes me cringe. So I can see that it would be offensive to someone who identifies as a white person. It seems to me that more and more the use of what once were ethnic pejoratives is becoming acceptable and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

    But the thing that really baffles me is that anyone actually assumed the shooter might not be a white guy. And, yes, if it hadn’t been yet another angry white man with a gun then it would have been a completely different response. And, yes, that’s a very important point that most folks are, unfortunately, just not interested in because angry white guys with guns are pretty much our national mascots.

  18. thefrogprincess on 15 Jan 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    And, yes, that’s a very important point that most folks are, unfortunately, just not interested in because angry white guys with guns are pretty much our national mascots.

    True, but the face of “danger” and “violence” in this country is brown, despite the fact that it is mainly white men who have been responsible for mass shootings and bombings. The reason nobody’s picking up on that pattern is because with each of these cases, politicians and the media rush to excuse away the person’s behavior: they’re just a “lone wolf,” followed by various explanations about mental illness.

  19. LadyTraveller on 15 Jan 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    I live TX and gringo/a is used by Hispanics and Whites both. I never thought of it as being an offensive term and only once had a slight inkling that maybe it could be used as a not-so-endearing term when my now mother-in-law started calling me “güerita” about a year into my relationship with her son. When I asked her what it meant she said, “It’s like gringa, but nicer.” I said, “Is gringa not nice?!?”

    She then explained that güerita/o means “white or blonde girl/boy” but one you *really* like. She meant “nicer” as an upgrade of my status from “a white girl” to “their white girl” – a part of the family. So, as far as I can tell and at least in my part of The Lone Star State, “gringo/a” is interchangeable with “white” when describing someone and isn’t derogatory.

  20. Historiann on 15 Jan 2011 at 10:15 pm #

    Hi everyone–sorry to be away all day.

    gxm17, take a look at (or listen to) Hernandez’s whole article. It’s not a news story, but rather an opinion/perspective piece. The whole piece is intended to let white people in on how the situation looks from a Latin@ perspective, so in that case it seemed appropriate to me to use the term gringo. So, while I agree with you that Brian Williams, Michel Norris, or Robert Siegal shouldn’t use the term in their news stories, in this case it seemed evocative of the mood she was setting and appropriate.

    thefrogprincess is right (again!): race, like sex, is disappeared in the analysis of these events, because we have normalized and tacitly accepted white male gun violence. Hernandez didn’t exactly put it the same way, but that was her point about why a gringo murderer meant that the conversation could switch to the “civility of the discourse,” our political culture, mental health treatment, etc.

  21. polisciprof on 16 Jan 2011 at 6:54 am #

    Sorry to be late to the party. I must be on latin time… I grew up in Tucson and attended a racially mixed high school. In the 1970′s, gringo was definately a slur in the Old Pueblo. “Gringo” not only implied someone who was “anglo” (itself a problematic term, given the ethnic diversity of Tucson’s European-derived population), but someone who was ignorant of or unaccepting of cultural difference.

    When I went to Peru as a high school exchange student, I learned that a term’s meaning differs by region. In northern Peru, “gingo” could mean (1)Any foreigner (2)an American, specicifally or (3) anyone who was light-skinned and/or blonde. The peruvians even talked about “gringa a pomo” (roughly, blonde from a bottle). Peruvians even told me the story of the Irish Regiment in the Mexican War as the genesis of the term.

    As commenters here say, the term seems to have different meanings in different places. I doubt that “gringo” is so offensive in Tucson anymore, probably because (many) Anglos have come to embrace Tucson’s diversity and use it in a self-depricating way. I certainly do.

  22. Historiann on 16 Jan 2011 at 7:46 am #

    I always thought the term “Anglo” was a linguistic distinction, not an ethnic one, to refer to English-language speakers generally.

  23. Feminist Avatar on 16 Jan 2011 at 8:23 am #

    In Scotland, where we do not consider ourselves to be Anglo- anything, this would be an insult. This is because we see Anglo as coming from Anglo-Saxon, and we view ourselves as Celts- even though this is a bit of a mythical genetic inheritance. Depending on your politics, you might not even consider yourself as speaking English- but rather Scots- which is a recognised language, even if sounds much like English. I imagine some of those biases would have translated across the Atlantic with Scots and Irish immigrants- informing how ‘Anglo’ is understood by the white community, if not how it is used by the latin@ community. Given the similar tensions between Germanic (also Anglo-Saxons) and Slavic peoples, I could imagine that other ethnic groups might also have issues with being defined as ‘Anglo’. But, this might be about different groups talking across each other, rather than intentionally insulting someone.

  24. Dr. Koshary on 16 Jan 2011 at 8:55 am #

    @Historiann and Feminist Avatar: In Texas, at least, ‘Anglo’ has relatively little to do with language spoken, and absolutely nothing to do with Anglo-Saxon genetic provenance. It has everything to do with racial categories that intersect with class and power. ‘Anglo’ doesn’t contrast with ‘Celtic’ but with ‘Mexican’ and ‘Black’.

    Hence, when I moved to Texas, I discovered that people were sometimes uncertain of whether I were ‘Mexican’ or ‘Anglo’. (I speak Spanish and have non-blond, non-blue-eyed features.) Once they established that my family never came from Mexico, they were satisfied that I was Anglo, even though I have never, ever identified as such. (And back in Hometown, people would think I’d gone around the bend even to use such an identifier!) Scots-Americans in Texas identified as such only on Burns Night; the rest of the time, they were Anglo, even if it pained their kin back in Scotland.

    I assume that the racial categories in Arizona, another part of Greater Mexico, are pretty similar in nature.

  25. gxm17 on 16 Jan 2011 at 9:46 am #

    gxm17, take a look at (or listen to) Hernandez’s whole article. It’s not a news story, but rather an opinion/perspective piece.

    I understand that it was an opinion piece but IMO it was presented in a news/journalism venue. NPR is, presumably, supposed to be notch or two (or three) above, say, Fox News. When speaking one’s mind in a professional setting, I’m of the opinion that it’s best to leave out racial slang.

    thefrogprincess is right (again!): race, like sex, is disappeared in the analysis of these events, because we have normalized and tacitly accepted white male gun violence.

    That’s precisely what I said: most folks are, unfortunately, just not interested in because angry white guys with guns are pretty much our national mascots. Not only is this sort of violence normalized, it’s often revered. There are plenty of people who are boisterously proud of the “fact” that this country was established by angry white men with guns, and then there are the rest of us who either quietly or begrudgingly accept that perspective. IMO, it’s a shame that Ms. Hernandez alienated people that would have benefited from her perspective.

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  27. quixote on 17 Jan 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    Christ on a bike in a pancake hat. I’m with Koshary. To the pearl-clutchers: Get the F over yourselves.

    There’s a big difference between calling a privileged group names while discussing a huge issue for a less-privileged group, and just flinging insults to put someone down. I fault NPR for giving this BS any air.

  28. Tom on 19 Jan 2011 at 11:39 am #

    At the risk of seeming beyond the pale of the discourse here, I am inclined to take the position that the person or group addressed always has the right to identify a label as offensive or not, and those who wish to use the label do not have that power. I won’t deny that one’s position in a traditional power structure can interact with this principle, but I firmly believe that no one should be able to tell me what I should or should not find an offensive label when it’s applied to me, and I believe I should extend the same courtesy to others.

    Telling people to “get over themselves” seems to me to ask others to share our personal sense of what is and what isn’t offensive: it’s about one attempting to enforce one’s own perspective on others. Of course, we all also have the right to actively offend others by calling them names or labeling them through ridicule (e.g., “pearl clutchers”), but no one should be able to say “you shouldn’t be offended by my ridicule.”

    I personally wish to re-invigorate the insulting term “fatcats” to refer to powerful millionaires: but I think it would be wrong for me to claim that no one should be insulted if I call them a fatcat, because their status as a powerful millionaire makes them immune to insult words.

    I have never felt personally insulted by “gringo,” but I’m not ready to say that no one should be, just because many white people enjoy privilege.

  29. Tony @ HowtoPeru.com on 19 Apr 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    I’ve backpacked throughout South America for about 2 years and have been living in Peru for about the same amount of time. Everyone calls me gringo – I’m a foreigner, so fair enough. It’s not an insult in South America. Peruvians use it among themselves – they often refer to light-skinned Peruvians as gringos (or gringas). It’s never bothered me at all – the only thing that irritates me is when I hear the “green go!” word-origin theory (from the US-Mexico war). It’s blatantly wrong!

  30. ryan on 05 Jan 2013 at 8:10 pm #


    Yes the word gringo is very offensive!

  31. Robero on 30 Mar 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Pinches Gringos….

  32. Robero on 30 Mar 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Pinches Grijngod…

  33. Andrea on 02 May 2014 at 7:58 am #

    Someone used it to describe another person in my office this morning – a person that was not present – and I took offense to it.

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