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When I was at university in the late 90s, a girl I shared a flat with would use the term "halfcast" to describe people of mixed race, especially in the context of people who had a similar skin colour to Halle Berry or Melanie B (from the Spice Girls).

Is this a racist or offensive term?

For a bit of context - this was at a university in the British midlands (ie near Birmingham/Leicester/Nottingham), the girl was born in Dundee in Scotland but was brought up in Northampton in England. I don't consider her to be a racist.

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Interesting. I have never heard this word before. Is it British slang? – Kit Z. Fox Feb 17 '12 at 17:20
I have heard it before, and I'm British, so it could be. @KitFox – Matt E. Эллен Feb 17 '12 at 19:03
Any word that refers to race is potentially offensive. And if it doesn't offend someone today, it might tomorrow. Like, when I was a kid we were told that a certain group should no longer be called "negro" because that was offensive; we should call them "black". Now we're told we shouldn't call them "black" because that's offensive; we should call them "African-American". I'm not sure how to get around this. Words that one person considers perfectly polite and respectable another declares to be a grave insult. – Jay Feb 17 '12 at 20:54
technically, since 'caste' is a description of a social class, 'half-caste' is a classist pejorative rather than a racial one. But these days 'racist' is a synonym for 'bad' anyway. – Oldcat May 20 '15 at 21:18
up vote 16 down vote accepted

The word is half-caste:


noun : a person of mixed racial or cultural descent : HALF-BREED

adjective : of the rank of or relating to a half-caste

Many dictionaries flag half-caste as being "offensive," "often offensive," or "derogatory."

Interestingly, while OxfordDictionaries.com lists a related term, mulatto ("a person with one white and one black parent") as being offensive, it doesn't flag mestizo ("a person of mixed race, especially one having Spanish and American Indian parentage") as being so.

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I wonder if it is closer to mulatto, which is ambiguously offensive. – Kit Z. Fox Feb 17 '12 at 17:32
OxfordDictionaries.com is unambiguous in flagging half-caste and mulatto as "offensive." (While mestizo, oddly, is not.) – Gnawme Feb 17 '12 at 17:36
Interesting. Another word I haven't heard. I shall have to make friends with more biracial people, it seems. – Kit Z. Fox Feb 17 '12 at 17:38

The term 'half-caste' is indeed used to describe someone of mixed-race (mixed-parentage, mixed-heritage, or whatever other term is in vogue now). The reason that it is offensive however, is because the word itself has nothing to do with ethnicity.

Caste is a word describing social grouping or status and the term half-caste describes somebody who is not completely worthy of high caste status because one of their parents is from a lower caste, as was the case when blacks were considered by the consensus to be of lower privilege than whites.

To still use this word now is to suggest that difference in social status still exists and thus its offensiveness is in part similar to the way 'the n-word' is offensive. Of course, a person who uses the term today might be wholly unaware of its original connotation but indeed it is clear why some might be offended by it.

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In BrE this term is definitely frowned upon. An acceptable analogue is "mixed-race".

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Dangerously close to a term used by American white supremacists. – Spehro Pefhany May 20 '15 at 20:31

In agreement with others, I would say this term is at the very least insensitive now, though it doesn't seem to be as inflammatory as, say, "coloured" in the States. (I'm not from the States, but have seen reactions to its use in the media, such as Lindsay Lohan's use of it to describe Obama in 2012).

There are many terms which were at some time simply descriptive (half-caste simply making a statement about caste; a while back retarded simply described a condition), but as societies evolve and values change, it can become unacceptable to identify people according to outdated classifications.

In my father's country, I would be called afakasi, which is a Samoan loan-word which of course stands for half-caste. It's a fluid term, its offensiveness depending on who is using it or why. I might describe myself to someone as afakasi to point out that I am part Samoan, part something else. In Samoa, some pure bred Samoans will call someone afakasi in a pejorative sense to put them down.

While not the most offensive of racial terms, it certainly won't hurt us for the term to one day slip into the "totally unnecessary and unacceptable" folder.

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