What is it called when when people use words that have nothing to do with race to refer to race?

For example, news anchors saying "urban" or "inner city" to describe someone who is black.

A related phenomenon is that TV shows often describe a main character as "just your average guy" if that character is white, but if the main character is black or Asian, it's suddenly not a normal show, it's a black show or an Asian show.

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    News anchors saying don't necessarily say "urban" or "inner city" to describe someone who is black. There are other races, depending on locale, that are also "urban" or "inner city" youth, e.g. Latino. I don't know the word you are looking for, but it is NOT racist. Feb 19, 2015 at 7:58
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    @Ellie Kesselman - while "'urban' and 'inner city' resident" cannot be explicitly defined as "black person" those terms certainly can carry that connotation, and are understood to mean just that by many people. Perhaps the "news anchors" example was not the best one OP could have used but I'm certainly familiar with the practice of using one word to avoid using another. Sometimes that practice is called being "diplomatic" and at other times it's understood as being "covert". In any case I think this OP has a legitimate question but would benefit from some editorial help.
    – user98990
    Feb 19, 2015 at 10:20
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    Black people would only be called "urban" or "inner-city" if they lived in an urban or inner-city location, in which case it's a description of where they live, not what they look like. Nobody would use those terms to describe a black person from a suburban or rural area. On the other hand, they could be used to describe a Caucasian, Latino, Asian, etc. who lives in those areas.
    – Nicole
    Feb 20, 2015 at 15:23

2 Answers 2


EUPHEMISM noun; plural noun: euphemisms

a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing. “downsizing” as a euphemism for cuts"

synonyms: polite term, indirect term, circumlocution, substitute, alternative, understatement, genteelism see google.com, “euphemism”


If someone is using coded language, they are expressing their opinion in an indirect way, usually because that opinion is likely to offend people. See reverso link

example of the use of coded language:

New Gingrich has repeatedly referred to President Obama as “The Food Stamp” President while contrasting that with his own aims to become “The Paycheck” President.

From the crunkfeministcollective

Whether the use of euphemisms or coded language is racist or not cannot really be definitively answered because one never knows what the inner motives of another person are. However, because these types of expression can seem or feel racist or prejudicial they should be avoided by anyone who wants to be clearly understood.

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    +1, but I can't resist asking what happened to the Old Gingrich :-) Feb 19, 2015 at 11:34
  • @Edwin Ashworth - He won't go away! Now he's a political commentator on Roger Ailes, Fox News.
    – user98990
    Feb 19, 2015 at 11:37

This type of language or communication strategy is often referred to now as a "dog whistle." This is because a dog whistle produces a sound that is heard by an intended audience (dogs) but not by most people.

U.S. President Trump is often accused by commentators of using dog-whistle tactics to disparage certain races without actually identifying a race (i.e., Black) by name. This is the situation mentioned in the question.

So, what is it called when people use words like "urban" to refer to race? It's a "dog whistle" if the point is to sound like you are criticizing a thing or a place when you are actually linking an entire race to a negative condition.

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