The word offense, at the root of offensive, has various definitions that may help us to sort through the confusion.
The intrinsic offense of defective communication?
1.1 A thing that constitutes a violation of what is judged to be right or natural:
the outcome is an offense to basic justice
It seems quite absurd to claim that any word fits this definition of offense per se. If a word is spelled intelligibly, applied consistently according to its lexical identity, and used appropriately in English syntax, it generates no intrinsic offense. It simply points the audience toward the thoughts of the author.
In the book Are You Made for Each Other? by Barbara and Allan Pease, the expression white lie offers no intrinsic offense:
There are four basic types of lies--the White Lie, the Beneficial Lie,
the Malicious Lie, and the Deceptive Lie. The White Lie is part
of our social fabric and stops us from emotionally hurting or
insulting one another with the cold, hard, painful truth.
Some may reject the moral inferences of the author's definition. Others may disagree with the practical implications of the author's conclusion. Still others may take offense at the author's choice of words, but the words white lie themselves offer no offense:
A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting
ODO emphasis added
In an intelligent arrangement of words, the authors used white lie consistently with the general expectations of English-speaking people. It is a benign expression employed to communicate legitimate ideas for the mutual benefit of writer and reader. There is no intrinsic offense.
2. The perceived offense of emotional sensitivity?
Any offense at the words written by Barbara and Allan Pease conforms to another definition of offense:
2.0 [MASS NOUN] Annoyance or resentment brought about
by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself:
he made it clear he’d taken offense
I didn’t intend to give offense
ODO emphasis added
Theoretically, a very small contingent might truly believe it is patently wrong to lie in any circumstance. Their offense at the white lie label would be quite different than the offense taken by racial sensitivity. "Lying is evil all the time!" they warn us, "Honesty is the always best policy. Your white-lying mind is as crooked as your ugly nose!" The offense of white lie would be located in the mind of those rigid moralists, not in the mind of the compassionate authors. No offense was given with the words, but surely offense was taken!
3. The real offense of verbal attacks?
The invective of that [imaginary] moralist response to the benign communication from Barbara and Allan Pease reveals the third definition of offense:
3.0 [MASS NOUN] The action of attacking someone or
[AS MODIFIER]: reductions in strategic offence arsenals
ODO emphasis added
The expression nigger uttered by a "light-skinned" man toward a "dark-skinned" man is not simply a perceived insult. It is an implicit threat. The long violent history of that word, spewing from the mouths of evil "light-skinned" men all the way to the present time, makes it a threat in our narrow cultural context. Conversely, the expression nigger exchanged among "dark-skinned" men can be offered and received as an implicit expression of solidarity in a shared response to their historic oppression.
In the words written by Barbara and Allan Pease, there was no explicit or implicit racial threat. There is not even a hint of etymological evidence that the white in white lie has any violent racial connotations. So there is no legitimate claim of attack. Furthermore, the linguistic connection of white to good transcends racial and cultural boundaries by extension of the ubiquitous benefits of light, which happen to be denoted as white in English:
Old English hwit "bright, radiant; clear, fair," also as a noun (see
from Proto-Germanic *hwitaz
(cognates: Old Saxon and
Old Frisian hwit, Old Norse hvitr, Dutch wit, Old High German hwiz,
German weiß, Gothic hveits), from PIE *kweid-o-, suffixed form of root
*kweit- "white; to shine"
(cognates: Sanskrit svetah "white;" Old Church Slavonic sviteti "to shine," svetu "light;" Lithuanian šviesti
"to shine," svaityti "to brighten").
As a surname, originally with reference to fair hair or complexion, it
is one of the oldest in English, being well-established before the
Meaning "morally pure" was in Old English.
royalist causes is late 18c.
Slang sense of "honorable, fair" is 1877,
American English; in Middle English it meant "gracious, friendly,
The racial sense "of those races (chiefly European or of
European extraction) characterized by light complexion" is recorded
from c. 1600;
meaning "characteristic of or pertaining to white
people" is from 1852, American English.
White supremacy attested from
1884, American English;
white flight is from 1966, American English.
White way "brightly illuminated street in a big city" is from 1908.
White flag of truce or surrender is from c. 1600.
White lie is
attested from 1741. White Christmas is attested from 1847. White House
as the name of the U.S. presidential residence is recorded from 1811.
White water "river rapids" is recorded from 1580s. White Russian
"language of Byelorussia" is recorded from 1850; the mixed drink is
from c. 1978. Astronomical white dwarf is from 1924. White witch, one
who used the power for good, is from 1620s.
etymonline emphasis added
In English, the earliest linguistic marker of evil seems to be connected to our ancient superstitious fear of the dark:
Old English deorc "dark, obscure, gloomy; sad, cheerless; sinister,
from Proto-Germanic *derkaz
(cognates: Old High German
tarchanjan "to hide, conceal").
"Absence of light" especially at night
is the original meaning.
Application to colors is 16c.
etymonline emphasis added
The PIE meaning of black was closer to light than dark, and expanded to its current meaning of dark from its ancient meaning of shining blaze with ambiguity that seems to have delayed its eventual displacement of swart:
Old English blæc "dark,"
from Proto-Germanic *blakaz "burned"
(cognates: Old Norse blakkr "dark," Old High German blah "black,"
Swedish bläck "ink," Dutch blaken "to burn"),
from PIE *bhleg- "to
burn, gleam, shine, flash"
(cognates: Greek phlegein "to burn,
scorch," Latin flagrare "to blaze, glow, burn"),
from root bhel- (1)
"to shine, flash, burn;" see bleach (v.).
The same root produced Old English blac "bright, shining, glittering,
pale;" the connecting notions being, perhaps, "fire" (bright) and
"burned" (dark). The usual Old English word for "black" was sweart
(see swart). According to OED: "In ME. it is often doubtful whether
blac, blak, blake, means 'black, dark,' or 'pale, colourless, wan,
Used of dark-skinned people in Old English.
Of coffee, first attested 1796.
Meaning "fierce, terrible, wicked" is
The color of sin and sorrow since at least c. 1300;
"with dark purposes, malignant" emerged 1580s (as in black magic).
Black face in reference to a performance style originated in U.S., is
Black flag, flown (especially by pirates) as a signal of
"no mercy," from 1590s.
Black dog "melancholy" attested from 1826.
Black belt is from 1875 in reference to districts of the U.S. South
with heaviest African population;
1870 with reference to fertility of
soil; 1913 in judo sense.
Black power is from 1966, associated with
etymonline emphasis added
Notice in Old English that black seems to describe how the sun had "burned" the skin of darker people before most of the moral connotations had been added to the word. Perhaps since that benign observation, ethnocentricity has motivated evil "white" people to use the ancient coincidence of "light" to justify their evil actions and motivations toward "black" people. The usage of white to refer to "light-skinned" people of European extraction is attested from the 1600s, when the trade of African slaves began to expand in Europe. That seems to suggest the birth of an ethnocentric bias, but why should we throw out the rest of our clean linguistic baby with their filthy cultural bathwater?
Generations of real attacks by "light-skinned" people against "dark-skinned" people have generated a large pool of real offense. We all need to address these offenses honestly, but skin color is just as much a cultural pretense today as it always has been. There is no benefit in backlogging these racial offenses onto benign expressions that have absolutely no connection to real racial offenses. It would be better to use these neutral idioms to prompt some honest soul searching to wash the egocentricity from our own hearts and minds.
There is nothing intrinsically racist about the expression white lie, but there is a perceived insult in the minds of offended people, who have legitimate reasons to be sensitive. As intelligent communicators, we can certainly track three levels of linguistic offense:
- The intrinsic offense of defective communication: words have definite meaning
- The perceived offense of emotional sensitivity: some people take offense
- The real offense of verbal attacks: some people give offense
White lie and a host of other white idioms are offensive to people who are emotionally sensitive to deep grievances. The real offenses are wrapped up in the pretense of skin color. Although this color pretense has imposed racial connotations upon these idioms, we can continue using them with their legitimate meanings, but it is in our best interest to respect the sensibilities of our audience.