48

In his book Overcoming our Racism, psychology professor Derald Wing Sue talks about "unconscious racial oppression" that leads well-meaning White people to say and do things that are harmful to people of color. Some examples he gives of this are claiming to "not see color," laughing at racist jokes, and using the terms white lie and black lie.

I had never heard the term black lie before, and I had never thought of white lie in racial terms. Wikipedia defines white lies as "minor lies which could be considered to be harmless, or even beneficial, in the long term" (emphasis mine). I know there are plenty of other terms that equate "white" with "good," such as white hat and white magic.

Is it racist, or at least politically incorrect, to use terms like this?

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    It is about as racist as calling a Great White Shark, a Great White Shark... Things are not allowed to be black and white anymore, so we have to settle for grey areas because of 'politically correctness'. – McGafter Jun 25 '15 at 9:54
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    Tis a long slippery road if every time we see a word connected to black, brown, red, or yellow we interpret it as being disrespectful. Will That's a big fat lie! one day be called sizeist? – Mari-Lou A Jun 25 '15 at 11:17
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    Sometimes, if not usually, a cigar is just a cigar. – Omegacron Jun 25 '15 at 14:24
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    I think its racist to assert that a race is identified with a color. – Jodrell Jun 26 '15 at 8:52
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    I'm dreaming of a white Christmas. – superluminary Jun 26 '15 at 14:01

13 Answers 13

26

As with any question of political correctness, the answer depends on the audience:

There is a claim (presumably ascribed to by Sue) that the English language is liberally infested with terminology that reinforces unconscious racial biases, chiefly revolving around the "white = good, black = bad" paradigm. This claim is both common and well-received in progressive academic circles and other subgroups with an interest in raising consciousness around racial issues. When communicating in or with such a group, you would be expected to police your own language for inherent biases.

Outside of such groups, such terms are unlikely to cause offense, and can be used at your own discretion --you can decide for yourself whether your use of them is likely to reinforce bias in yourself or others (and whether apt alternate terms do exist).

  • Practical advice. Minor tweak/addition - context is obviously key to interpretation but based on your elaboration it seems you are focusing on context meaning surroundings. In other words "the answer depends on the audience." – GetzelR Jun 26 '15 at 13:19
  • @GetzelR I have taken your advice – Chris Sunami Jun 26 '15 at 13:48
  • Cool. I meant that you had given practical advice, which I then followed up with a minor tweak. Happy to help. – GetzelR Jun 26 '15 at 13:52
  • The answer is a good one, and for the most part I feel the same... When I read The Lord of the Rings though, or similar works, I start to really grok why one might make the assertion that white==good, black==bad, is racist. I sometimes think -- boy, if I identified myself as "Black", or had dark skin, I would feel uncomfortable reading these descriptions of dark, black, foul orks and pure white civilized elves. I think the solution is to no longer use black and white for skin color, rather pink, brown, dark brown... In the Marines we used light and dark green, which I found cute. – Spacemoose Jun 28 '15 at 14:10
  • @Spacemoose - I chose to focus on the "politically incorrect" portion of the question, as having an objective answer. The question of whether color-coded terms are racist is a topic of live controversy, as the range of answers and comments here attest. I'm personally in sympathy with the theory, although I do think it's best understood in terms of the "white=good, black=bad" paradigm being imposed on people rather than the other way around. (On the other hand, there do exist phrases such as "that's mighty white of you," which are hard to view as originating outside race.) – Chris Sunami Jun 29 '15 at 19:57
77

Conclusion:

White in "white lie" is a reference to the perceived moral purity of the lie, an act normally considered immoral. It is not a reference to a race.

Sources

According to etymonline.com, white as an adjective is from

Old English hwit [meaning] "bright, radiant; clear, fair"

According to the same source

Meaning "morally pure" was in Old English.

A white lie is defined as in OED as

A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

It is clear from the definition that the modifier "white" is a description of the motive or impact of the lie, and not its provenance.

The meaning "characteristic of or pertaining to white people" is from 1852, American English, while the phrase "white lie" itself predates that meaning, being found as early as 1741. (etymonline)

Edit (moved this point up from the comments): This is responsive to the question in that there are no objective grounds to associate the term with a particular race.

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    I think that's all very good and interesting but it makes no attempt to answer the question: "Is it racist, or at least politically incorrect, to use terms like this?" – Avon Jun 24 '15 at 19:54
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    It answers the question in the objective sense - there is no implicit reference to race in the term. – GetzelR Jun 24 '15 at 20:05
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    But the question wasn't that. It was on usage irrespective of etymology. Don't get me wrong: I am far more interested in your answer than debating Derald Wing Sue's opinions especially when he uses "not see color" as a criticism when really it should be the objective. So +1 from me for steering clear of the nonsense. – Avon Jun 24 '15 at 20:10
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    Attributing transitive properties to idioms (you said white = pure and we know white = Caucasian, therefore you must be saying Caucasian = pure) strikes me as an invitation to absurdity. – GetzelR Jun 24 '15 at 20:19
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    My apologies then. I guess I focused on what I saw as the core question and after the time spent researching the word couldn't remember the other details provided. No offense intended. – GetzelR Jun 24 '15 at 22:22
67

The OED finds usages of "white" to mean good or beneficent going back to Chaucer in the 14th century, and it finds first usages of "black" to mean sinister or evil in the last two decades of the 16th century. Even the latest of these predates the bulk of the Atlantic slave trade by English-speaking slavers.

Any linguistic color theory of white and black has to explain the why black is sometimes good (in the black, from accounting; black gold, oil; black soil, the most fertile kind; black belt, admittedly imported). Or why white is sometimes bad (whitewash, a dishonest coverup; whitelivered, i.e., lily-livered, cowardly; white flag, surrender). To dismiss these examples as merely descriptive is to engage in special pleading.

Don't get me wrong. "White" is the normative standard in the US and has been since the country's founding. And there's no doubt this influences the language. It wasn't that long ago that I could buy "flesh-colored" adhesive bandage strips. Want to guess what color they were? And there are plenty of US sociological studies that reveal white participants' prejudices against black people, but this is the legacy of the color line in the US, an enduring fault line that we can trace from southern legalized slavery (through 1865) to southern legalized apartheid (through the 1960s) to de facto segregated life in housing, education, and employment that continues today across the country. Remember that it hasn't been fifty years since inter-racial marriage was illegal in many states. Against the forces of history and tradition that shape our perceptions, the metaphoric effects of "white" in "white lie" and "black" in "black eye" are surely nugatory.

Bear in mind that in the US, instead of dealing with the problem, we have instead generated an industry of taking offense, characterized by Derald Wing Sue and his favorite topic of "racial microaggressions," of which "white lie" is an example. You'd think that the recent event in Charleston, South Carolina would put an end to this focus.

But I'm going to guess not.

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    You could argue that the "white-is-bad" terms really use "white" in a reverse sense. Whitewash; "covered up to look white/good" or white flag denoting "non-agressiveness" – Mathias R. Jessen Jun 25 '15 at 5:41
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    "Want to guess what color they were?" -- not white. One could argue that the ideal, albeit unlikely, solution to this interaction between longstanding "white = good, black = bad" associations in language, and the language of race, is to stop calling pink people white ;-) – Steve Jessop Jun 25 '15 at 9:30
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    The first two paragraphs of your answer are a good answer to the question asked. It's hard to imagine how the last three are relevant, unless you can objectively link them to the specific terms "white lie" and "black lie." – Robert Harvey Jun 25 '15 at 14:33
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    I would argue that the "good" word in "black gold" is "gold," not "black." It's called "black gold" because crude oil is valuable, like gold, but black, unlike gold. The "black" part is neither positive nor negative. – T.J. Crowder Jun 25 '15 at 16:00
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    Sorry, but it's not "special pleading" to claim that the word "black" in "black gold" or "black soil" is purely descriptive. It is purely descriptive. You couldn't call oil "purple gold" because it wouldn't make sense. You couldn't call a whitewash an "orangewash" because it refers to a specific kind of paint used to cover things up, and that kind of paint is white, not orange. In contrast, terms such as "white lie", "black magic" and so on are not based on the literal colours but on figurative interpretations of those colours. – David Richerby Jun 26 '15 at 9:24
19

I don't think it is fair to call any word racist. It is people that are racist.

A person may find a word offensive and if they do - they do. It doesn't make the word generally offensive. I doubt any word is offensive to everybody.

How many people need to find a word offensive before we label the word as offensive? Any more than one is discriminatory. Therefore, I think it is madness to do such labelling. "Warning: this word might be considered offensive by some" is as far as it really needs to go and avoiding such words is what political correctness is and I am generally in favour of it.

So, to that end, with regards to "white lie": I have never heard of anyone taking offense at it or any of the many other uses where white is a symbol of goodness and black is a symbol of badness. A few more million opinions and we can start to come to a consensus on that.

I don't think the examples of white meaning good mentioned did so for racial reasons. Day and night are going to be the primary suspects there - far more fundamental to our lives than any racial prejudices we may have. But then I am white so maybe I am deceiving myself.

Only individuals can tell us whether they do. I doubt Derald Wing Sue knows enough people to even begin to make a generalization like that. It's just an hypothesis. An opinion.

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    @Kristina Lopez My opinion throughout as was Derald Wing Sue's ascertion. That is the point! – Avon Jun 24 '15 at 19:51
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    +1. For the last lines. Let's call a spade a spade. It is an opinion. Calling people racist for using white lie is ridiculous and frankly a bit sad. (Btw, the spade expression I used is also considered by some to be racist) – Tushar Raj Jun 24 '15 at 20:02
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    @SteveJessop I suppose the same can be said about how many people need to find a word/sentence amusing before it is... I did – Avon Jun 25 '15 at 9:51
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    @Avon: that's a relief, it reduces the chances of me being banned for using offensive punctuation. – Steve Jessop Jun 25 '15 at 10:11
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    Whoa there @ChrisSunami! I didn't use the word "crackpot". I used the word "hypothesis" and "opinion". And you called it an opinion too. So I'm very confused what you think I've done wrong here. Please read comments above to see why your second sentence is essentially a non-sequitur: I didn't broach the subject of why I haven't encountered this extremely rare opinion (outside of those circles). – Avon Jun 26 '15 at 7:57
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The term "white lie", as everyone has pointed out does not derive from race. Naturally, it would be an etymological fallacy[*] to conclude that therefore its use "is not racist". Racism is about present intent and effect, not (primarily) about what people said hundreds of years ago. But one also cannot conclude that it "is racist" just because it contains a word used in relation to race.

Derald Wing Sue, as a psychologist, is presenting a view that the term "white lie", and others, make a subconscious contribution to racism. The claim in question here doesn't purport to say how that happens, but even if we discount any possible "intrinsic" intent of racism in the meaning of the phrase (and it seems pretty reasonable to discount that in the case of the majority of users, as opposed to some overt racial slur where we would generally assume racist intent), there is still immediately a linguistic argument to the extent that one accepts (a) some version of Sapir-Whorf and (b) its applicability to this case. Btw, I don't know whether Derald Wing Sue is actually advancing Sapir-Whorf or not, this is just one possible support for the notion and significance of unconscious racism in language.

Specifically, the contentions are (1) that the white/good black/bad tendency in English, together with the white/Caucasian and black/African racial terminology, means that the use of "white lie" is a small act of oppression that adversely affects cognition, and that (2) therefore, in good faith as non-racist people, we ought to take some steps to recognise this and reprogram ourselves and others.

Naturally, some people take objection to this line of reasoning, not all at the same points. They might reject (a), (b), (which are just one possible background that I've seen for this kind of PC activity, not the assertions specifically questioned here) (1), or (2) (which are my best attempts to interpret what's actually said here, that "white lie" is harmful). One might reject these either because of the specific details or because of the natural desire not to consider one's vocabulary in what amount to political terms. I'm kind of expecting to see a bit of argument on the points in comments, but I'm not trying to assess Sue's competence as a psychologist or an activist, I'm just trying to indicate that the suggested connection with racism is nothing to do with etymology, nor with any intent by anyone to insult anyone, but is about whether indirect linguistic associations matter. We know they matter to poets, and that allusions via choice of words can be vital, but people have different ideas about where else they matter.

As such, your question can only be answered as a matter of opinion, whether there are "connotations" or not. However, certainly for some people, there are connotations even though the connection with race is not etymological. Never mind words being used in different senses, even sound-alike words can have some sort of "connotations", that's how puns work.

In a few cases, people might use terms like "white lie" because of actual prejudice that makes a person accept that when a white/male/straight/etc "norm"-conforming person tells them something is rude they will tend to accept this as a guide to behaviour, whereas when a black/female/gay/etc "other" tells them something is rude they will reject this as an irrelevant, politically-motivated or unusual view. That would be outright racism, but since it's only a tendency in some people, it can't necessarily be directly observed in a single incident and it certainly cannot be generalised to all uses of the phrase "white lie". It's also not English language, it's definitely politics :-)


[*] It occurs to me to mention that the etymological fallacy cuts both ways here, and indeed it's as common if not more so to appeal to it to say that something "is racist" than to say it "isn't". If someone uses a term like "Welshing on a bet", completely unaware that it may have originated as an absolutely intentional racial slur against the people of Wales by the English, then it would be an etymological fallacy to accuse that person of racism. However, once the issue has arisen as a point of contention (and I hasten to add that this particular term is hardly a major hot-button issue over here in the UK), if one continues to use it knowing that there are Welsh people none too happy about it, then the reason they're unhappy about it, and the probably-unknowable actual truth of the etymology, become irrelevant to whether or not it's racist to knowingly make Welsh people unhappy. Other factors determine racism.

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    Very good points well said. – Avon Jun 25 '15 at 11:01
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    This is by far a more correct answer than the others. – Russell Borogove Jun 26 '15 at 22:21
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Others have discussed the etymology of the phrase, no need for me to repeat that.

Whether or not a word is offensive is not something that can be resolved by analysis. There's no formula that you can run a word through to determine whether or not it is offensive. Like people used to use "four-letter words" as an idiom meaning "curse words", but I don't think anyone ever supposed that counting the number of letters in a word was all you needed to do to determine if it was offensive or not.

Knowing the etymology may be helpful but is not definitive. At one time it was routine to call people of a certain ethnicity "negro". Now that is considered offensive. But the word "negro" comes from a Spanish word meaning "black". So it's insulting to use the Spanish word for "black", but it's okay to use the English word "black".

Sometimes we can't even be sure of the etymology. There was a big deal a few years ago where some claimed that the word "squaw" was originally a vulgar word for female sex organs, and so use of this word was offensive. Others said no, it comes from an Algonquin word meaning simply "woman". I don't claim to be a scholar of American Indian language so I'm not going to weigh in. My point is just: to the extent that the etymology is, in fact, questionable ... does it matter? Who cares what the word meant 500 years ago? What does it mean TODAY?

Some people will say that a word is offensive while others will say that that exact same word is not offensive. In can depend on who said it -- like black people often call each other by the n-word with no offense but if a white person uses it it's considered highly offensive. Many people today say that the word "black" is racist and offensive and we should say "African-American", but I saw a poll a few years ago that found that black people generally preferred the term "black" over "African-American". (Personally, I find the term African-American problematic. I once read an article that claimed that Cleopatra of Egypt was an African-American. I seriously doubt that she was dark skinned. But I am almost certain that she never even visited America.)

So ... some words are widely regarded as offensive. The n-word for black people, the f-word, etc. If you use these words, you WILL offend people. Every now and then I hear people say, "Why should someone be offended? They're just words." But they do offend. So if you want to offend -- like your goal is to shock people with your bluntness or to insult people that you don't like -- or you don't care who you offend, well, that's your business. But if you want to be accepted in polite society, just use different words.

You could take a poll to find what words people consider offensive. But suppose that only 10% find a word offensive, but one of those 10% is your best friend? Are you going to use a word that offends him day after day just because MOST people don't find it offensive? Why? What is gained by such an attitude?

But need I say it? Some people go out of their way to be offended. They strain to find offense where absolutely no offense was intended. If someone tells me that a word I have been using innocently offends them, I'll generally stop using it, at least in their presence. But when someone complains about a long list of words, all of which sound perfectly innocent to me and which I am using with no intent to offend, at some point my feeling is, "I'm sorry, but it's obvious that no matter what I say, you will find a way to be offended by it. As this is a game that I obviously cannot win, I refuse to play any more."

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    Many people today say that the word "black" is racist and offensive and we should say "African-American" -- but often leading to the bizarre spectacle of people who are dark-skinned being called "African-American" who don't consider themselves American (e.g. English performers being called "African American" by people from the US), who may also not consider themselves African either. This same impulse has led to some equally bizarre conversations I've had with Americans where for example, light-skinned people in Libya are denied any status as Africans. – Glen_b Jun 26 '15 at 2:21
  • @Glen_b: exactly, if you're talking about Americans then "African-American" can work well alongside other similarly-formed terms in common use, like "Italian-American" or "Irish-American". Still doesn't help light-skinned Africans, but it's not a total nonsense. Those from Africa with no connection to America, clearly are not African-Americans any more than the people of Italy are Italian-Americans. Even progressive thought can fall foul of parochial errors, though. – Steve Jessop Jun 26 '15 at 13:54
  • In current parlance, a dark-skinned person living in America is called an African-American even if he has never been to Africa in his life, and even if his grandparents came here from Jamaica. Calling a dark-skinned person who has lived his whole life in Britain and whose ancestors came from India an "African-American" seems a little silly to me. My grandfather came to the U.S. from Norway, so I suppose you could call me a "Norwegian-American", but I pretty much never call myself that. – Jay Jun 26 '15 at 16:44
  • Advice on how to make friends or good attitude is hardly relevant to the question is it? Talking about how some words are nearly always considered offensive but others can be considered offensive by some or many but not by others is a useful contribution but the rest isn't. – user8674 Jun 28 '15 at 19:58
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I don't think it's specifically offensive or politically incorrect. As you say, his point is probably more that the black/white dichotomy in English often, maybe even usually, privileges white over black. Whether this is even racist, or a product of more ancient archetypes, is debatable, but there's probably some validity to the idea that these expressions tend to uphold or at least parallel some types of unconscious cultural racism.

I've never heard "black lie," either...

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    Isn't it more likely that the connection goes the other way? "White" people are not really white, and "black" people are only sometimes dark-skinned enough for the color to be called "black." But using the term "white" as a racial category allows the color's connotations of purity, blankness and default-ness to be associated with a particular ethnic group. If we talked about "pale" and "colorful" people, the connotations would go the other way around. – herisson Jun 24 '15 at 19:40
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    @sumelic that is a very good point and so the subconscious racism is calling pale people white and coloured people black. That could well be true. – Avon Jun 24 '15 at 19:43
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    @sumelic Interestingly, black is not the original English word for black and originally meant dark. Black in Old English was sweart, which is probably related to the Germanic schwarz, meaning black. – GetzelR Jun 24 '15 at 19:48
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    "Unconscious cultural racism"... I'm not sure that I agree with that; a racist is really somebody who (actively believes) that one ethnicity is superior to another. I don't think the terminology can be classified as racist. – person27 Jun 25 '15 at 3:55
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    @FizzledOut: I don't think that reflects current use of the term "racism", although it does describe the 19th-century notion of "racism" or "racialism". A white person who dislikes and distrusts every black person they meet, while being open and amicable to white strangers they encounter, can properly be termed "a racist" even if they hold no active intellectual hypothesis that white people are superior to black people. So there can be such a thing as "unconscious racism", even the term appears at first to be inappropriately constructed like "unconscious membership of the Communist party" ;-) – Steve Jessop Jun 25 '15 at 10:39
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The terms "white" and "black" meaning good and bad exist in English from a time before the majority of speakers had any contact with different races.

Consider the term "white witch" (meaning a good witch, possibly but not necessarily one who dresses in white rather than black.) I think even a small child would understand this concept, regardless of the clothes worn by the white witch. And regardless of her race. A white witch of African extraction would be perfectly within the bounds of the concept.

For me this issue is black and white, though for some it may be a grey area (pun most definitely intended to make a point.)

  • That term makes me think of the C.S. Lewis character. – Beta Jun 25 '15 at 3:53
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    @Beta I was thinking of the time when a film adaptation of the Lord of the Rings is cast with a black man (Morgan Freeman perhaps) playing Gandalf - the White Wizard. I would welcome that. – Avon Jun 25 '15 at 11:05
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    @Avon: How about Gandalf the Grey (Morgan Freeman), supplanting Saruman the White (Samuel L. Jackson) with the help of Radagast the Brown (Eminem)? – Beta Jun 25 '15 at 11:21
  • @Beta I would pay to see that. – Avon Jun 25 '15 at 11:48
6

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
ODO

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.
emphasis added

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:

noun

A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings:
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 something:
[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 separate entry),
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 Conquest.
Meaning "morally pure" was in Old English.
Association with royalist causes is late 18c.
Slang sense of "honorable, fair" is 1877, American English; in Middle English it meant "gracious, friendly, favorable."
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, wicked,"
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, livid.' "
Used of dark-skinned people in Old English.

Of coffee, first attested 1796.
Meaning "fierce, terrible, wicked" is late 14c.
The color of sin and sorrow since at least c. 1300;
sense of "with dark purposes, malignant" emerged 1580s (as in black magic).
Black face in reference to a performance style originated in U.S., is from 1868.
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 Stokely Carmichael.
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.


Conclusion:

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:

  1. The intrinsic offense of defective communication: words have definite meaning
  2. The perceived offense of emotional sensitivity: some people take offense
  3. 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.

1

Devil's advocate here. In a debate, which this question has provoked, it has been relatively easy to defend “white lie” from the accusation of racism. But for the sake of audi alteram partem, I wish to voice a different perspective.

According to the website, The Phrase Finder

The earliest quotation the Oxford English Dictionary has for this phrase, contrasting white lies and black lies, is from 1741. The origin is not explained, but whiteness has long symbolized purity and innocence.

The citation

A certain Lady of the highest Quality ... makes a judicious Distinction between a white Lie and a black Lie. A white Lie is That which is not intended to injure any Body in his Fortune, Interest, or Reputation but only to gratify a garrulous Disposition and the Itch of amusing People by telling Them wonderful Stories.

sources: The Phrase Finder and World Wide Words

White lies were thus innocuous embellishments, their service was to amuse people, not harm them. Basically white lies were told by raconteurs in a bid to make a story sound more exciting and memorable. Nowadays, the terms tall story or tall tale seem more appropriate for this type of situation. Curiously, the earliest recorded use of tall tale is 1788, a citation unearthed by @Hugo. The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary says

A fanciful or greatly exaggerated story, as in “Some youngsters love tall tales about creatures from outer space coming to earth.” This idiom uses tall in the sense of “exaggerated.”

As has been noted by other posts; white is the symbol of purity, goodness, righteousness, and honesty, nowhere more so than in the Bible.

In the King James V Bible, the word ‘white’ occurs seventy-five times, twenty-nine of which are in the New Testament. It is the most frequently mentioned color in not only the entire word of God but also the New Testament. It is the third most referenced color in the Old Testament, behind blue (50) and red (47).

Examples

In Roman times the giving of white stone symbolised acquittal from crime, and innocence. Thus those who overcome sin are purified and cleansed through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

•"Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." Psalm 51:7
"And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints." Rev 19:8
"Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war.... ..And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses." Revelation 19:11&14

source: Bible Basics.co.uk

In the 18th century, slavery, and as a result racism, had been well-established in Europe and in the USA. It is not so far-fetched to postulate that the white in “white lie” was chosen deliberately to justify telling a falsehood. There are quite a number of suitable synonyms, many of whom much older, such as: fib; falsification; fabrication; invention; fiction story; cock-and-bull story: flight of fancy; half truth; harmless untruth; tall story; tall tale; fish story; whopper; and yarn.

Note the absence of colours, why can't an untruth be grey, or yellow; why can't a falsification also be called a purple lie? The colour white, meaning purity and honesty, has been ingrained in us for the last two thousand years. It's become so integral, we don't even notice it any more, until someone points out "Why is a good lie white?"

  • I don't think that that grey is a good example in this context. Grey is very much on that same black-white scale and eg morally grey is an example where it is used in such a meaning. – Håkan Lindqvist Jun 27 '15 at 22:37
  • @HåkanLindqvist, the expression grey area is used to say something is ambiguous, a "grey lie" could therefore mean a lie which is neither good nor bad. I don't hold that "white lie" is offensive, but it does conform to a worn-out stereotype, i.e. white = good/holy. The point of my answer was not to suggest a different colour (color), but to point out a discrepancy, and offer an alternative viewpoint. – Mari-Lou A Jun 27 '15 at 22:45
  • My presumption is that having a figurative black-white scale at all is what can be interpreted as racist. Not because that scale actually has anything to do with skin color but because it can be reinterpreted as such. In modern society where day/night, summer/winter, etc has lost a lot of its significance the positive connotations of white / light / bright and negative of black / darkness / dark are less intuitive (that's at least where I'm assuming that this is ultimately rooted). – Håkan Lindqvist Jun 27 '15 at 23:09
  • @HåkanLindqvist I reiterate that the color grey is not normally associated with race/skin color. I understand how you are looking at this, but I think you're focusing a little too much on a colour that I just happened to pick out; grey being mid-way between the two extremes, I imagined as a metaphor could work. In any case, the OP is asking whether "a white lie" has racist connotations, not if a different colour should be assigned. – Mari-Lou A Jun 27 '15 at 23:34
  • My point was simply that I thought grey was an unfortunate example of a different color as it has a well-established figurative use that is directly tied to the exact same idea of white=good and black=bad as what is the basis for white in white lie, which is what the OP is asking about. Having clarified my original point, this became much more drawn out than I had intended and I'll leave this alone now. – Håkan Lindqvist Jun 28 '15 at 0:01
0

In his essay #OF TRUTH Fransis Bacon elucidates what 'white lie' is and how it makes life savoury and spicy. He tells that we love to lie.Harmless lie is a boon sometimes. Since the time of THE FAIRIE QUEENE down to the time of Bacon 'white lie' (half truth) had no racist over tone nor it has any thing as such at present.

  • 1
    While "Of Truth" is an interesting essay, it isn't really related to the racial connotations associated with the term "white lie" (or the lack of them). The parts of your answer that are on-topic are just restating what others have said above. – herisson Jun 25 '15 at 17:47
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    My intention in referring to Bacon's immortal essay is to stress what white lie is and attributing to it a racist connotation is farfetched. – Barid Baran Acharya Jun 25 '15 at 18:03
  • 3
    ... If only life (and English) were that simple. Connotations have a life of their (owners') own. And meanings and connotation levels change over time: when I was at junior school, 'gay' meant nothing other than 'carefree / happy / light in mood'. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 25 '15 at 21:43
0

To add to everything that already have been said This tendency to label white as good and black as bad most probably, too, comes from the fact that we are diurnal animals, so at night we become prey from the other animals that hunt in the darkness. Following that train of thought, even there were no races, white would still mean good, because of light of the day and black, evil, because of the darkness of the night. The dark present us the unknown, we can't be sure of what is in the dark, so can only be evil. We humans tend to process colours subconsciously based on their role in the nature we evolved millions years ago, so it reflects in our languages and behaviour. Other examples: Blue, water or clear sky, stillness and makes us relaxed, red, means blood, brings us urgency and means anger, White, means light, feels safe or good, Black means darkness, dangerous or evil or the unknown around us at night, etc.

[Edit]

As the user deadrat pointed below, eastern cultures do describe "white" as a sad colour and puts the evolutionary idea to debate.

Still, I would argue that the relations of white/good and black/evil, at least when it comes to western ones, happened in the language/culture way before races where involved, since the use of terminology seems to be rooted for a long time in western cultures and still believe that have to do with what we perceive in nature, a common thing around to primordial languages to be based upon.

A nice article for reading about colours on our psyche:

http://psychology.about.com/od/sensationandperception/a/colorpsych.htm

  • 2
    This is called an evolutionary "Just-so story," a term popularized by Stephen Jay Gould and named for Rudyard Kipling's famous stories. No evidence survives from our species' early evolutionary history. And in any case, this theory cannot explain why the Chinese consider white to be the color of mourning. – deadrat Jun 26 '15 at 22:07
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    @deadrat: while it's a "just-so story," this particular one actually seems fairly plausible, although the correlations are not universal. – herisson Jun 27 '15 at 1:35
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    @sumelic Of course, it seems "fairly plausible." That's what a "just-so story" means in this context. But we should accept a hypothesis based on evidence and only based on evidence, and there is none given here. As a cautionary tale, I urge you to consider the usual evolutionary explanation for the giraffe's long neck. – deadrat Jun 27 '15 at 1:50
  • @deadrat I must agree, while I did based my answer on some research (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18344128, academics.wellesley.edu/Neuroscience/Faculty_page/Conway/…), I did roam to the "I think/believe" ground there without even noticing. I stand corrected, so thank you, I edited my answer in response to that. – Guilherme Amorim Jun 29 '15 at 1:47
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    @GuilhermeAmorim You might be interested in Oliver Sacks' writings on color perception ("An Anthropologist from Mars," I think). I wish I could remember the title of the book I read that talked about how a language's color categories can affect how the speakers of that language divide the spectrum. Thanks for the links and your gracious note, more than my abrupt comments likely deserved. – deadrat Jun 29 '15 at 2:22
-1

Black people wash clothes and value cleanliness just as much as anyone else, so associating dirt/black/smuts with low quality or negative things is not an inherently racial concept and that is the context of "white lie" - something that doesn't leave a dirty mark on one's conscience.

What a hearer might believe it means is a different issue, but I don't think that we should pander in our language to people who don't take the effort to understand what words mean.

protected by Andrew Leach Jun 27 '15 at 9:21

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