I'm dividing a previous post into separate questions, as was suggested in the comments there.

A recent question, which has been closed as off-topic and then deleted, made me wonder: Is there a consensus whether questions are on topic that ask when and why the use of certain expressions will be considered a racist offense?

Clearly, this type of question will attract a lot of useless (troll) answers and might sometimes not even be asked in good faith, so it could be a good idea to judge the on-topicness rather strictly. On the other hand, having a policy that broadly excludes these questions could prevent users from getting helpful answers to questions that are asked in good faith. Bad-faith questions could then still be deleted or flagged as rude or abusive.

Please note that my question here is not about the particular case but about general policy.

  • It's good to see them asked separately. Here, let's hope we can reach a consensus for our site scope. Let the other post stay separate as an explanation for why that particular post was deleted.
    – NVZ
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 15:27
  • A similar question that did just fine : interpersonal.stackexchange.com/q/3141/36
    – Catija
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 18:07

4 Answers 4


I think that we should allow these sorts of questions with the caveat that the question is asked in good faith and an honest search for understanding. We should hold them to a high degree of scrutiny and work to sanitize them as best we can. We can make certain requirements for these questions as well.

Both English Language & Usage and English Language Learners allow offensive language on their site when it relates to the question. These words are part of language, so they can be discussed. Similarly, these words affect our interpersonal interactions and we should allow questions about them.

This is something that has been discussed on Meta Stack Exchange a few times - back in '09 by Jeff Atwood as an answer to the question "Are expletives (cursing, swear words or vulgar language) allowed on SE sites?" and more recently in '14 by Grace Note (in relation to quotations) in an answer on the question "What is the policy on quotes with profanity?".

  1. If the terms can be avoided, do so. Don't use them gratuitously.

  2. Offensive language should not appear in the question title.

  3. Questions asked without context should be closed until it is added.

Examples of questions about possibly offensive language that are great here:

Someone could just as easily ask the second question about any number of offensive words. Understanding why it's ok for some insiders to use terms that outsiders can not is interesting and valuable content.

  • I can't edit your answer, but here's another good example of a question that contains offensive language but that is still constructive: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/1800/…
    – user288
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 22:43
  • @Hamlet Maybe I'm missing the offensive language? I don't see it there.
    – Catija
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 19:14
  • sorry, the individual words themselves weren't offensive, but what the OP actually said certainly was offensive.
    – user288
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 1:07

I haven't been here long, so please take that into account.

Most racists: don't know they're racists, or, don't want to admit it, or, firmly believe in their racist beliefs, and/or, don't care if they're offending someone. Some racists enjoy offending people.

I do think avoiding racism is an interpersonal skill, so we should allow questions about possibilities of racism.

But a sincere query shouldn't use offensive language in the question.


My coworker is [x race]. I asked them if they wanted to go to lunch, and suggested a(n) [x race] restaurant. They seemed upset, saying they were born in America, and like other kinds of food, too. Was my suggestion racist?


My coworker is [x race]. I asked them how they feel when they are referred to as [racist stereotype or language here]. They got mad. Did I do something wrong?

A question which uses a "certain expression" that is racist and offensive is not a sincere query and should not be allowed, since it's never "fine" to use that expression, and the risk of offending people reading the (insincere) query is high. It should be closed (I don't care how) and gotten off the front page.

To summarize, I think questions about racism are on-topic. I think opportunities to insult an entire group of people by using highly racist phrases are not.


There was a somewhat similar case where a person more or less asked for usage guidance for a term they were just learning about.

When is it appropriate and when is it inapproprate for a neutrotypical (NT) to refer to a person with Asperger's as an Aspie?

This is of course only somewhat similar, but they were asking about a term that was used by a certain group and were unsure if it was ok for people outside of said group to use the term.

I think these questions could be on-topic provided that they show some self awareness of the potential sensitivity of the subject. It comes down to, was the question really asked in good faith?

Here problems arise... There isn't a good way to implement a black and white rule defining "good faith".

I hate to say it, but I think we may have to handle these on a case by case basis. There will of course be cases that blatantly violate the be nice policy, but there will also be honest questions by well meaning users who are looking for an explanation of the nuance of reclaimed words, in-terms and so on.

As an example I self identify as queer, but I would also be deeply offended if a stranger shouted "Queer!" at me. There's a whole lot of context and situational awareness to be aware of when talking about how certain words are used.

I hope that as a community we can be mature enough to navigate through some of these tougher questions.

  • If it looks like hate speech flag it.
  • If it looks like someone who's well meaning, but clueless, consider an edit.
  • If it looks like a good question asked in good faith, upvote it.

This is going to be tough staying on topic, the meta topic that is. In strict answer to the title question:

Are questions on topic about when and why the use of certain (potentially) racist expressions might be ok?

I have to say "No," and that they would be considered as list/poll questions.

In the context of asking if the use of some term in an OP-given situation is/was/would be appropriate, then I would say "yes," and hope that the question and answers could be kept in line with the SE "be nice" policy.

It may be appropriate to use the actual term inside the question, though I cannot envision such a case at the moment. Even so, there is no reason the term should be in the title. Titles should never become NSFW, and including known offensive, racist, pejorative terms in the title makes them NSFW.

I refer to "known" terms because there are terms available that are offensive to some people that are not considered offensive, or even rude, in most cases. I have known, in person, people who were offended to be referred to by their visually obvious gender when they considered themselves to be the other, while having done nothing to make that choice obvious to others.

I believe that ELU has a guideline for the use of offensive words, and I think IPS should be even more stringent. ELU sometimes has to discuss the word, or phrase, itself without context, and needs to use the word. IPS is about the behavior, and the exact word probably need never be typed at all. Merely identifying it as a racial, pejorative, sexist, ageist, or otherwise offensive word or phrase should be sufficient to the question and the answers. For the, hopefully, rare occasion when the word needs to be identified, I believe we can still achieve that by using indirection, or redaction: referring to the n-word, or a a***ole, should be good enough. Still offensive in that others know what is meant, yet not actually said.

Lastly, since it's not realistic to expect that every user, especially new users, know, or follow site guidelines. Therefore, it is reasonable for experienced users to do 3rd party edits to correct the posts when needed. If a user insists on doing rollbacks to restore the offensive terms, don't get into an edit war, just raise a mod flag, including the rollback to offensive terms, and maybe raise it in chat if needed.

And, before anyone raises the issue of "Freedom of Speech" I'll remind them that such terminology refers to governmental control in public discourse. Private companies, such as SE and any non-governmental work place, are free to impose any reasonable limits on "speech" that they choose.

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