Self-Defined

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Avoid—racist slur

savage

Speech

noun or adjective

We would recommend adding a content warning when speaking about this term. Please read the guidance on how and when to warn people before using this term in any context.

(adj) not domesticated, primative or civilised; wild, uncultivated; cold-blooded; colloquially used to mean ruthless or unconscionable. (noun) an undomesticated person, subhuman.

Issues

"Following the discovery of America, the phrase "savage" for indigenous peoples was used disparagingly to justify colonialism. The concept of the savage gave Europeans the supposed right to establish colonies without considering the possibility of preexisting, functional societies."1.

The term savage is deeply rooted in settler colonialism, used primarily to justify colonisation by dehumanising Indigenous people, in particular, with regard to North American Indigenous peoples.

The theories behind the "noble savage" led to scientific racism. Boarding schools were constructed to separate Indigenous children from their parents, becuase white colonisers didn't believe that they were equipped to be parents.

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write … [T]he Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”2

Impact

By continuing to use this word, rooted in colonist history and context, while Indigenous people's lands are still being occupied and unceded, while more and more Indigenous women and girls continue to go missing, we are perpetuating a word that has been used to justify the past and the ongoing harm we commit against Indigenous peoples. Seemingly small actions like this contribute to the normalisation of the harm.

Denying the etymology or power of the word as irrelevant is denying the history of its strength: Savage has been used to dehumanise Indigenous people in order to justify oppressing them or granting them fewer rights. The justifications have even included Supreme Court cases.

The imagery associated with the "savage" is used to justify oppressive and systematic racism against Indigenous peoples; that they somehow deserve injustice because it is their own fault.

Considerations

Rihanna has a lingerie line called Savage by Fenty. Megan Thee Stallion has a song called "Savage."

The intersection of oppression of Black and Indigenous cultures is one worth noting. Gwen Benaway's piece, Rihanna’s Lingerie Line Brings Up a Complicated Discussion About Language addresses this complexity: "As much as we like clear right and wrongs with easy retweetable hot takes, some issues—like the dialogue about savage between Indigenous and Black communities—isn’t one to simplify."

Alt Words

  • capricious
  • cold-blooded
  • cruel
  • fierce
  • harsh
  • merciless
  • ruthless
  • uncalled for
  • unconscionable

Further Reading

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