that’s white of you

Often phrases like call a spade a spade or words like niggard are mistakenly given racist etymologies. It is easy to understand why such mistakes are made in our race-conscious society, although it often seems as if I am battling the forces of ill-informed political correctness to preserve the right to use these words and phrases. Sometimes though, words and phrases do indeed have origins rooted in racism. And the phrase that’s white of you is one of these.

White, meaning of European extraction, has been used to mean honorable and fair-dealing since the late 19th century.

Besant’s and Rice’s The Golden Butterfly (1877) has this:

A good fellow is Rayner; as white a man as I ever knew.

And the Century Magazine from 1883 has this:

You’ve behaved to me like a white man from the start.

Edith Wharton’s 1913 The Custom of the Country uses the phrase white of you:

Well—this is white of you

And later on in the same work:

I meant to act white by you.

So if you ever catch yourself about to write or say the phrase, pause and reformulate your words, lest someone takes offense.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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