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While teaching my second Yoruba class on Wednesday, I had mentioned the word “Oyinbo” to my students in passing, within a conversation, when I didn’t intend to, and when the topic of discussion at the moment could have proceeded a bit smoothier had I not committed the second unforgivable error of subsequently attempting to explain its usage in Nigeria. I have had cause to think about the word usage for quite a while now and I have mostly questioned its use, so I might have been a little too enthusiastic in responding when the questioner took cue from my explanation on a totally different matter and asked whether when I said that children called foreigners “Oyinbo” in my country, I meant that they used the word to make jest of them. In any case, I reasoned, it was just a matter of time before one Nigerian teacher in an American class somewhere drops the unlucky word into a class conversation and sparks an unending racial debate, so I jumped in and tried my best to explain. The choice such an unlucky professor might face would be easier if he would just ignore the gentle tug of his own academic conscience and not pause for a moment to explain to his whole class the meaning, connotation and usage of the word “Oyinbo”. Most sane instructors would go for the first option mainly perhaps because it is a less complicated one that saves a lot of sweat and time. However, a totally naive and perhaps optimistic young teacher might actually take a stupid chance and proceeded nevertheless, never being fully aware of the possible end result of his thankless venture.

Now, let’s examine the word, “Oyinbo”, which is supposed to refer to “(a) White Person/Caucasian/Non Black-African”. The etymology has never been agreed on, and even though a famous scholar once wrote that it is derived from “Oyin + bo” which roughly means “(Someone) peeled by the honeybee,” the word still doesn’t make much sense on its own. The word is used today both in urban, rural, and in educated circles to refer to the foreigner, most especially those with fairer skin colour (African Americans included). Those excluded from the authentic list of Oyinbos and are often called into the list mostly in jest are the really fairskinned Africans, and the Albinos. Every other person with European/Caucasian blood in them are Oyinbos, and they are called by that name both in public and in private, which brings a huge question on whether the users of the word ever mean it as a derogatory expression. The answer of course would be a NO. However, I personally have never considered it a compliment of any sort when while walking with a white/caucasian person (even within a campus environment), passers-by most of whom are complete and unwelcome strangers yell “Oyinbo!” while pointing and giggling excitely at the now totally embarrased stranger. Most of all these cases are a confirmed result of illiteracy, mental retardation or some sadomasochistic instinct on the part of the yeller to make a public nuisance of both themselves and their foreign target. Of course! But this fact doesn’t remove from the despicableness of the act, or make the word in that instance less derogatory-like. “So, when used in a civil, polite conversation, Oyinbo is mainly a harmless term of reference, but it is insulting only when it is yelled out loud, especially by a(n unaquainted, unfriendly) stranger.” How does one explain all of this easily in a class of an elementary course on language and culture without raising red flags and unnecessarily preconditioning the mind of impressionable students to a hostile, negative cultural experience? That was my dilemma on that beautiful Wednesday afternoon.

I resolved the situation in favour of common sense, and the concise explanation I gave before moving to the next topic was a “No please, that’s not a derogative word. It is a fun word of endearment used by the Yoruba to refer to those they perceive differently because of their skin colour.” But I left the class a little worried that I myself do not totally agree with that description for its lack of depth and breath to capture all that the word “oyinbo” entails, and for the way that definition might be wrongly construed as a racist/derogatory tag. Fact is, the image that flashed across my mind when I think about it is that of a cacophonous horde of dirty little stray children chanting “Oyinbo pepper” after a foreign pedestrian on a public Lagos park, and totally enjoying the embarassment on the face of that now despairing foreigner who curses under her breath, wonders what went wrong with this world, and wishes she had not taken up the invitation to come visit Nigeria. Yorubaland.

What do you think?

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47 thoughts on “Is "Oyinbo" A Derogatory Word?

  1. i think on its own, oyinbo is not a derogatory word, but i suppose like most words, its meaning depends on the context in which it is being used, that’s what determines whether its derogatory or not. or is there anor word to describe a white man in yoruba coz i seem to kno of none.
    p.s i’d forgotten the phrase ‘oyinbo peper’ till u used it here, made me smyl nd remember being young…

  2. That ‘dirty little stray children’ thing also happens when Nollywood actors / actresses are sighted taking a stroll. Some stare, some point, giggle,yell, some even tug at their clothes! What shall we make of this?

    ‘Oyinbo’ is not derogatory, but i guess if you yell any word at a stranger, in a strange language, and point and giggle, whatever you are yelling will be interpreted negatively.

    • i don’t know what is meant by ‘dirty little stray children’. When i was a little boy in the early and mid 80’s, i used to join the chant of ‘oyinbo pepper! hipi hipi pepper!’ and I wasn’t a dirty stray child. I also day-dreamed of marrying an “oyinbo”. So, I can tell you categorically that the word was never used in a derogatory or racist context, rather it was more of fascination being expressed without discretion.
      for older folks, calling a white person or one of part caucasian ancestry oyinbo was used as a statement of fact. oyinbo = white person.

  3. I think of names like Oguntoyinbo, Sangotoyinbo, Adetoyinbo, Oladoyinbo,Ifatoyinbo and agree that Oyinbo is both a descriptive name and a term of endearment. Indeed, to call a light complexioned African, an “oyinbo “is mostly a compliment. Indeed, an educated, well spoken person may also be called so. I recall the phrase “afinju oyinbo”, for instance.
    As for the root of the word, more research needs to be done.

  4. hey..clear your conscience or whatever made you worry.
    Though I will agree with you that the etymology of the word is quite untraceable, there is however no other Yoruba for that. If you’ll purge your mind of the children’s chant…you’ll realise ‘oyinbo/oyinbo alawo funfun’ is certainly not derogatory.

  5. Remember all those Odet’oyinbo’, omot’oyinbo’… what does negro mean if it is an American etymology. How do you detail a white person if you don’t want it to be derogatory? Pls it is all about learning without infringing on anyone’s personality. Oh why would you be so depressed over such a common word in your country. My mum’s friend is called Iya oyinbo because the son is light-skinned. Life is beautiful.

  6. In my experience, oyinbo has never been a negative word. Its descriptive and its an endearment. When i was a kid, to see an Oyinbo or to talk to one was an experience to be rehashed over and over. Everyone that i’v heard used the word has never meant it beyond been a description or an endearment. What do you think of ‘Chinko’ for the Chinese?

  7. Most people do not know the true origin but it is not a derogatory word but actually is a word of superiority, reverence, greatness. pardon me but I cannot remember the yoruba scholar since this dates back to my childhood and the search for the meaning of my name. Oyinbo is a youruba word used for someone you lift high, superior and revere for example the yoruba surnames aladetoyinbo, odetoyinbo, oguntoyinbo. When the white man came they were originally thought as spirits ( superior beings) and they worshiped them hence they gave them the name “oyinbo” . The name or word precedes the whiteman

  8. interesting topic. as an oyinbo (in the later sense that its being used) i have been called “Oyinbo Pepper” by my ex-gf – infact she use to sing a song with “oyinbo pepper” being the only words! haha

    I agree with Rayo – its all about context as goes for most things. I know my girlfriend uses the words Oyinbo all the time infact when we are talking about race and she refers to anyone white she always says Oyinbo.

  9. It’s generally awful. Please stop using it. Imagine being the only black in a room and every so often you hear the word “African” or “Negro” in people’s side conversations. You’d feel a little insecure. Now imagine if part of your daily existence included people yelling “African” or “Negro” as you passed by, people stopping you in the street to bother you specifically because you are black, and you also overheard the words used in casual side conversation. You’d hate the word!!!!!! Please be sensitive to minorities.

  10. there is nothing wrong, in my opinion as an African American male, with derogatory words depicting aspects of race, heritage or culture. even within a single race there are words that single out a specific category of people… such words are not always inherently evil or bad.

    the problem with name-calling arises only when such words are used to incite physical or psychological violence and the intention is to strip away a person’s sense of humanity, especially when such words have historical association with the oppression of another race or group of people.

    but whatever happens DO NOT allow someone to make the comparison that using “oyinbo” as a word used to single out skin color is the equivalent of when whites use derogatory words to single out Blacks or the white people who like to associate with Blacks because those words are historically used out of hate, fear and marginalization and not as simple ridicule (or praise!) pointing out physical differences.

    it may not be good practice to use such words in public, but the intentions of such words are not always equivalent.

  11. Thank you everyone for the interesting comments. This article was written over a year ago, and little did I know while writing it that it would generate this much attention more than a year later. Like you would see in the content of the post, I did not posit that the word was derogatory and I wrote it so as to bring out perspectives many of which have been enlightening.

    I know that the word is inherently harmless – as could be seen in the many names that we give ourselves – Oguntoyinbo (“The god of Iron is just like the white man”), Adetoyinbo (“Royalty equates one to the white man”) etc. I also know that it is usually hard to explain it to a foreigner without sounding awkward. The difference between this word as the other one used in a more offensive way in American English is that while one carries the burden of history of segregation, prejudice and violence, one carries a kind of awe and friendliness. Both however describe people different from us because of their skin colour and race, and that’s where the similarity ends.

    There are a few racially offensive words in Yoruba, but Oyinbo is not one of them. Thanks again, everyone.

  12. If your in a car driving along and someone on the side walk yells out “Oyinbo”, yell back “black person” (excitedly) for fun. It’ll have you chuckling to yourself all day!

  13. It is not derogatory as some scamm baiters would have you believe. It has been used long before the white man came along

  14. i dont know where you live but you obviously dont know yoruba language deeply.the ‘oyinbo’ in yoruba means something that is filled and running over e.g olatoyinbo means overflowing wealth as in it is just too much!
    oyibo as a parlance in nigeria to describe a white is a mock attemp to say ‘onye igbo’ i.e it was the way the whites pronounced ‘onye igbo’ ( a word igbos used to describe themselves to the whites).thus, the igbos mockingly started calling whites ‘oyibo’.
    reference en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oyibo

  15. As an Ogbomoso-born oyinbo who spent his childhood in Yorubaland and has enjoyed several return visits as an adult, I must say that I have NEVER heard the term “oyinbo” used in a derogatory way. In fact, as one on the receiving end of the term, I always knew it as a respectful term of greeting and reference. Whenever I heard the term, I knew I was being welcomed. I would be delighted to be hearing a crowd of children screaming that term right now, because it would mean that I was back home.

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  17. Hi Kola. Thanks for this interesting post. I came across it whilst trying to research the origin of the word “oyinbo”. I’m an English woman who lived in Lagos for over three years during the 1980s. We were told that the word originally meant “ghost” or “spirit” and was applied to white people when they first appeared in Yorubaland because their pale skins looked ghostly. I don’t know whether this is true but it seems to tie in with what Doyinbo has written above.

    During my time in Lagos I was called Oyinbo in two ways. The first was by small children who would shout it at me cheerfully. I think that was because white people were still not a common sight in some areas. It also drew attention to the small, cheerful, sweet looking little child who had shouted and sometimes led to a Naira or a packet of sweets coming their way. A good reason for them to continue the practice of shouting cheerfully at all white people 🙂

    The second usage was by grown-ups, in anger, as in “you Oyinbos think you can come over here and …”. That usage was derogatory, and technically racist, but totally understandable given the colonial history and the huge wealth disparity between white expatriates in Nigeria and most of the local population. It never offended me and was not a common occurence. As a guest in Nigeria, I was generally treated well and the most common word used towards me was the polite “Madam”.

    What saddens me now is the way “Oyinbo” is used in a derogatory way by young Nigerians living here in the UK. Do a Twitter search and you’ll see how it is used for put downs and insults. Today I saw, “Oyinbo ppl age so disgustingly”, “My dad goes oyinbo’s have bad skin there bodies crumple loool” and “These oyinbo toddlers on the bus need a beating”.

    • Thank you Caroline for the insightful comment. Since I made this post over a year ago it has received one of the most robust commentary by readers from around the world. I agree with your assessment. I guess it is easy to explain it to other foreigners now by simply referring them to your reply. Thank you again.

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  19. LOL, I like this story. Now, for those of you who have never thought this deep, ima put it to you. Everyone of us is racist. The difference between by ‘social’ racist and ‘literal’ racism is the level of racism; I will not attack a person or hate them because they look different to me but I have my pre-judgements, I make jokes about other races; my non-black friends make jokes about my peoples«« now doing that is ‘literally’ racist but not ‘socially’. So, when it’s all said and done, we are all racist but we control it (most of us). We can’t change that.

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  21. Kola Tubosun wrote:

    Doyinbo wrote:

    Haba!!!! Yoruba that posted here do not understand Yoruba language very well. Yoruba is a tonal language and we love to contract words. “Toyinbo” as described above has nothing to do with a white man, green man or blue man. Rather, Toyinbo is a contraction of ” to yin bo ni ete” where “ni” and “li” are interchangeable i.e “ni” becomes “li” as in Ifatoyinbolete, Oguntoyinbolete, Shangotoyinbolete, Odetoyinbolete, Olatoyinbolete, Adetoyinbolete, Omotoyinbolete, et al

    Ifatoyinbo means IFA (GOD of Wisdom, the wisdom energy of the Great Spirit, Olodumare) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

    Oguntoyinbo means Ogun (Deity of iron/metal/technology/civilization, the creative energy of the Great Spirit) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

    Shangotoyinbo means Shango (Deity of Justice, the retributive energy of the Great Spirit) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

    Odetoyinbo means Ode (Hunter, a prized hunter) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

    Olatoyinbo means Ola (Wealth/Blessings from the Great Spirit) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

    Adetoyinbo means Ade (Kingship/Royalty) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

    Omotoyinbo means Omo (Child, a blessed child) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

    Thus, it means the respective family is appreciative of the circumstances that gave birth to the named person.

  22. So why do we call Europeans “oyinbo”? White in Yoruba language is “funfun” or “ala”. However, Funfun or Ala is never used to refer to a person but the pureness of a spirit. In Yoruba, “oyinbo” is used to refer to a person that lacks melanin. In addition, the Mediterranean type like the Lebanese and the Israeli are called “kora”.

    The English calls an african “black”, the Germans say “schwarz”, the Spanish and the Portuguese will say “negro”, the Italian says “nero” and the French will say “noir”. They all describe the dark skin complexion (melanin). Is that a derogatory word?

    Thus, why are we making a mountain out of a molehill?

  23. I cant understand, sometimes, when we just like to problematise issues unnecessarily. Oyinbo is a word of endearment. It is an expression that has no connection to abuse, insult or racism neither is it derogatory. Yorubas who coined the words actually name themselves after the lofty concept of Oyinbo. Would a people want to insult themselves when they are called “Opatoyinbo” for example. That was actually my Geography Teacher’s name in school. The problems really is that (without meaning to be offensive) many of us are too far from our roots. Our understanding of ourselves is becoming more obscure.

  24. In fact one of the “Odus” (meaning Chapters) in Ifa, the Yoruba traditional religion links the African, the yoruba in particular to the Caucasian as children of a mother called “Oyin” not pronunced as “Oyin” meaning honey. That Oyin is the same root word for Oyinbo. Now i don’t think one would want to insult what is concieved to be part of your root.

    • To be holy is great. To be holier than thou is nasty. That is how a word, no matter or sacred, takes its meaning from its context. I am fair in complexion and i am often esteemed as oyinbo. The very root of the word is my concern. The word consits of two morphemes: Oyin – bee or honey and ibo – a yellowish sweet sour fruit. Perhaps the juice or bee of ibo is whiter than other bees. Yorubas usually decribe people by what they look like or behave like or speak like. I dare say Oyibos are so called because they are whitish like the juice or bee of ibo.

  25. Please explain to me this. I am African American, so i am of african descent. I have a friend who is Nigerian, but born in America. Wouldnt that person be considered and Oyinbo also? Why would I be called an Oyinbo and not her when technically we are the same? And I am the same complexion as she is. CHOCOLATE. Even if it is not a word that is “considered” derogatory. To me, I would take it as such, especially considering the fact we are technically the same, but my nigerian friend just so happen to be blessed NOT to be taken through slavery. Why would we be any different? To me, I consider myself african, just uneducated on where my family is from. Not something that is my fault or most african americans fault for that matter. So to be called an Oyinbo, a foriegner, light skinned, white and whatever other reasons to be called it. I would be offended. For an african american who is very passionate about her family history and wanting to know where her family is from. It would be a sensative situation to be called a such word.

    I agree with TED, JUST STOP USING IT.

    • I am a Nigerian but I was born and have lived in London for all my life. When I go back home, as I like to call Nigeria, my mother-land, I am called ‘oyinbo’ by the kids, teens, and elderly. It is not in any way a derogatory term, rather it is more of a “look, another ‘foreigner'” statement. Obviously they do not call me oyinbo because of the colour of my skin, rather it is the fact that I do not live in Nigeria, and they can tell by my dress, accent, and mannerisms. I could see where the difficulty was in explaining this to your students, Prof, but any person who proclaims on this page that it is a negative term only need visit Nigeria and see that this is not the case. As stated above, the Europeans have words like ‘negro’ and ‘nero’ to describe so-called Blacks. It is those words, which are directed only at Blacks and, unlike the word ‘oyinbo’ do not include foreigners, which should be under scrutiny. The word ‘oyinbo’ existed before the White man came to Africa and stripped her of her wealth and pride and it shall remain there as long as Nigerians remain in Nigeria.

      • Thank you! You are smart and actually realize why that word is used on you, while Chantay is completely disillusioned. The way you behave is obviously so different from the regular Nigerian, and you certainly dress differently, and, of course, have a british accent. That is why people will always call you oyinbo, and I like how you know it’s not a derogatory word, because it’s not.

    • Chantay, please i beg of you to kindly get the right concept of the word and the attitude of the native users of the word before discarding it all together. The Yorubas who coined it use it not to insult but to praise! It is considered a good thing to be fair skinned by a lot of them. Not in terms of the fair person being superior however. It is also not used to mean you are an outcast or an outsider, being a bit different may be. It often suggests that one is sophisticated too. You can only tell anyone who misuses it stop it! It’s just like saying that calling someone “black” is bad! Nothing is wrong with being black except the wrong thinking people who think wrongly of it!

    • You are of African descent, yes. Are you actually African? No. Your’e friend is Nigerian, so therefore, she is not a foreigner. YOU are a foreigner. Therefore, you can be called an oyinbo. That is what you are, that is what you will always be called. That is just how it is. How can you even claim there not to be a difference between you and her? You are seen as oyinbo to Africans, and YOU CANNOT DICTATE WHAT A WHOLE PEOPLE CALL YOU.

  26. i just learnt something new today about the meanings of our “…toyinbo…” names. the next question i would ask is ‘does the word “oyinbo” in the context of a white person have its origins in the Yoruba Language or in the Igbo Language? thankfully, my 79 year old dad is still around, so I’ll just do a little history class with him.

  27. Oyinbo is whatever you white folks thing its … we making fun of your piel skin, Hahaha, when i was little we sing behind any non-black person we see, giggle , clap and single “Oyinbo pepe chuku chuku pepe, bla bla bla you go yellow more more.. We know colors so we don’t calll you folks white.. You guys are yellow to us.. OYINBO OYIBO same meaning.. Still mean the same shit… People that there skins look like someone that was just covered with Bee (Oyin) B’o (Cover)…You guys have name for us right.

    • I am mixed Nigerian and Slovak. It is people like you who cause suffering and segregation in this world. What a sad person you are. My wonderful Nigerian dad and my beautiful Slovak mama are a fantastic example that people can live in peace and love regardless of the skin colour. You need God in your life.

    • Yes, technically white people have terms for black people. The problem is that due to history of colonialism and racism, I cannot think of one that is not to some degree racist or offensive. In my country, the USA, It is slightly rude to point out somebody’s race and is considered very offensive to call somebody by their race. As a white American and knowing what other Americans and some Europeans would say, the closest term we have to Oyinbo for you is just African for Africans in general (it is understood to refer almost exclusively to refer to black Africans and to parts of Africa south of the Sahara Desert.) The closest to a truly neutral term we have for you is simply “black”. There is the term “African-American” applied to seemingly all black people in the United States regardless of whether or not they’re really African (Some blacks, especially ones from Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Haiti, really HATE it and would rather be called by their national origin or just black, and lots of other blacks just want to be called Americans, but African-American is the polite way to refer to black people living in the United States.). There are far worse ones out there. I won’t talk about those because they’re ugly words that don’t deserve to be liberally used and I won’t disfigure the day by writing them down. Words of hate deserve to be forgotten.

      The term “People of Color / PoC” exists, but is the very politically correct term to refer to EVERYONE who is not 100% European-descended white. I have yet to see it be used in casual conversation by anyone over the age of 30 by people who did not either have a victim complex (especially black people, who ironically, usually come from affluent families and are enjoying college education and a high standard of living in a predominantly white country in which they have always lived and their parents have spent all their lives in and so on…), or a savior complex (always white people who feel guilty for wrongs they never committed on account of being done 99% of the time by people with no relationship to them and long before they were born). I also don’t like how it sounds like the American segregation term “colored”.

      I hope this explains something to someone.

  28. …………when I think about it is that of a cacophonous horde of dirty little stray children chanting “Oyinbo pepper” after a foreign pedestrian on a public Lagos park, and totally enjoying the embarassment on the face of that now despairing foreigner who curses under her breath, …………

    Why do you hate your people so much?

  29. I understand that “oyinbo” is not meant to be derogatory and I don’t think you can call it racist–as foreigners/white people in Nigeria are usually privileged and not victims of structural racism. In the past, I have rolled my eyes at “oyinbos” who claimed that people saying “oyinbo” is racist. I am rarely bothered when children excitedly call out “oyinbo.” HOWEVER, having moved to a part of the country where I am hearing it a lot more, it can be extremely exhausting to have it called out to you hourly, by adults, as you are just walking around and trying to live your life. I have had students on a university campus yell it at me. I have had staff walk into a university office where I was filling a form and say “oyinbo” loudly. I have had a student even start singing “oyinbo pepe” behind my back as I walked out of a room. When I took offense, she protested that it was a “praise song,” and perhaps it is, although my 11 year old self who experienced this same song years ago did not feel like she was being praised but that she was being mocked. Perhaps my 11 year old self just didn’t understand, but… Inasmuch as no one enjoys constantly being singled out and reminded that they are different and “other” and foreign and a spectacle, I wish that the chorus of “oyinbo” would just stop, whether it is meant as a term of endearment or whether it is a jest or something worse. Whatever the etymology and whatever it “actually” means, it feels dehumanizing when it is constantly yelled at you.

    • This complexity was what I tried to express in the post when I wrote it about five years ago. For some reason, it is the only post written around that time that keeps getting comments till date. And only a few people understood the thread I was trying to walk in-between a certainly NOT racist description yet occasionally annoying when said in a certain way, repeatedly. You seem to have got that intention, and I thank you. I didn’t even know that this blog still exists 🙂 😮

  30. hahaha, this post is the second one that popped up when I googled “oyinbo pepe” to get the full lyrics to that most joyfully sung-most irritatingly received song. When it is said endearingly by people I know, I don’t mind it all. When strangers call it out or say it behind your back, it becomes very annoying.

  31. Everyone saying it isn’t a derogatory word are brown! How can you decide? It is the person being called it that gets to decide. Why do you feel the need to point out someone’s skin colour anyway? I do not feel the need to walk around pointing and telling you, you are brown!

    This word alone is one of the reasons I am very reserved to visit my husbands family in Nigeria. I am not willing to expose myself and our children to that kind of derogatory and racist behaviour.

    Point and tell me I am English that’s fine I will point back at you and tell you you are Nigerians, but no I am not accepting you point and tell me white person. Why are you making a fuss about my skin colour? Can we ever get over our different toned skin?

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