‘Atlanta’ Fact Check: Is the Phrase ‘Caught Red-Handed’ Actually Racist?

The phrase actually has Scottish origins and isn’t about Native Americans

Should you be avoiding the expression “caught red-handed?” Thursday’s episode of “Atlanta” on FX posed the question, where does that phrase actually come from? And could it be racist?

The episode titled “Money Bag Shawty” has Ern (Donald Glover) trying to spend a $100 bill in style. A white clerk at a movie theater tells him she can’t accept it, but then accepts a $100 from a white man behind him in line. After they’ve left, Ern sees it for what it is — blatantly racist and says he “caught her red-handed.”

But Van (Zazie Beetz) stops him, saying the expression itself is racist and refers to Native American thieves. Van is teasing, but they suddenly start to wonder if the phrase’s racist origins they thought was a joke might actually be true. It sounds plausible, and the gag makes a clever observation about how we’ve come to realize that so many colloquial expressions have offensive undertones. But the show cuts away before they take the time to look it up.

So just where does “caught red-handed” come from? It’s actually not racist, or it at least isn’t related to Native Americans. “Red-handed” has its roots in 15th Century Scotland, and it literally refers to being caught with blood on your hands after a crime.

The first recorded instance of someone referring as having a “red hand” comes from “The Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I” in 1432:

That the offender be taken reid hand, may be persewed, and put to the knawledge of ane Assise, befoir the Barron or Landeslord of the land or ground, quhidder the offender be his tennent, unto quhom the wrang is done or not…  And uthers not taken reid hand…

To be more specific, “red-handed” can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” from 1820:

“I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.”

There you have it — Ern and Van can sleep easy on that one!

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