An ethnic slur, or ethnohaulism as it's technically called, is when a term or combination of terms are used as insinuations or allegations about members of a given ethnicity or to refer to them in a derogatory (critical or disrespectful), pejorative (disapproving or contemptuous), or insulting fashion. More simply put, an ethnic slur is a term or word(s) used to insult someone on the basis of race, ethnicity, or nationality.
Recently I was watching a debate about the pejorative term "towel-head" and whether or not the term is racist. Personally, I do not know the history of the usage of this term, but according to The Oxford Dictionary of English, the term is classified as informal/offensive. Not informal/racist.
The term, however, is commonly used as a term of abuse for a Muslim or Arab who wears the style of headdress, either a turban or keffiyeh, which looks like a wrapped up towel atop of a person's head.
I personally would never use the term "towel-head" to describe anybody, but as an ethnic slur, intended to ridicule a cultural style of head dress, I don't see how the cultural connotation denotes any real sense of racism. Certainly, it's not racist in the same way "sand-nigger" is explicitly racist. Racist terms usually refer to the person's race like sexist terms refer specifically to sex. "Tar baby" is a racist term whereas "Faggot" is a sexist term. "Towel-head" is neither. It's not attacking gender or genetics, but rather, culture. That may be bad enough for some, but it doesn't make it racist (although the tactless person using it very well may be a racist--however, that is a separate issue).
Again, it depends on the context and how the term is applied. A person who hates all Arabs is a racist. A person who hates silly hats, or wrapping up your entire body and head in drapes when you live in the blistering desert, is simply ridiculing what appears to them to be a bad idea. On the other hand, it could be argued that historically the keffiyeh styled headgear was used to protect a person from the sun and could be used to cover the mouth and eyes in sand storms--not at all a bad idea. But this is before the advent of sun screen, automobiles, and air-conditioning that is. After all, a silly looking hat is still a silly looking hat. I like the ones with little propellers on top.The point I want to make, however, is that the two usages are different.
a) Pejorative ridicule: In the first case, the term is being use pejoratively to mock, or ridicule, a bizarre religious or cultural observance.If I were to be asked whether the first case denotes a hint of racism, I would be forced to say no. Although, if I were asked whether the second case denotes a hint of racism, then I would have to say maybe. It depends on how the word is used. Some words, like the Hawaiian term Haole, may or may not be derogatory depending on how it is used. It can be used as a harmless slang for white people, or as and ethnic slur, or it can be used as an invective. Other ethnohaulisms can be both simultaneously racist and sexist, such as the derogatory term "Squaw."
b) Invective scorn: In the second case, the term is being used to mock, or ridicule, a person's ethnicity.
Racism can be linked to ethnic slurs, of course. Such terms as "chink," "coolie," "spic," or "nip" are overtly racist. Some ethnic slurs are more imaginative, but no less offensive. Slurs like "Oreo," "Pepsi," and "Porch monkey," although amusing, should be reserved for foul mouthed stand-up comedians--not everyday speech. In each of these prior cases, however, the ethnohaulisms refer specifically to race--color of skin and/or genetic predisposition--whereas the term "towel-head" does not.
Here's the problem though. Many people don't make a distinction between the two usages. Which is where the trouble arises. I have observed, both online and in real life, that there are many who are quick to confuse the two cases. Interestingly enough, they always confuse the second one for the first and never the other way around. That is, in most every case I have ever seen or heard of, the culturally sensitive person is quick to cry racism whenever they hear a pejorative term like "towel-head"--but the term may simply be about a silly custom--not about skin color or race. The moral of the story is--the person may not always be racist, rather, they are most probably a culturally stunted, insensitive asshole. But then again, they may be a comedian. Like I said, it depends on context.
Many, however, do not see it this way. With religions like Islam, for example, ethnic culture and religious culture often blend together, and it is sometimes difficult to delineate a line between the two. This is where the ethnic slurs and racism are often confused for one and the same. When a culturally insensitive, callous critic negatively critiques a religious custom in a religion where there is no clear distinction between culture and faith, negative comments mocking or ridiculing some as innocent as wearing a kippah, hijab, neck rings, etc., can become highly inflammatory. This makes it difficult to criticize the religion without offending people--because the people will inevitably confuse it for a personal criticism, or worse, a criticism of the sacred--the one true unforgivable crime in religious eyes. The Danish cartoon controversy is a good reminder of what happens when people confuse their religion, culture, and race.
So although I do not feel it is a good idea to employ ethnohaulisms generally, I think it is more menacing to confuse religion, culture, and race as one and the same thing. Those who do so, in my opinion, are being just as culturally insensitive and threatening as someone who unashamedly throws around ethnic slurs. Of course, if you have any thoughts on the matter, feel free to share them in the comments section below.