Edit It seems another user posted essentially the same question here while I was writing this one. I'll close this question as a duplicate if/when it becomes possible.

I got a notice earlier this evening that another user had edited a 7-year-old answer of mine, replacing the term Hawaiian earring with the term infinite earring; looking at the editor's recent action history shows that they replaced the term "Hawaiian earring" in a large number of questions and answers yesterday, including the question to which my answer was submitted. (Incidentally, the editor has performed only two other actions, both of them minor, during this calendar year.) I was unfamiliar with the latter name, and that unfamiliarity is consistent with the relative frequencies of usage here: Searching for "Hawaiian earring" returns 132 results whereas "infinite earring" returns only 21---and nearly all of the occurrences of the latter were added by the user yesterday.

I'm unaware of any discussions re the term here in MSE Meta, so it appears this blanket change was unilateral, and since it makes existing posts less searchable, it apparently reduces the site's usability. I've since reverted the change to my answer (but not the change to the parent question), as in my view the (much) less familiar term makes the answer less helpful.

Under these circumstances is it appropriate/optimal to revert the user's bulk edits?

There's a potentially delicateness about this particular change: Glancing at the Wikipedia talk page for the Hawaiian earring article shows extensive discussion about renaming the article in the same way, with some users arguing that the epithet Hawaiian is culturally (in)sensitive, in which case I'm sympathetic to the change and will re-edit my answer accordingly, but the applicable claims posted on the talk page are unsourced. In particular one user writes the following---

The use of "Hawaiian" in Hawaiian earring originated in the 1950's to identify this space as being "exotic." It has no apparent connection to Hawaiian mathematicians. This particular use of "Hawaiian earring" perpetuations [sic] the association of Hawaii and Hawaiian native culture with that which is exotic."

---but I wasn't able to find anything to substantiate that claim, or that gives any etymology for the term at all, in a quick Google search.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think those are duplicates. This one is about terminology changes, the other is about dealing with a user. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod Jun 22 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ Are we also going to rename the Chinese Remainder Theorem and Polish spaces at some point? Is there a list of mathematical things with geographically "inspired" names $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 22 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ This originated on Twitter over the weekend. See, for example, here. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jun 22 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ Related post: here $\endgroup$ – Arctic Char Jun 22 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ @CalvinKhor The difference is that there is (according to the claim) nothing "Hawaiian" about the Hawaiian earring, and instead the use of "Hawaiian" is meant to convey exoticism. On the other hand, Polish spaces and the Chinese remainder theorem are both named after places they were studied (according to Wikipedia, Polish spaces were extensively studied by Polish topologists and logicians, while the earliest known statement of the Chinese Remainder Theorem is by a Chinese mathematician, 3rd century BC). $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jun 22 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ I care more about searchability than why and how it has its name. And its IMO unlikely you could get the person who named it thus--if still breathing--to confirm the self-incriminating exoticism claim. Among the other 5 language versions of Wikipedia that have a page on this space, they are all named after Hawaii (but maybe they were copying the english page) "Hawaiischer Ohrring" (German) "Boucle d'oreille hawaïenne" (French) "하와이 귀고리" (Korean; first word means Hawaii), "Гавайская серьга" (Russian; first word means Hawaiian, according to Google Translate) "Гавайська сережка"(Ukrainian). $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 22 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe its because I'm not from the US/EU, I don't get trying to change the name of things. We already have "pineapple" as opposed to "ananas"/variants in most other languages :) And I don't think it is a good thing if wikipedia were to delete "Hawaii" from their page altogether, because many people do call it as such. Also, slightly related (but not at all the same): this question on math.meta about the phrase "indian burn" $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 22 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ I would like to see citations in that Twitter thread. I was taught that the Hawaiian earring is so named because it resembles a form of earring traditionally produced in Hawaii (generally consisting of a loop within a loop---my sister, who lived in Hawaii for a number of years, has several such sets of earrings). The term "infinite earring" seems silly to me as, lacking the context of the Hawaiian form of earring, I see nothing "earring-like" about the space. Why not call it the "descending loop space" or "harmonic circles" or something more descriptive? $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Mod Jun 22 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ @XanderHenderson I was taught the same thing, but if you dig deeper into the twitter-sphere one of the people pushing for this change is a native Hawaiian (e.g. here) and I presume she would know if such earrings were commonplace. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jun 22 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ Also, Hatcher calls it the "the shrinking wedge of circles" in his book, which is rather descriptive, while a suggestion in my first link above is to drop the "Hawaiian" adjective and just call it the "earring space" (Ian Agol approves of this suggestion - also this has a picture if anyone is confused). $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jun 22 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729 That post contains no content or refutation of the history I was taught. It is simply an assertion---without the ability to cross examine---that only native Hawai'ian's get to use the term. I'm sorry, but I am not going to be convinced by someone shouting at me to shut up without actually making any kind of argument. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Mod Jun 22 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ @XanderHenderson I don't know if more arguments were made elsewhere - I am simply relaying some content I found on twitter. However, making them justify their offense seems a bit much. If indeed earrings of this form are native to Hawaii then I would expect typing "Hawaiian earrings" into my favourite image search engine would give me pictures which look like Ian Agol's, but I found none. Lots of flowers though. (My point is: noone is giving any evidence here. Everyone is presuming, apart from the actual native person. So maybe we should either listen to them, or do some legwork ourselves?) $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jun 22 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ I think that Hawaiian earring is a standard enough term for this space that removing it can only create confusion. In other words, I support the idea of reverting these edits. Showing the editor the door is probably an exaggeration. Unless they persist. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 23 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ If there is something offensive in the existing terminology (not sure this is the case here), then, in my opinion, the proper way forward would be to present the case here in meta, and discuss the matter before going on an edit spree. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 23 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729: Here is at least a jeweller who associates such earrings with Hawaii, so it's not only mathematicians. But it's an Italian company, so I guess it doesn't really prove anything about authenticity. $\endgroup$ – Hans Lundmark Jun 24 at 15:26

No one else seems to be saying this, so in the interest of having this viewpoint expressed succinctly so that it can be voted on, here we go.

These edits border on vandalism. Edits that change posts so that they become less clear (even if they also become less offensive in some nebulous way) run counter to the purpose of this site. All of these edits should be reverted, but perhaps an historical note can be added somewhere to name drop the new terminology thereby making it searchable.

Let me emphasize: Reverting the edits is crucial. If we establish the precedent that a single, motivated editor can unilaterally alter the terminology used on this site (even when the intentions are pure) we risk exposing the posts here to much more manipulation in the future. Edits should materially improve posts, and these ideologically motivated edits clearly do not do that.

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    $\begingroup$ It seems to me that the dust has settled. I will begin editing 1-3 posts a day, starting in say 12 hours or so, at minimum the edit description will link to this meta post, and if it fits in the question/answer I will try to make both names appear as unobtrusively as I can manage $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 26 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ I have made edits to one Question+Answer group (5 edits). Some posts have been reverted by others. I'll leave further notes like this in this chat room (link to first relevant message) and leave one more comment here when its done, if there are no hiccups. Comments welcome in the chat room $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 27 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ I believe its done now (tiny remark, I did not do this alone). I left alone organic mentions of "infinite earring", and did not re-include "Hawaiian" in jtbrazas's own answer. For more details and tangentially related links I found, please see above chat room. $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 29 at 7:06

The recent edits do cause a problem, in they make the posts harder to search for to someone who only has heard the phrase "Hawaiian earring" used to describe the space in question. There are two ways to fix this:

  1. Revert all the edits.

  2. For each post edited, keep the edit, and add note at the end of the post to the effect of "the infinite earring is historically referred to as the Hawaiian earring." That way, the terminology is changed, but the posts are still searchable.

So, which way do we proceed? I personally think the second option is better. There is nothing Hawai‘ian about the space in question. It was not discovered/investigated by someone who is Hawai‘ian. The name would be appropriate if multi-hoop earrings were traditionally part of some Hawai‘ian culture, but I cannot find any evidence this is the case (can anyone?). Therefore, the terminology is nonsensical at best, and culturally appropriative at worst, so it should be gradually done away with.

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    $\begingroup$ Searchability is indeed a problem, but this ignores the larger problem of edits messing with the author's work for reasons that are not germane to the post and cannot be considered a correction in a precise sense. (Additionally, you are sort-of misusing the notion of "cultural appropriation"; that word would fit if Hawai'ian earrings were a thing in Hawai'i. What we're having here is more of an exotic projection. In my opinion, none of this is relevant, and the difficulty of distinguishing between the concepts is a nice little piece of evidence for that.) $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Jun 23 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ The least obstructive edit that is not a revert IMO would be to have them say “the Hawaiian earring/the infinite earring” instead of a historical note in a 7 year old post (like the OP’s example) $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 24 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ FYI it looks like it is wrong to say “Hawai’ian” (forgive me for using apostrophes on mobile). Instead it seems that it is ‘Hawai’i’ but ‘Hawaiian’. This is evidenced by (1) the Hawaiian’s tweet linked elsewhere (“Hawaiian [blah]”), (2) the University of Hawai’i site you linked, which consistently uses ‘Hawaiian’ and ‘Hawai’i’, which also links to (3) this style guide of the University of Hawai’i which also does the same. Maybe it is because there should be no glottal stop in ‘Hawaiian’. $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 24 at 2:07
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    $\begingroup$ @CalvinKhor Thank you for pointing out my error (and I agree with your rephrasing of my point 2). $\endgroup$ – Mike Earnest Jun 24 at 16:10

As many a good question, this one is really several questions in one. Let me do some untangling.

The general question of editing answers for "improvement"

Is it good when people edit other people's answers for what they believe to be improvements? I think this is subtle and (to my knowledge) not really decided in general terms on m.se, but most of us have seen edits that are clearly good (e.g., fixing non-compiling LaTeX) and edits that are clearly bad (e.g., simplifications that make the proof wrong). The truth is somewhere in the middle and everyone seems to be eyeballing it. My personal criterion is: do I think I am helping bring the author's intent out better, or merely improving my personal view of the answer? Thus, e.g., it is fine to fix LaTeX and add a few words here and there to disambiguate or explain a nonstandard notation, but I would never (e.g.) generalize an answer stated for the integers to an arbitrary commutative ring. There are many shades of gray here, but at least the criterion is something to guide oneself by. If one really wants to go beyond it, one can always comment.

Incidentally, math.SE needs not concern itself with general SE principles here; we are somewhat unique in that our answers don't rot like code nor change like the weather. Besides, I believe we mathematicians take more literary pride in our writings than the typical programmer (at least as concerns the kind of code snippets that make up most SE answers; programmers pride themselves on bigger projects). A widespread attitude of viewing answers as interchangeable and depersonalized will put some of the best answerers off.

Exoticism and the "improvement" at hand

Independently, as to the specific "improvement" at hand, very little justification has been given to convince us that it is an improvement indeed. Jeremy Brazas, in his twitter thread, limited himself to a rather circuitous guilt-by-association argument:

I do NOT believe the name "Hawaiian" in "Hawaiian earring" honors Hawaii or native Hawaiians. The whole "you should be honored that you're even involved" response to Hawaiians is a commonly used tool, often by well-intentioned people, to perpetuate stereotypes and maintain the status quo for marginalized groups. Continuing to associate "otherness" or "exoticness" with a marginalized people for no reason other than tradition is not ok.

So, yes, the "you should be honored" supposition is unfounded, but why should anyone be offended either? What is the causal chain starting from a use of an ethnic name on a mathematical object to any objective harm inflicted on anyone from the respective background? And in the absence of a theoretical justification (preferably without 1 year of philosophy background required), is there any experimental data that is not built entirely on self-reports by a rather narrowly selected group of academics in the humanities?

Similar arguments could be made for "Russian" roulette, "Chinese" whispers and many other artefacts of our culture. Russian roulette, at least, has successfully made its way "back" into Russia and has become somewhat of a point of pride among some Russians, who appreciate a catchy metaphor for what they see as an integral characteristic of their national spirit. I cannot speak for the other names, as I am less familiar with them.

Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius uses faraway places (faraway, of course, from his readers' tacitly presumed location) and "exotic" cultures to build portals into a new world. Would an Iraqi be offended, bewildered or amused to find Borges's portals constructed in her backyard at the dead of the night? I have never seen a reaction video, but I believe the last few wars were fought over different issues. And if we are to preemptively declare any inhabited regions of the earth off-limits for construction, where should Borges build his portals? Antarctica?

In other news, upon a suggestion of an alternative provenance of the name, Jeremy Brazas has admitted that

Reasons why “Hawaiian” should be kept don’t hold up and I’m ready to move on from it.

I'm wondering if the m.se editor will also be convinced.

Rolling back edits

If an edit does not improve an answer, does this automatically mean that a rollback is appropriate? When the author does the rolling-back, the answer is clearly "yes", and the same holds when the edit tangibly worsens the answer (e.g., introducing errors). The case at hand is less clear-cut; the politics aside, it's not much different from an overzealous American editor "fixing" British spelling. If the author doesn't visibly mind, should we take the trouble (and, in the case of mass edits, flood the front page again)? I don't have a good answer or even suggestion here; this is up to the community to decide.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty uncomfortable with your second section. You ask "why should anyone be offended either?" but that is not the question to ask. A better question would be "are people offended, and if so can we do anything about it?". $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jun 23 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729: As I say further below, I'm not seeing much evidence of offense beyond certain classes of people (generally academics, almost entirely in the West even with roots elsewhere), so yes, this is a question I'm implicitly asking -- but it's not a sine-qua-non question; arts can offend and mathematics is an art. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Jun 23 at 11:18
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    $\begingroup$ Then change the focus of the section to say "I see no evidence of offence". (Although I will point to the same tweet by the native Hawaiian topologist as I pointed to in my comment to the question, and suggest you start digging there for evidence of offence.) $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jun 23 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ The tweet does not even claim offense, merely proclaiming hegemony over the name. Once again, while I see no serious evidence of offense, the point of my second section is broader: art can offend. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Jun 23 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ As I said, start digging there. Or ask the person: does this name offend you? Or ask yourself: if this does not offend them, why do they want it to be changed? $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jun 23 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ Well, the person is "not taking questions", and I neither know her personally nor am on twitter... $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Jun 23 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @MaoWao: FWIW, Twitter's "something's wrong" does not mean that the tweet has been deleted; it usually is a fairly frequent sort of server timeout, because apparently displaying 260 symbols is a task for a supercomputer. Here is the tweet in its full glory: "Truly think that the only person in math right now who should be naming (or calling) mathematical objects "Hawaiian [blah]" is me or one of the four other Hawaiians with PhD's in math (and I'm the only topologist). I am not taking any questions at this time." $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Jun 23 at 13:46

First: It is possible that you, or anyone else reading my answer, will not like it. Feel free to comment or to add an alternative answer. This is a first attempt of me to start a discussion. I do agree with many of the comments. It would have been better to first discuss this topic on this side and then to change old posts. Still I'd like to argue:

If the name "Hawaiian earring" is in use not because Hawaiian mathematicians are involved, but because it is an "exotic" counterexample in topology, then the name is indeed insensitive and should be changed.

In the following I will assume that you are genuinly interested in the question whether the name is prolematic or not. The problem here is really with the concept "exotic". I will try to explain it a little bit, but you should go out there and listen to podcasts/read books of people who are better informed about racism and the history of colonialism then I am, preferably people of color. Most of the books/podcasts I know about are written in German. If you do understand German then you might like to read the books by Tupoka Ogette and Alice Hasters. In case you don't I have tried to find some evidence online:

Here is the website of a workshop called "I Am Not Exotic - I Am Exhausted": https://www.humanityinaction.org/action_project/i-am-not-exotic-i-am-exhausted/

This gives a first hint that there might be something wrong with the word/the idea exotic. If you can access jstor (which I can through my university account) then here is a paper about the question:

"They See Me as Exotic... That Intrigues Them:" Gender, Sexuality and the Racially Ambiguous Body by Chandra D. L. Waring https://www.jstor.org/stable/43496947

If you search online you will find many more blog posts, newspaper articles and papers about the topic.

Here is what I understand: First of all, reflect to whom the word exotic can apply in everyday use. You would use it for anyone who comes from asia, africa, south america, but not for people and culture from north america and europe and russia. That is, you use it for people who are not white. Worse, people of color who happen to be european citizens (for example) will hear many times in their life that they are exotic and that they look exotic. Often this is meant as a compliment, even if it really isn't. It is clear that a term which is so broad can not refer to something specific about a different culture. Instead it gives the people who are titled as such the feeling of beeing different. Second, the word exotic is extremly loaded. It plays directly into the grand narrative of colonialisation. The narrative is: There are white people, they have a highly developed culture, they have sience, reason and technology. They are orderly and disciplined, but maybe a bit boring. On the other hand, there are other/primitive people in lands we do explore. Their culture is strange (and exotic). We can not really understand it, but for us white people it has a romantic touch to it. These other people are wild and impulsive. They have rituals, they are irrational, maybe they have a closer connection to their instincts. Hence we have the right to go into their home, force them in schools and teach them how to be more white. This is the narrative of the 18th-20th century and a lot of it is still here today. In my opinion the concept "exotic" is part of it. If you do not believe me, reflect what kind of image you have in your head when you try to think of something exotic.

If you believe that the name "Hawaiian earring" is a problem, then the next question is if we should accept the mild incovenience which comes from changing it. Namely that it becomes harder for people to search for the question online. I would argue that we should. What makes racism so bad for people who are affected, is that it is everywhere. Little things like this might seem unproblematic, but they are only if you look at them without looking at all the other small little thinks which are racist and which remind a person of color every day how they are viewed. There is a term for this: microagressions. My argument: Racism is a collection of many small problems, each of which is not that bad. This is why people who are not affected often can not understand what all the fuzz is about, when one of this problems is under discussion. But collectively they shape the experience of people of color and make their life worse. If we do want to do something about racism, then we need not be afraid to change little things. Also, if something is wrong, then inconvenience is not a really good argument to not change it.

I have one last argument which is probably less controversial (and which I have found in the discussion on the wikipedia page): Main references for topology (Hatcher and Munkres) do not use the term "Hawaiian earring". It would be interesting to know which term other topology books. So grap your favourite topology book and look into it :) If they do not use the name, then why should we.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree that there should be a discussion on this. But MSE is neither the place nor the platform to initiate this change. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod Jun 23 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ The word exotic means "introduced from a foreign country" (Chambers Dictionary) and has a specific use in mathematics related to that meaning that whatever it describes is foreign to the usual way of thinking about something. Tying it up in gender politics does not seem helpful here. The issue in the original question seems to revolve around the use of Hawai'ian as an adjective. $\endgroup$ – postmortes Jun 23 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf Karagila Why not? $\endgroup$ – Nico Jun 23 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ @postmortes I know the dictonary says that, but what I have tried to argue for (and what the paper I have quoted and my personal experience supports) is that this is sinply not true. E.g. I know for a fact that their is food in the US that I (as european) would never have dreamed of. Still I would not call it exotic. $\endgroup$ – Nico Jun 23 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Nico I used that dictionary for a reason: it's a descriptive dictionary, recording the way the words are used, not a prescriptive one. Your anecdotal experience is exactly that. Also: mathematics has specialised uses of words (see, for example, the severe overuse of "normal") which is very relevant here and which you've ignored when responding to my comment. $\endgroup$ – postmortes Jun 23 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ Because this is something that starts with researchers in the field, which then rewrite the textbooks, which then comes here. Going about it from the other direction seems counterproductive, and will definitely lead to a period of time where questions on this subject are not easily searchable, are confusing, require repeated additional explanation, and may or may not make an actual splash with those who actually write the textbooks and teach, making this a big exercise in futility. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod Jun 23 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ You’ve written a very long Answer conditional on an ‘if’ that I would not say is likely to be proven either way $\endgroup$ – Calvin Khor Jun 23 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ You claim that I would use "exotic" for "people who are not white". Not only is that utterly false, it merely shows your racial biases. You quoting other racially biased people proves nothing except, well, your common racial bias. $\endgroup$ – user21820 Jul 2 at 15:09

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