While little surprises me about CNN (Cable’s NON News), the sensational efforts to play off the George Zimmerman trial, to link the “N Word” to Cracker, and to situate the discussion within a discourse of “which is worse” is a testament to their failures as a network. As someone on Twitter and my colleague Rich King noted, the mere fact that CNN says Cracker but encodes the “N-word” tells us all we know, yet the conversation continues.
Despite amazing participants, the framing of the discussion, which centers whiteness (can’t have a discussion of “N word” without somehow bringing the debate back to whiteness), on false comparisons is telling! If CNN wanted to have a discussion to add depth to Zimmerman trial as it relates to Cracker but instead they wandered down the problematic road of “everyone is racist” and “everyone has their own slurs.”
Cracker has a long history; a longer history than America. Dating back at least to Shakespeare, the origins and meaning are disparate. Jelani Cobb, on NPR’s Code Switch, offers insight into its more contemporary usage:
“Cracker,” the old standby of Anglo insults was first noted in the mid 18th century, making it older than the United States itself. It was used to refer to poor whites, particularly those inhabiting the frontier regions of Maryland, Virginia and Georgia. It is suspected that it was a shortened version of “whip-cracker,” since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip (not to mention the other brutal arenas where those skills were employed.) Over the course of time it came to represent a person of lower caste or criminal disposition, (in some instances, was used in reference to bandits and other lawless folk.).
Despite this very specific history, one that locates cracker within history of white supremacy and one that position itself outside this history, some still try to connect Cracker with “N word” as part of its narrative on “white victimhood” and “double standards. Joan Walsh took up this line of argumentation in a recent post:
From Glenn Beck’s the Blaze to the Breitbots to smaller right-wing shriekers to Twitter trolls everywhere, white grievance-mongers seemed less bothered by the fact that Martin allegedly used the term, than by Jeantel saying it wasn’t a slur…. My God, don’t these people get tired of themselves? So much of the trumped-up racial upset on the right, generally, is about language: If black people can use the N-word, why can’t we? (Even Paula Deen tried to use that as self-defense at first.) Now we’re moving on to: If the N-word is racist and forbidden, words like “cracker” should be, too. But “cracker” has never had the same power to demean, or to exile, or to sting. No social order has ever been devised whereby African-Americans oppress people they deride as “crackers.”
Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker too articulated the absurdity of the comparison:
For those needing a refresher course, here are just a few reasons why cracker doesn’t compare to the N-word. Cracker has never been used routinely to:
Deny a white person a seat at a lunch counter.
Systematically deny whites the right to vote.
Deny a white person a seat near the front of a bus.
Crack the skulls of peaceful white protesters marching for equality.
Blow up a church and kill four little white girls.
Need more? Didn’t think so.
Cracker may be a pejorative in some circles. It may even be used to insult a white person. But it clearly lacks the grievous, historical freight of the other.
The efforts to push back at this attempt to imagine white victimhood, to reduce racism discussions to individual prejudices or slurs, to deny white privilege through noting double standards and the assault on whiteness, is nothing new. It’s central to a post civil rights discourse, which has sought to deny the structural advantages that continue to benefit white America. Tim Wise makes this clear in his piece “Revisiting a Past Essay — Honky Wanna Cracker? Examining the Myth of Reverse Racism:”
Simply put, what separates white racism from any other form and makes anti-black and brown humor more dangerous than its anti-white equivalent is the ability of the former to become lodged in the minds and perceptions of the citizenry. White perceptions are what end up counting in a white-dominated society. If whites say Indians are savages, be they “noble” or vicious, they’ll be seen in that light. If Indians say whites are mayonnaise-eating Amway salespeople, who the hell’s going to care? If anything, whites will simply turn it into a marketing opportunity. When you have the power, you can afford to be self-deprecating.
The day that someone produces a newspaper ad that reads: “Twenty honkies for sale today: good condition, best offer accepted,” or “Cracker to be lynched tonight: whistled at black woman,” then perhaps I’ll see the equivalence of these slurs with the more common type to which we’ve grown accustomed. When white churches start getting burned down by militant blacks who spray paint “Kill the honkies” on the sidewalks outside, then maybe I’ll take seriously these concerns over “reverse racism.”
So to be clear, comparing the “N-Word” to Cracker is like comparing ice cream to cardboard. Yet, both very much pivot on white supremacy. Yes, white supremacy grounds both the N-Word and Cracker. The history and origins of Cracker points to the way it seeks to normalize whiteness as middle-class, civility, and civilization. It, like White Trash (see here for great discussion), seeks to differentiate between those who are southern, those who are lower-classes, and those who don’t embody the desired inscription of whiteness. Cracker seeks to humanize white normativity. Matt Wray (cited here), writing about discourse surrounding white trash, argues:
Current stereotypes of white trash can be traced to a series of studies produced around the turn of the century by the US Eugenics Records Office… wherein the researchers sought to demonstrate scientifically, that large numbers of rural poor whites were “genetic defectives.” Typically, researchers conducted their studies by locating relatives who were either incarcerated or institutionalized and then racing their genealogies back to a “defective” source (often, but not always, a person of mixed blood) (2)
Given this history, Cracker must be understood not as anti-White per se but serving in the maintenance of white supremacy and the white power structure. It establishes a qualifier to those who are “white” who don’t embody the hegemonic vision of whiteness. It not only Others the “white poor,” furthering narratives that demonize and blame the poor across the color line, but humanizes whiteness as a category. The history of Cracker and the word itself is very much one of race, class, and caste, in which WHITES judged, policed, and categorized OTHER WHITES to determine who was truly WHITE and who was not quite WHITE. Rather than recycling the tried and trusted story of white victimization (notice how the debate about “N Word,” Cracker, Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act, Paula Deen, etc. always in some way comes back to a delusional sense of white victimhood), we must begin to think about the structural context, one where “whites continue to swim in preference.” Cracker isn’t simply a word or a slur but a window into America’s racial history, into white supremacy.