Being from Australia I often hear the term "cracker" used by
black American comedians, in reference to white people. Can you tell me
what is the meaning and where did the term originate.
Grafton, New South Wales
There must be something in the air. Yours is the second letter I've gotten
recently on the subject of racial insults. Back in the 1700s, cracker
was a derogatory term used by American whites to describe poor Southerners
of their own race. Since then, its meaning has become more generalized
and it is often used by blacks to describe whites, especially racist whites.
However, the word still retains the flavor of Southern poverty.
Its history is far less clear. You can find the word as far back as Shakespeare.
In The Life and Death of King John, Philip the Bastard calls the Duke
of Austria an ass (another insult that's been around
a while). The duke responds by saying, "What cracker
is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?"
In this sense, a cracker is a loudmouth and boastful
person. Similar instances of this word used about Southerners can be found
in literature of colonial America.
Although this theory is my personal favorite, there are others. Another
possibility is the connection with corn liquor produced in the South,
since corn is "cracked" before being mixed with other ingredients
and fermented into alcohol. In the US, this industry is strongly associated
with Southern states, especially the illegal "moonshine"
corn whiskey that was produced secretly to avoid government taxation in
the 1800s. On a recent visit to my parents, who live down in North Carolina,
we visited a cultural museum where one of the featured exhibits was a
still (the equipment for producing corn whiskey). To the best of my knowledge,
there are no stills in museums up here in Boston. Most sources that believe
this to be the root of the word point to song The Blue Tail Fly (more
popularly known as Jimmy Crack Corn) which tells the story of a slave
who escapes punishment when his master is killed in a riding accident
- even though it happened because he failed to keep flies from biting
the master's nervous horse.
While there are other colorful ideas about the roots of this word (cracking
whips, white people's resemblance to Saltine crackers, etc.), they have
less support from the academic community. There is also no relationship
between this word and crack cocaine, just in case you
were wondering. That word comes from the preparation of the drug - you
have to crack it into small pieces before smoking it.
So how bad is it to say cracker? Well, everything is
relative, but I'd have to say, "not very." For a black to say
it to a white in a bar might cause a fight, but you can say it on television
and the state of Georgia even lists "The Cracker State"
on their official website as a nickname. More than that, there have been
two major musical acts (both white) to use the name in the last decade.
The rock band Cracker, started in the early 90s, was
the first. However, the title was apparently such a desirable property
that musician Matt Shafer asked them for permission to use the exact same
name, but spelled with a K. They said no, and he went on to become popular
as Uncle Kracker. Although he comes from Michigan, Shafer
even named one of his albums Double Wide after the prefabricated
mobile homes favored by poor white Southerners.
The truth is that cracker and its many synonyms are not
considered as strong or offensive as similar negative words for minorities.
As the majority in the US (making up over 82% of the total population),
whites can be offended by the term, but given the illustrations above,
obviously do not take it too seriously or find it threatening. As the
dominant culture, whites also have more influence on the language. For
example, according to the now defunct Racial Slur Database (you
can still find copies of this online at http://gyral.blackshell.com/names.html),
there are roughly twice as many derogatory English Slang terms for blacks
as for whites.
This deficit of strong insults for whites is also demonstrated by an old
sketch from Saturday Night Live. In the scene, black comedian
Richard Pryor and white comedian Chevy Chase trade racial insults. While
Chase's verbal attacks on African Americans grow worse and worse (porch
monkey, jungle bunny, nigger)
Pryor quickly runs out of bad words to describe white people and must
desperately repeat himself with the much milder word honky.
Although that was back in the 1970s, there haven't been any great additions
of serious insults for whites since then. It would be nice, of course,
if we could all get along and make racial slurs a thing of the past, but
I doubt if that will happen in my lifetime. Perhaps the best we can hope
for is that one day, we can all be insulted equally.
A. C. Kemp