Words Matter

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Reading commentary until I’m ready to puke over the Trayvon Martin case and I’m not going to give the twisted hatred any more real estate. (find the best and the worst here)

But one I can’t pass up is this repeated mantra — Martin called Zimmerman a “crazy-ass cracker.” I imagine that’s been making its rounds in the usual right-wing media outlets as a way to equate it with Zimmerman stalking an innocent black kid. Because these days, if there is any way to draw a similarity, things become equal without regard to proportion or consequence. Like everything in our world can be solved like a simple math equation, like finding the common denominator.

Some people claim that the cracker comment is proof that black people are racist.  Or worse yet, guilty of reverse racism, a term that means absolutely nothing. But since Martin hated white people, he had a hand in his own death, so the story goes. I’m only going to focus on linguistic ridiculousness today.

I say it plainly:

Being called a cracker is not the same and being called a nigger.

I believe that we actually understand nuance, but for a complicated set of reasons try to ignore and subvert it. Just brainstorming here, but maybe because it’s too hard.  Maybe it’s a way to mitigate our bad behavior. To deny that atrocities have been committed in this country. To abdicate responsibility. To avoid the hard work of making this world a better place. To refuse to cede even an inch of our cultural birthright.

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Nigger is a word that we created to set darker skinned people apart from us pale European types.  It derives from the French and Spanish words for black. In the 1700s, when it entered the wide vernacular, people who didn’t look like they’d just stumbled out of the fiefdom or the castle were considered to be across-the-board inferior. Light-skinned=person. Dark-skinned=nigger.

It had to be that way, superior vs inferior, so the dominant culture could justify what they did to them.

Of course there was slavery, where dark-skinned men and women were deemed property to be sold on the market. There was the Three-Fifth Compromise, wherein our government codified that every slave is the equivalent of 3/5 of a person. There was Jim Crow. Emmett Till. Plessy vs. Ferguson. Lynch mobs. Separate drinking fountains. Poll tax. Back of the bus. The National Guard. Fire hoses. A Birmingham Church. James Byrd Jr.

Trayvon Martin.

Heck, even Paula Deen apologists say it was still socially acceptable to call an African American a nigger in the 1980s, while acknowledging that she would never say such a thing now. Never, ever has it been a term of endearment. In fact, it is laden with the ugly weight of centuries, of a shameful history, one in which white people codified, legitimized, and institutionalized the inferiority of black people.

Cracker was a term that sprang up at about the same time and although its origins are in dispute, it refers to white trash. You can argue that poor rednecks face discrimination too, but I certainly hope you wouldn’t argue that the history is equal. If that boggles your mind, visualize this. Put a cracker in a suit and tie and no one would ever know of his origins. Put a black teenager in a suit and tie and he still carries the sum total of 400 years of stereotypes, the scars of a systematic dehumanization of a race.

At its most basic, over-simplified level, both cracker and the n-word do the same thing — draw conclusions based on immutable characteristics. Like it or not, race matters in this country. One slur is burdened by systemic oppression and all the fear, anger, and bitterness it causes. One is just a kind of dumb thing to say.

19 thoughts on “Words Matter”

  1. Having trouble following the logic here. If I am understanding this correctly, A and B have different skin colors. People w skin color similar to A have wronged people w skin color similar to B in the past. In the present, and not necessarily in this order: A says something derogatory and skin color related about B; B says something derogatory and skin color related about A.

    Because people of skin color similar to A have wronged people of skin color similar to B in the past, what A says is wrong and unjustified, while what B says is less wrong and perhaps even justified.

    Perhaps I am mistaken, but this seems to be your point. If so, then I’d be interested in better understanding why wrongs done by others in the past justify wrongful behavior (in this case, derogatory remarks) by either A or B in the present.

    1. Matt, nowhere did I say that using slurs is justified. My argument is that one carries significantly more weight than the other, because of a long history. I have no idea why people want to make them equal in significance, but it seems like some people do.

      And I certainly hope you are saying that there is no racism in America anymore. In fact, Zimmerman chose to follow Martin precisely because he was a young black man who seemed out of place in the neighborhood. In a country without racism, Martin would have been just another kid eating skittles and talking on the phone.

      What baffles me more than anything is why people want to make the dominant culture aggrieved, rather than trying to make this world a better and more equal place for all.

  2. If one slur ‘carries more weight’ than another, then what precisely does that mean if not in the context of seeking to justify right and wrong?

    1. I’m arguing against the idea that the two slurs are equal, not that either is right. I’m not a fan of slurs at all. Just pointing out that one is like an irritating squirt gun shot in the face and the other is a cannon blast.

  3. Not equal in what way? For example, the squirt gun/cannon blast analogy might imply that you believe one to be less wrong than the other.

    1. I don’t think I can say it more plainly. There is the black and white of right and wrong, and within that there are degrees of severity. For example, stealing a candy bar and killing someone — both are wrong, one is more serious.

  4. Then perhaps I was following your initial argument pretty well. Slightly rephrased: A and B have different skin colors. People w skin color similar to A have wronged people w skin color similar to B in the past. In the present, and not necessarily in this order: A says something derogatory and skin color related about B; B says something derogatory and skin color related about A.

    Because people of skin color similar to A have wronged people of skin color similar to B in the past, what A says is more wrong, while what B says is less wrong.

    Is that an accruate reflection of your argument?

  5. Can you can enlighten as to what you mean be ‘race’ and how it is not accounted for in the above reflection?

    1. You have stripped out the context, which is the crux. I have laid that out already. If you disagree, that’s your choice, but I believe I’ve made my case.

  6. Goal is to get closer to the truth. Hard for me to do so here if I don’t understand what you’re saying. Perhaps I’ll catch on. Tuning out for the evening…

    1. Got it. Sorry if I sounded brief, I was at the pool and sweating and typing on a tiny thing. And I kept fat fingering it and deleting what I typed.

      Anyway, I am trying to say that this isn’t about name calling alone. I can call you four eyes and you can call me metal mouth on the playground and that’s one thing (like your A and B). But the n-word is loaded with some 400 years of ugliness, including oppression and dehumanization that was sanctioned by our government, our schools, businesses, etc. I know that from the outside it’s tempting to say “get over it” but I think that’s wrong for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the civil rights movement is still in living memory. It’s not like we are talking about something that happened 3000 years ago.

      Secondly, race continues to affect this country. For example, the drug laws – crack cocaine (largely used in urban areas) is punished differently than powder cocaine (an affluent drug of choice) despite the fact that they are the same drug. Our prison population is disproportionately African American. I know I don’t need to tell you that our education system is not functioning well in urban areas. Job opportunities are limited.

      I totally believe that the situation is improving, but we are not living in a “post racial” world that some would claim.

      The very fact that Zimmerman was following Martin is an example. He singled him out as suspicious because he was black. He was not armed and now he is dead. I hope you can see why some people might interpret that to mean that Zimmerman’s behavior was ok, and that Martin was guilty of being black in a nice neighborhood.

      I admit, to buy into my argument, you have to believe that there is a racism problem in America, one that goes beyond resentment over skin color. It’s institutional and this case has reinforced that idea.

      I don’t know if you believe that or no, but let’s say you do believe that. White people are predominately in power in the US and always have been. The n-word is more than a name, it invokes the injustice that this nation has visited upon African Americans. Cracker, on the other hand, is a stupid thing to say. Not ok, just not really all that serious.

      I’d never use the n-word, but I wound’t be opposed to calling someone a cracker in the right circumstance.

      I just don’t think you can reduce the argument any further than that, Matt, without making it sound trivial.

      I hope that’s clear. I know you’re looking for truth, but I think you have to allow here for truths rather than truth, since this one is largely a matter of perception.

      Thanks for trying to understand.

  7. Multiple truths, yes. Conditional if/then and complementary truths, yes. But by definition, two truths cannot contradict, lest at least one must be ____.

    Once again back to my earlier question, slightly rephrased. If people with similar color skin to A have wronged people with similar color skin to B in the past (whether that past is recent or hundreds of yrs old), then why is it less wrong for B to utter a skin-related slur about A than it is for A to utter one about B?

    Stated differently, who is the greater fool: the person who mirrors many years of bad behavior done by people of his skin color, or a person who, after learning about that bad behavior done over many years by people of a different skin color, subsequently adopts the same bad behavior himself?

    1. Well, we’re closer, but a couple of points. If truth is influenced by perception, then the only way they’d be a contradiction is if they are held by the same person with the same perception. Even then, I don’t think it comes down to truth. As Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

      And I would argue that a person using the term cracker is not adopting the same bad behavior, because the n-word is full of meaning assigned by centuries of oppression. No matter how many names you call someone, you can’t call that down alone.

      Again, this isn’t to say that calling someone a cracker as a slur is right. Not at all.

  8. Truth is that which cannot be legitimately refuted. Understanding of truth is influenced by perception, but truth itself is not dependent upon perception. Truth is present whether we perceive it accurately or not. You and I might perceive two different versions of a particular truth, but there is only one underlying truth.

    Many truths still await our discovery. Our challenge is to continually work to perceive truth more accurately.

    Returning to the original discussion, your answer seems to be that when A utters a slur about B, the consequences are different, or more severe, than when B utters a slur about A. What are the consequences of uttering a racial slur? How do these consequences and/or their severity differ depending on whether A or B utters the slur?

    1. I don’t really look at truth that way because not everything can be boiled down to something objective. I guess if you wanted to arrive at what I believe to be a core principle, it would be that creating a hierarchy of human value based on immutable characteristics is wrong.

      On top of that, though, we need context because we live in a culture that is bound by norms and standards. Those are a function, in part, of our shared and personal history. It’s the same reason why we can look at the Bible and acknowledge that there is value in the lessons we learn, but that some of the brutal laws of the Old Testament world are not applicable. We say that those were the cultural norms of the day.

      As far as the specifics of this situation, I’m not sure I have made any statements about consequences. Like I said, both are wrong but neither is illegal. I think if you use n-word, you are risking a lot more, both in terms of relationship with others and your own integrity. The consequences aren’t really for me to decide, but I know that no matter what you choose to do, there will be consequences.

  9. I sometimes regard cultural norms and standards as mechanisms people put in place to cope w truth. Sometimes the coping mechanisms align w truth, sometimes not. Slavery, for example, has been a norm in various cultures throughout human history that aligns w the truth that people are economizers (seeking high personal benefit for low personal cost) but misaligns w the truth that all people are born with the inalienable right to liberty.

    If I am understanding you correctly, then you have cited consequences that are generally detrimental to the person uttering slurs (hurts relationships, lowers integrity). This is pretty much where I am too. Racial slurs broadcast personal ineptitude. As such, slurs primarily hurt people uttering slurs. Slurs cannot hurt others unless others choose to let those words influence them.

    Of course, some people do choose to respond to slurs. And it seems that response is overwhelmingly hostile in nature. Hostility might be reflected in retaliatory action, including violence, against the slur originators. But it could also weaken, rather than perpetuate, institutional wrongdoing if people perceive the slurs as associated with some set of bad behavior. Plausibly, a consequence of uttering slurs is a weakening of any associated institutional wrongdoing.

    This is why I am trying understand the assertion that slurs that have been around longer and associated with more bad history are ‘more wrong.’ Slurs of any vintage equally reveal the stupidity of those who utter them. Perversely, older, more historic slurs might even serve a positive purpose in that they raise social awareness of associated institutional wrongdoing, thereby hastening its demise.

    Maybe there’s a case to be made that, if I’m a bigot trying to preserve my wrongdoing franchise, then the last thing I’d want to do is sling slurs around. Instead, I’d want to keep it quiet. I might even jump on the bandwagon that says slurs should be prohibited. I’d want to do what I can not to wake people up to the truth.

    But don’t share this strategy w the bigots. Personally, I prefer they take full advantage of their First Amendment rights to…hang themselves. Figuratively, of course.

    1. I think you made a good point and am inclined to agree, but I think that it’s impossible to know what it is like to live in circumstances very different from my own. I think it’s best to error on the side of empathy. If you know a slur runs a high risk of offending, you should stay away, or accept that you own some of the responsibility for what comes next.

    2. Matt, if you haven’t and you are willing, I highly recommend listening to the President’s 18-ish minute commentary on this, especially the beginning where he adds his personal perspective. I know you dislike him, but he speaks a point of view on this issue that you and I can only understand by listening — we don’t live it.

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