These Stories Are Not About the 'N-Word' and 'Cracker'

CNN had a remarkable discussion panel this weekend, thanks to the presence of George Zimmerman and Paula Deen in the news, in which the chyron read, "N WORD VS 'CRACKER': WHICH IS WORSE?"

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CNN had a remarkable discussion panel this weekend, thanks to the presence of George Zimmerman and Paula Deen in the news, in which the chyron read, "N WORD VS 'CRACKER': WHICH IS WORSE?" The question itself is as stupid as the evidence marshalled: Teens say the n-word in songs! And both words were used on a really old Saturday Night Live skit! But ultimately the question misses the point because these words are not what either case is about.

CNN's Don Lemon said he wanted to have an "honest conversation" about a collection of taboo words: "n----r, honkey, cracker. These words can cause a visceral reaction when people hear them. You may have been flinched when I said them." It then descended into the silliness we've all heard a million times. Lemon spoke to human behavior expert Wendy Walsh, who is white and said her son is biracial. Walsh's son has asked her, "if you're not allowed to say the n-word but daddy is, what's the rule for me?" Their solution was to say "wigga." Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill said, "Black people said it because we moved into this post-racial ideology, this color-blind ideology that says, if we don't talk about race, if we don't name race, if we don't speak certain racialized terms, somehow the world will be racially better, and it's not true." He did not think Walsh should feel any confusion about when to use the n-word (never). "Why are white people fighting so fiercely for the right to use the n-word? Let it go."

And then they got to their flimsy premise that equated the controversy over a famous butter-lover harboring racist thoughts and a , and the other is about whether a boy deserved to be shot. a famous chef harboring racial beliefs and an unarmed teenager ending up shot and dead in a gated commuity. But they tried mightily, because of the words. "I think to expect a 19-year-old to know the history of a term like 'cracker' as opposed to a 66-year-old knowing the history of the n-word is a ridiculous comparison," said Tim Wise, who was identified as an anti-racism activist. That's probably the most salient point. Why is CNN lumping together these two stories? One is about What words they used have little to do with either case.

Most of the people attacking Deen — and most supporting her — are so misrepresenting what the case is about that you have to wonder whether it's intentional. On Saturday, the Savannah Morning News' Tom Barton wrote that Deen was the victim of "a modern-day lynching." "Savannah’s celebrity chef has been lynched — figuratively and publicly in the court of public opinion, and without a full and fair accounting of the facts," Barton said. Well, he's right about the facts part. But Barton fails to grapple with the facts, too. The case is not about Deen "saying the n-word 30 years ago." It is not about Deen discriminating against a white person, as Barton suggests: "But what is white-on-white discrimination? An opera lover being forced to listen to country music?" (Har har?) Fox News' Todd Starnes had a similar angle: "Paula admitted she used the word — back in the 1980s — when a black guy walked into the bank, stuck a gun in her face and ordered her to hand over the cash. The national media failed to mention that part of the story." Many other defenders say the focus on a single, youthful indiscretion with one word is overblown. And it is!

As Daryl K. Washington points out, the Deen case is actually about Deen failing to control her brother, Bubba Hier (at left), who ran her restaurants and treated the black employees poorly. According to the lawsuit, black employees could only use the back entrance, couldn't work in the front of the restaurants, could only use one bathroom, and had to put up with him using the n-word a lot, and in a demeaning way. ("Don’t you wish you could rub all the black off you and be like me? You just look dirty; I bet you wish you could.")

The woman suing Deen, Lisa Jackson, is white. In her first public statement since the controversy, CNN reports, Jackson released a letter through her lawyer, saying, "This lawsuit has never been about the n-word... It is to address Ms. Deen's patterns of disrespect and degradation of people that she deems to be inferior... I may be a white woman, but I could no longer tolerate her abuse of power as a business owner, nor her condonation of Mr. Hier's despicable behavior on a day-to-day basis."

And yet, on story quoting Jackson's letter, CNN placed a video of analysis from Marvette Britto, who was introduced as an "expert" and "brand strategist." Britto, like so many commentators, was fixated on the n-word in the past, not allegations of employee abuse in the present. "I was surprised that Paula Deen didn't take more ownership of the words that she said, of the words that she spoke -- and add context and clarity for her comments for an audience that's very confused by her words."

The reason CNN was comparing the n-word with cracker was because the latter was supposedly uttered by Trayvon Martin. According to the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, Martin referred to George Zimmerman as a "creepy-ass cracker" who was following him. Zimmerman, was carrying a gun, is on trial for shooting and killing Martin, an unarmed teenager, after they met in the street.

Many people have seized on the term "cracker" as proof that Martin was racist against white people and therefore was threatening enough to justify Zimmerman shooting him. In turn, that has inspired many people sympathetic to Martin to write that cracker really isn't all that bad. "As a born-and-raised Southerner— and a cracker— I feel qualified to offer some insight to those who may be confused by this thorny sociological quandary," Gawker's Hamilton Nolan writes. Cracker is no big deal, he explains:

A racial slur? Sure, technically speaking. A real racial slur? Sadly, no. There are no good racial slurs for white people. Despite the fact that white Americans have committed far more atrocities against the other races of the world than all of those races combined have committed against white people, there is no one single slur in popular usage that can really cut a white person to their soft, marshmallowy core.

Counting the atrocities seems like a weird way to justify a word's sluriness. We wouldn't want to use racial slurs against North Sudanese people even though the North Sudanese people committed genocide against the South Sudanese. At Mediaite, Tommy Christopher noted that "cracker" has some interesting history that's not so racial. In Florida, Christopher writes, "the word 'cracker' isn’t a racial slur at all, but rather, a proud nod to the region’s history, and one’s own ancestry." It's a reference to pre-Civil War Florida cowboys. And at NPR, Gene Demby explains the etymology of cracker, noting that Cracker is an old-fashioned way of building a house in Florida to beat the heat.  Demby writes:

By the early 1800s, those immigrants to the South started to refer to themselves that way as a badge of honor and a term of endearment. (I'm pretty sure this process of reappropriating a disparaging term sounds familiar to a lot of y'all.)

Like Nolan, I am also from the South. I was called cracker in city elementary school, and it hurt my feelings! You can see my permanent facial expression in that era at right. (Why were you so mean, Victoria T.?!) In my rural high school, which was mostly white, people called each other cracker all the time, as a joke. The difference is using the word to exclude people versus using it to include people. Obviously. Martin was obviously not thinking of a grand Celtic cowboy tradition when he said "cracker."

But that doesn't matter, because cracker is the least important word in the phrase Jeantel testified Martin said. The important part is "creepy-ass"! The critical facts to figure out in the case is whether Zimmerman reacted appropriately to the threat he perceived. Was Martin an aggressive, scary, violent teenager who beat up Zimmerman, leaving him no choice but to use lethal force? Or was Zimmerman aggressively following Martin when he confronted him, and shot him for no good reason? If Martin did indeed say a "creepy-ass" white dude was following him, it indicates he was afraid of Zimmerman.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.