In battle of racial insults, 'cracker' not high ranking

WASHINGTON — The trial of George Zimmerman, accused of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, inevitably and quickly devolved into a contest of who is more racist — the victim or the accused?

The question was inevitable because the prosecution is basing its case largely on the suggestion that Zimmerman profiled the 17-year-old African-American, allegedly deciding he was a potential threat by virtue of his race.

This assumption was somewhat complicated Thursday during testimony by 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin's who was talking to him by cellphone shortly before he was shot. Sidebar: Poor Jeantel. Whether she is a credible witness will be determined by the jury, but the rest of us really ought to cut the girl some slack. She is young, obviously playing on alien turf and having a tough-enough time on the witness stand without further commentary. She may, indeed, be the best argument yet for keeping cameras out of the courtroom, but that is another discussion.

Jeantel's contribution to the race discussion included a quote she attributed to Martin when he told her a "creepy-ass cracker" was watching him. No doubt Zimmerman did seem creepy. He was following Martin after all, who, as far as anyone knows with certainty, was merely walking home from a convenience store. Does Martin's use of "cracker" mean he was a racist and, therefore, may have instigated the struggle that, according to the defense, compelled Zimmerman to shoot Martin in self-defense?

Jeantel told defense attorney Don West that, no, she doesn't consider "cracker" a racist term. Apparently, most whites don't either. In street interviews aired Thursday, CNN found that whites are not as offended by the term "cracker" as they are by the N-word.

For the record, there's no evidence that Zimmerman ever used the N-word. He is captured on tape saying "F — ing punks" and "These a — holes, they always get away." Is he talking about blacks? Teens wearing hoods? Burglars, some number of whom recently had been targeting his neighborhood? Only conjecture produces a strictly racist interpretation.

So what about "cracker?" Is it ever or always an insult? And what might we infer by Martin's use of it to describe his pursuer?

Merriam-Webster defines cracker as: usually disparaging: a poor usually Southern white; capitalized: a native or resident of Florida or Georgia — used as a nickname.

But the best explanation of crackers can be found in "The Cracker Kitchen," a cookbook and story collection by novelist and proud cracker Janis Owens. It is a both a cultural defense and literary critique of the poor, white folks whence Owens (and most of us Scots-Irish) came — an un-frilly valentine pressed between recipes for fried frog legs and baked armadillo. The daughter of a fire-breathing Pentecostal preacher, Owens traces "cracker" to William Shakespeare's "The Life and Death of King John:" "What cracker is this same that deafe our eares with this abundance of superfluous breath?"

Now there's an invective worth memorizing for future hurling.

Native-born to Florida's panhandle, aka Alabama's Riviera, Owens has embraced her cracker-hood and uses the term endearingly, just as African-Americans often use the N-word, recovered from racist whites, to refer to one another.

Similarly, Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" includes a chapter celebrating the C-word, effectively stealing it back from those who use it to denigrate women. Reclaiming ownership of an offensive word is a revolutionary act that strips the term of its power to wound. Call it linguistic disarmament.

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 the 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.

Martin's use of the term "cracker" doesn't make him a racist any more than Zimmerman's resentment of "punks" necessarily makes him a murderous racial profiler. These words, and the case built upon them, ultimately may prove little more than an abundance of superfluous breath.

Kathleen Parker, who writes for The Washington Post Writers Group, can be reached by email at kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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auntsonyas wrote on July 01, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Ms. Parker apparently doesn't have any African American people to talk to. Current cultural use of the word "cracker" is a shortened version of "whipcracker" and is not used without provocation, making it a very powerful term. From the Urban Dictionary: "Cracker: Originally the white slave driver because he would "crack" the whip, hence the noun cracker. 'Yo homey pick the cotton faster cuz here comes ole Mr. Cracker with his whip!'"

basset wrote on July 04, 2013 at 3:07 pm

She also misses the point that by using the term cracker, Martin has identifed Zimmerman primarily in racial terms - that is, his first reaction is to classify Zimmerman in terms of race.  It might not be as offensive a term as others, but it is still racial.  Had Martin shot Zimmerman instead of the other way around, prosecutors would be using that term to show racist intent.

KnittingNut wrote on August 21, 2013 at 11:08 am

Poor Jeantel. Whether she is a credible witness will be determined by the jury, but the rest of us really ought to cut the girl some slack. She is young, obviously playing on alien turf and having a tough-enough time on the witness stand without further commentary. She may, indeed, be the best argument yet for keeping cameras out of the courtroom...(as though ALL the rest of us feel VERY COMFORTABLE in a courtroom!!)                  Martin when he told her a "creepy-ass cracker" was watching him. No doubt Zimmerman did seem creepy. He was following Martin after all, who, as far as anyone knows with certainty, was merely walking home from a convenience store. Does Martin's use of "cracker" mean he was a racist...? (maybe not by itself or MAYBE it DOES! but how 'bout the "creepy-axx" added to it? But after all he is JUST A CHILD skipping home with his Skittles!)                     Jeantel told defense attorney Don West that, no, she doesn't consider "cracker" a racist term. Apparently, most whites don't either. In street interviews aired Thursday, CNN found that whites are not as offended by the term "cracker" as they are by the N-word. (1. CNN? REALLY! I wonder how this question was worded. "Hello, excuse me, I was just wondering, do YOU get offended when some says, "cracker"? 2. Whites "ARE offended at the N-word". That is because we care enough to be offended when someone is TRYING to be offensive and now that we've been taught that N...... is offensive, as is Bl..., and Afro, and  col...., don't call a blk.man an American alone, we don't use these words because we've been TOLD they are offensive but THEY can use these words for each other. Have you ever seen African-Am. call each other names or noticed/thought about how they treat their children, as though they are worthless 'slaves' to be left trailing behind or running WILD through stores, yelling at them as though they have no conscience. Whites haven't done this to them for AT LEAST 75 YEARS!             "why cracker doesn't compare to the N-word" (because N...word doesn't)..Crack the skulls of peaceful white" - but it does crack skulls of biracial men seeking to protect their communities from drug users (which is what EVERY COMMUNITY WANTS to do!)....well it DOES NOW! "Systematically deny whites the right to vote" - better get a check on the past two elections for "INTIMIDATION" by Blk Panthers! (It DOES NOW!)  "Blow up a church and kill four little white girls". How 'bout shooting Australian guests, or young teenage men on their own front door steps, ETC.!! (IT DOES NOW!)       "These words, and the case built upon them, ultimately may prove little more than an abundance of superfluous breath."  The Bible states a TRUE statement that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Ms. Kathleen Parker, I am VERY disappointed in the maturity of a writer who cannot criticize her own work for inconsistancies and being based on so many 'suggestions' from questionable sources.