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Posted by on May 29, 2014 | 4 comments

I’m a White A** Cracker: A Case Study in Privilege

(Please note that this post originally contained explicit reference to racist language which I have censored after a friend raised concerns about it. ) 

“So, what’s the deal with ‘cracker’ as an insult anyway? It just seems kind of silly.”

My roommate asked me this question as he was driving me to the airport. I can’t remember how the subject came up. I couldn’t answer him as to the etymology of the word (here’s an NPR article if you’re curious), but it struck me that he was right – “cracker” just seemed sort of limp. It’s a racial slur directed against white people, but it didn’t really have any sting for me, or for my roommate, it just seemed goofy. It’s a striking contrast if you compare it to the force of the word “n*****” if I were black.

This contrast is a painful illustration of the realities of racial privilege. Discussion of privilege, many of you will be aware, is common amongst minority pundits and quite frequently ignored, or even scoffed at, by those considered to have privilege. The reason for the latter fact is that systemic privilege, when not taking the form of explicit “no coloreds allowed” signs, is usually invisible to those who have it (and I suppose even that might become invisible with time). The white person who never gets pulled over because they made an illegal lane change in the wrong part of town won’t even be aware of the dozens of times its happened to their black neighbor. Thus, as a white, anglo-saxon, Protestant, the realities of my privilege can often be invisible to me. Sometimes, though, there are moments of epiphany like this conversation with my roommate.

This case is potent because it shows how thoroughly the racial dynamics of the United States privilege me, right down the power of language. Intentions don’t even matter. If I refered to someone as a “n*****,” even if I did so with intentions of good-natured irony, it would not be okay, because it would be powerfully insulting. In contrast, if an African American called me a “cracker,” the word on its own would lack any real force, even if the intention was to fill it with bile and hatred. The same would hold true for any racial slur for a white person I can imagine. This gives me power (in this case to directly hurt someone with my language), it embodies privilege. Certainly, I’m aware of this dynamic enough not to try and call someone a “n*****,” but until my roommate asked the question about this particular racial slur the power imbalance inherent in this reality hadn’t even occured to me. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m willing to bet that the reality of this imbalance is something I’d have long been aware of if I were black.

So what’s the upshot of this? Obviously, I cannot all by myself change the systemic realities that set up these kinds of privileges. I can, however, seek to become aware of them so that I can, as much as possible, avoid using them to abuse others. This means, among other things, learning to listen to the voices of those who have been marginalized by privilege, even when what they say doesn’t immediately resonnate with my experience of the world. As someone who belongs to a God who, in his becoming man, destroyed barriers of privilege between Jew, Greek, male, female, slave, and free (Gal 3:28), this is the least I can do.

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Kevin G.

I was born in Kenya and lived there for nearly four years. After returning to the states I moved to California, where I remained through to the end of college. I graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy in 2011, and recently completed a masters program in doctrinal theology in Vancouver, BC. I hope to eventually become a professor. I have an amazing family, incredible friends and a wonderful church community. Throughout my interests can be found an intense attraction to issues of human nature, be they in drawing people, philosophizing about human ethics or any number of other subjects. People fascinate me. My faith is, and always will be the central hub of my life, and more than just faith, my relationship to God and my place in His Kingdom.
  • Excellent post Kevin!

    If I may add, it would also be helpful when we talk about racialized language that we also should discuss the violent histories behind certain phrases, such as the n***** word. I mean people were sold into slavery, and lynched in the name of that word, and same for r*dskin. Words dont appear in a vaccuum, they have a history behind them too. Thank you for this post.

    • Thanks Rod. The history of violence behind these words is absolutely another part of the conversation that needs to be had, and it’s almost certainly part of what sets up the dynamics of privilege they demonstrate.

      I’m curious, especially for future writing I may do, how you feel about my choice to not censor the n-word in post (with the accompanying warning)? I had considered censoring it, of course, but thought the point of the post might be made more strongly with the word uncensored. I notice, however, that you censored it in your reply, and someone on Facebook has expressed concern over it. In particular, their concern is that I censored “ass” while not censoring the n-word. The reason was quite simply that the one was in the title and the other was in the text, but I want to be aware if I’ve really made a mistake here, and I respect your perspective on these issues a lot.

      • I guess I am ambiguously okay with it, as long as you want to have an honest conversation on the n***** word. For me, it’s brings up a lot of anger, even when its used by People of Color. I try to avoid it esp since I believe that the artists who regularly use the n**** aren’t really benefitting society.

      • Thanks Rod. Based on your feedback, along with that of my friend, I’ve decided to censor the word.