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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