Yesterday, one of the defense lawyers in the Zimmerman trial said that shooting victim Trayvon Martin injected race into his fatal encounter with George Zimmerman by referring to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” while on the phone with his friend, Rachel Jeantel. The attorney tried to get Jeantel to own up to the term being a racial slur, whereas she said it was just slang.
We can put some of this down to different group perceptions of the word “cracker,” and I may be in a somewhat unique position to crackersplain at least one aspect of it. In Florida, the word “cracker” did and does have benign connotations among some groups: It means the people who lived in Florida during its frontier era (think the family from “The Yearling”) and their descendants, of which I am one.
Does the use of the word “cracker” in that sense have a racial component? Sure — it means white people, but it also means a certain subset of white people, i.e., Florida natives who have a rural, Southern culture distinct from that of the Northern-born white folks who started arriving in the state in great numbers after the blessed invention of air-conditioning.
Would you like to see evidence that “cracker” isn’t universally considered a slur down here? Okay, here’s the banner for the website of the permanent frontier Florida exhibit at the Florida State Fairgrounds — a place every school child within 150 miles of the fairgrounds visits on a field trip at some point:
And here is another example, Florida Cracker beer from a local microbrew:
WHITE Ale – geddit? Tasty stuff, too!
Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t people who are offended by the term and people who use it as a pejorative. As I’ve mentioned before, my Internet nym, back when I started a blog with zero readers, came from a teasing nickname my (upstate New York-born) husband gave me because of my downhome cooking, but if I had it to do over again, I’d choose something less freighted.
I think about changing it occasionally and may at some point, although it would be a logistical nightmare. (Any suggestions? Can’t use my real name because of my J-O-B…)
I’ve had people tell me they find my internet nym offensive (butt-hurty white men in every single case, if I recall correctly, for what it’s worth), and you know what? I believe them. People do have different understandings of what it means, and I think perceptions of the word’s meaning are generational as well as regional.
There was a kerfluffle about the word “cracker” when Bill Clinton was campaigning for Barack Obama in Florida back in 2008. Clinton invoked our last great cracker governor, Lawton Chiles, in an interview with Larry King:
“You know, they think that because of who I am and where my politic[al] base has traditionally been, they may want me to go sort of hustle up what Lawton Chiles used to call the ‘cracker vote’ there.”
Much as Zimmerman’s defense team leapt on the term to prove racial bias, the wingnuts at the Weekly Standard jumped all over Clinton’s offhand remark:
Is Clinton intentionally trying to stir up racial resentment by saying that “they” (presumably the Obama campaign) want him to “hustle up … the ‘cracker vote'”? According to a search in Nexis, Clinton has never publicly used the phrase “cracker vote” before now. Lawton Chiles did use the word “cracker” in a non-pejorative manner, once during a campaign event with Clinton in 1996 according to a Hearst newspapers story:
“I know this fella from Arkansas,” boasted Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles as he introduced Bill Clinton to a Democratic fund-raising reception in this GOP stronghold. “And I can tell you he knows how to speak cracker.”
There’s been a lot of paranoid speculation in this election that certain people are trying to play the race card. Clinton’s usage is the latest evidence that it’s the Democrats who are the race-obsessed party in this cycle.
Uh-huh. Something similar is at work in the Zimmerman trial too, and much hinges on how the jury, almost all middle-aged white women (like me), perceives Martin’s friend Jeantel’s testimony, motives and credibility. Their interpretations will likely be filtered through perceptions that are informed by regional, generational and racial factors.
This is pure speculation on my part, but I suspect that in the context of Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin, both Martin and Jeantel used the word “cracker” in a different sense than Lawton Chiles, Bill Clinton and I used it in other contexts: I think they meant it as a slang term for a white person, but not an entirely benign one.
I suspect their use of it meant something along the lines of “a white person who suspects me of being up to no good because I am black.” In that sense, I believe their use of it was accurate, if not benign, when applied to Zimmerman.
It’s possible they meant it as a completely neutral slang term for a white person, but the perceptions of that word seem to have shifted in the younger generation, even for white kids who are native Floridians. My teenager says she perceives “cracker” as a pejorative in most contexts, though she understands it is not nearly as loaded a term as the “n” word.
But back to the jury and their perceptions: we’ll see how it shakes out, but I doubt the defense will get much traction out of “creepy-ass cracker.” What concerns me, as a person who thinks Zimmerman should do serious time for pursuing an unarmed kid who was minding his own business and subsequently killing him, is how the jury will perceive Jeantel’s testimony and demeanor.
I watched a bit of her testimony this week, and I think it will hurt the state’s case — maybe a lot. How Jeantel’s testimony was received is a controversial topic. Many assholes predictably used it as an opportunity to demonstrate that they’re racist shitheads. Others are saying that anyone who is at all critical of how Jeantel handled herself either doesn’t “get” her and/or must be speaking from a place of white privilege.
Well, that’s possible; we all have biases, and it can be tough to see past them. I get that Jeantel is a very young woman who is caught up in an extremely traumatic incident and that there are cultural factors at play in how she communicates. As the mother of a teenager myself, I also get that kids communicate with each other in ways that adults frown upon and that a scared teen who suddenly found herself caught up in a sensational case and squarely in the media’s harsh glare might mislead people and come off as defensive under aggressive cross-examination.
You can make credible arguments to explain that Jeantel’s actions were understandable at every point, and I wouldn’t necessarily say you’re wrong. But I also wouldn’t count on the jury trying to see where she’s coming from and feeling sympathetic toward her. And that could be disastrous for the state’s case. What do you think?