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Rednecks, poor whites & crackers

Posted by ESC on July 13, 2000

In Reply to: Redneck posted by mark on July 12, 2000

: does anyone know where this term originated? thanks. m

"Redneck" is one of several terms referring to country folk that should be used with caution.

My children were touring Chinatown in New York City with a school group. An elderly (and possibly inebriated) Asian-American man heard the students' Kentucky accents and called out, "Redneck! Redneck!" The young people were amused. Others might not be amused. Calling someone a "redneck" could earn the offender a punch in the nose. Or worse.

The "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997) has this to say about the term:

"REDNECK. A poor, white, often rowdy southerner, usually one from a rural area. The word, which is sometimes derogatory, has its origins in the sunburned necks of farmers and outdoor laborers, and originally meant a poor farmer. 'A redneck is by no means to be confused with 'po' whites,' wrote Jonathan Daniels in 'A Southerner Discusses the South' : 'Poor white men in the South are by no means all po' white even in the hills. Lincoln and Jackson came from a southern folk the back of whose necks were ridged and red from labor in the sun.'"

Last year my daughter's teacher explained to his class that "poor white" was an OK term to use in the South. It was just what certain people were called. WRONG. I put the following information together for my child to undo that bit of miseducation.

In "Whistlin' Dixie: A Dictionary of Southern Expressions, " (Pocket Book, 1993) Robert Hendrickson explains that "poor white" and "poor white trash" are not neutral terms used to refer to people who are white and poor. These terms are slurs used to denigrate people who are viewed as poor, white and of low character:

"POOR WHITE - 'In discriminating Southern speech, it (poor white) was NOT (emphasis mine) used to include all white person who were poor.The 'poor whites' were those who were both poor and conspicuously lacking the common social virtues and especially fell short of the standard in certain economic qualities.' (W.T. Couch, 'Culture in the South,' 1941) An old black Southern rhyme goes:

My name is Sam,
I don't give a damn.
I'd ruther be black
Than a poor white man.

POOR WHITE TRASH - Lower-class white people. 'There were white people who were poor and there were poor white people. The difference was absolute.' (Jonathan Daniels, 'Tar Heels,' 1941) The offensive term goes back at least to the early 19th century. 'The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as 'poor white trash.' ' (Frances Kimble, 'Journal,' 1833) Terms like poor white, poor white trash, redneck and peckerwood are often slur names in about the same class as [word removed in order to comply with Google's Publisher Policy]."

Grady McWhiney, in "Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South," (The University of Alabama Press, 1988) makes a distinction concerning the term CRACKER and tries to reclaim the term that is now used as a slur. He says that "cracker," in Scotch-Irish dialect meant "a person who talked boastingly." Later the term Crackers came to mean a Scotch-Irishmen, a particular group of people.
McWhiney says Cracker eventually became a disparaging term and Crackers were equated with "poor whites."

He quotes historian Lewis C. Gray, in "History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860," as associating the term Cracker with other slurs: "The distinctive characteristics of poor whites were recognized in the various special appellations by which they were contemptuously known in different parts of the South, such as, 'piney-woods people,' 'dirt-eaters,' 'clay-eaters,' 'tallow-faced gentry,' 'sand-hillers,' and 'crackers.'"

McWhiney asserts that Crackers are a distinctive ethnic group - the Scotch-Irish - and is appalled that, ".in a nation in which slurs based upon race, ethnicity, or religion have become strictly taboo, it is still acceptable to lampoon Crackers as a group."