On Rachel Jeantel’s Use of the Word “Cracker”

neighborhood-watch.jpeg57-620x412A few things come to mind re: the recent fallout from George Zimmerman murder trial witness Rachel Jeantel’s use of the word “cracker.”

Jeantel, clearly not comfortable in the courtroom scenario, seemed caught up in multiple emotions: sadness over the death of her friend, Trayvon Martin; guilt over not having attended his funeral; annoyance over the process of trial testimony and the persistence of the lawyerly parsing of her account; awkwardness or embarrassment over her inability to read longhand writing.

Race is undoubtedly the central theme of this trial, as it is the central theme of American discourse. The prosecution is trying to show that Martin was racially profiled by Zimmerman—despite the recent denial of this line of reasoning by Martin’s still-grieving father—while the defense jumps at the chance to suggest that Martin’s hostility towards whites made him legitimately “suspicious” and perhaps dangerous.

So when Jeantel admitted in Thursday’s testimony that Martin had described Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker,” the defense quickly tried to score points by implying that it was Martin who brought racial context to the encounter, not Zimmerman. The use of “cracker” has already inflamed the right-wing blogosphere, claiming it was an outburst of racist hate speech—in fact, Zimmerman’s defense attorney Don West repeated it so many times for effect that the judge asked him to move onto something else.

Unsurprisingly there has been a corresponding litany of left-liberal responses that rationally argue that while it can have a derogatory edge, “cracker” is more descriptive of class and ethnicity (lower-class Scotch Irish migrant living in the South) than race. This could also be attested to by the existence of a Negro League baseball team in the early- to mid-20th century that called itself the Atlanta Black Crackers. This seems to imply that, at least in the world of the Negro Leagues, “crackers” refers to the “masses” of lower- or lower-middle class natives of Georgia, and “black crackers” were merely their African-American equivalent, a fine nickname for a baseball team.

For a more contemporary twist, consider the offbeat story of a rapper named Black Cracker who has undergone gender reassignment, adding another layer to the intersectionality of race and sex in American spectacle. Black Cracker, whose real name is Ellison Renee Glenn, was born in Alabama and raised in Germany and New Jersey. BC admits in this Vice article that he has a swastika tattoo, having been attracted to the symbol in both German and Egyptian contexts. As for why he chose his sobriquet, he says “I was at TJ Maxx in Alabama a few years back (LOL) and saw a hat. I did not know about the Atlanta Black Crackers Negro League baseball team before that. But then realized it was a perfect producer name for me ’cause it actually was referring to the sound of the ball hitting the bat but was clearly politically ironic.”

Less commented on is the revelation that by adding the adjective “creepy,” Jeantel was referring to the possibility that Martin suspected Zimmerman might be a sexual predator, because he apparently didn’t identify himself as a neighborhood watch member. It seems logical that a teenaged kid might suspect as such when being approached in the dark rainy night by an older man with no apparent reason to do so. It’s possible that the adrenaline fueling Zimmerman as he stalked his imaginary criminal subject gave his stare an underlying sexual charge.

Still, much of the middle-brow media found Jeantel to be an unsympathetic witness for Trayvon because of her lack of obsequiousness throughout her time on the stand. It may be true that her use of “cracker” clearly identified Zimmerman as an “other,” but her utterance is, according to her own testimony, as common as the n-word for permanently othered black, Caribbean, undereducated women in Central Florida. Say what you will about Jeantel’s lack of preparation for what she would face, but it was clear that though she had come to testify hoping would bring justice to Trayvon’s memory, she was being othered again.

What’s interesting in this case is whether “cracker” best symbolizes someone (of a lower social class) marked to be different, an “other” among “others,” or whether “cracker” is purely a reference to whiteness. In this sense, whiteness is understood as a position of power used to exert authority over non-whites, or targeted undesirables. Consider how easy it was for Trayvon to perceive Zimmerman as a “cracker.” The son of an Anglo-American father and a Peruvian mother, Zimmerman clearly has the phenotypical look of a “Hispanic,” particularly in Florida. Keep in mind that recent history has not painted a pretty picture of relations between various African-American or Afro-Caribbean groups and Florida Latinos.

It’s possible Trayvon viewed anyone lighter-skinned than his immediate circle as a “cracker,” or perhaps a creole overseer. Maybe Zimmerman seemed unmistakably “white” because he was emulating a police presence. Imposing authority over subordinate races in America’s race-class continuum has long been a vehicle for advancement for various “almost-white” groups in America from the beginning of its history.

So, even though defense attorney West’s continually insisted on tarring Jeantel’s comment as an “offensive” one, perhaps the flip side of the n-word, let’s remember Washpost writer Kathleen Parker’s list of reasons why it’s not a good analogy:

“Cracker has never been used routinely to:

●Deny a white person a seat at a 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.”

 

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