The Commercial Appeal

Zimmerman the ‘creepy cracker’


WASHINGTON — The trial of George Zimmerman, accused of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, inevitably and quickly devolved into a contest over who is more racist — the victim or the accused.

The question was inevitable because the prosecutio­n is basing its case largely on the suggestion that Zimmerman profiled the 17-year- old AfricanAme­rican, allegedly deciding Martin was a potential threat by virtue of his race.

This assumption was somewhat complicate­d Thursday during testimony by 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who was talking to him by cellphone shortly before he was shot. Jeantel’s contributi­on to the race discussion included a quote she attributed to Martin when he told her a “creepy-ass cracker” was watching him.

No doubt Zimmerman did seem creepy. After all, he was following Martin who, as far as anyone knows with certainty, was merely walking home from a convenienc­e store. But does Martin’s use of “cracker” mean he was a racist and, therefore, may have instigated the struggle that, according to the defense, compelled Zimmerman to shoot Martin in self-defense?

Jeantel told defense at-


torney Don West that, no, she doesn’t consider “cracker” a racist term. Apparently, most white people don’t either. In street interviews aired Thursday, CNN found that the white people they surveyed are not as offended by the term “cracker” as they are by the N-word.

For the record, there’s no evidence that Zimmerman ever used the N-word. He is captured on audiotape using two other expletives that have no racial connotatio­ns to complain about “punks” who “always get away.” Is he talking about black people? Teens wearing hoods? Burglars, some number of whom recently had been targeting his neighborho­od? Only conjecture produces a strictly racist interpreta­tion of his words.

So what about “cracker”? Is it ever or always an insult? And what might we infer by Martin’s use of it to describe his pursuer?

Merriam-Webster defines cracker as: usually disparagin­g: a poor usually Southern white; capitalize­d: a native or resident of Florida or Georgia — used as a nickname.

But the best explanatio­n of crackers can be found in “The Cracker Kitchen,” a cookbook and story collection by novelist and proud cracker Janis Owens. It is both a cultural defense and literary critique of the poor, white folks whence Owens (and most of us Scots-Irish) came — an unfrilly valentine pressed between recipes for fried frog legs and baked armadillo. Owens traces “cracker” to William Shakespear­e’s “The Life and Death of King John:” “What cracker is this same that deafe our eares with this abundance of superfluou­s breath?”

Now there’s an invective worth memorizing for future hurling.

Native-born to Florida’s panhandle, Owens has embraced her crackerhoo­d and uses the term endearingl­y, just as some African-Americans use the N-word, recovered from racist whites, to refer to one another. Similarly, Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” includes a chapter celebratin­g the C-word, effectivel­y stealing it back from those who use it to denigrate women. Reclaiming ownership of an offensive word is a rev- olutionary act that strips the term of its power to wound. Call it linguistic disarmamen­t.

For those needing a refresher course, here are just a few reasons why “cracker” doesn’t compare to the N-word in offensiven­ess. “Cracker” has never been used routinely to: deny a white person a seat at the lunch counter or near the front of a bus; systematic­ally deny whites the right to vote; crack the skulls of peaceful white protesters marching for equality, or blow up a church and kill four little white girls.

Need more? Didn’t think so.

“Cracker” may be a pejorative in some circles. It may even be used to insult a white person. But it clearly lacks the grievous, historical freight of the other word.

So Martin’s use of the term “cracker” doesn’t make him a racist any more than Zimmerman’s resentment of “punks” necessaril­y makes him a murderous racial profiler. These words, and the case built upon them, ultimately may prove little more than an abundance of superfluou­s breath. Contact Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post Writers Group at kathleenpa­rker@washpost. com.

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