In The Sensitivity of White People and the Problem of Race in America, I proposed that the term “cracker,” when used in reference to white people, originated when black slaves equated racist bosses with the cracking sound of the whips they wielded. That etymology came to me by way of black friends in whose family lore this story lives.
Recently, a reader challenged my folkloric etymology of “cracker,” leading me to do a little research. I checked Wikipedia and found this etymology. The first couple of theories agree that the sound of a whip is the source of the term. But, as looking things up in Wikipedia is no substitute for “research,” I turned to Nell Irvin Painter‘s remarkable historical account of the creation of the white “race,” The History of White People.
Painter points to an early use of the term “cracker” in reference to European bond servants being shipped abroad in the early 1700s as part of the English effort to punish Irish insurrectionists. This class of servant was considered the dregs of English society, and they and their descendents continued to be regarded as such in North America. So, according to Painter, “cracker” may originally have been a term used for white slaves.
All very interesting, but etymology isn’t the same as meaning. There’s a lot to learn by studying the historical roots of language. But history tends to flatten out the way that people throughout time actually lived. Our own stories give meaning to what we generally regard as historical facts, like the fact that Americans were once slaves, slavers, or their minions, because they show us how we relate to these “facts” in ways that dignify our own lives.
Understood in the context of social meaning, “cracker” is a both a reminder of the fact that racial whiteness is a political construct, and of how that political construct was resisted by those it victimized, including some white people who, because of being the descendents of bond servants, enjoyed race privilege only contingent on their cooperation with white supremacy. White supremacy which, by the way, didn’t benefit them nearly as much as it did elites.
There were once white slaves, not just in America but throughout Europe and even in parts of Africa and Asia. Terms like “cracker” were used to dehumanize them in the minds of the slaver, making it possible for them to enslave people and walk away feeling like good Christians or whatever.
In America, this older system was replaced with race slavery which was justified through the creation of a the system that deemed the class “white” owner and exploiter, and the class “black” property. Over time, whiteness expanded in meaning and enveloped all European Americans in order for white elites to build the coalition necessary to maintain white supremacy. That made “crackers into oppressors, but that doesn’t mean they were anything other than “scum” in the minds of white elites.
Did black people resist white supremacy by creating a language that included references to whites as “crackers” because of the sound of the whip, or as a reminder to themselves and white people that some whites were once also slaves? Or, was cracker simply in common usage during the period of American history before race, when blacks and whites often labored together? Regardless of which interpretation is “right,” white people, not black people, invented the term and made it popular as an indication of their superior status and power over other white people.
So the story of the term “cracker” is a story about power, how it was wielded and over whom. And it’s about how those who were victimized by unjust power resisted abuse and maintained their humanity.