It’s Time To Talk About the Word ‘Redneck’

via Flickr - Kenny Cole
via Flickr – Kenny Cole

In May, The Washington Post released the findings of a survey which asked about 500 Native Americans whether or not they found the team nickname “Redskins” offensive.

The consensus was overwhelming: 90 percent of poll respondents said it didn’t bother them one iota. Furthermore, a surprising 80 percent of respondents said they didn’t mind being called “redskins” themselves, even if it was uttered by a white person.

Needless to say, a lot of melanin-deficient crusaders on the left side of the political aisle were taken aback by the findings. For years, they had waged this cultural jihad against the NFL in the name of political correctness, only for nine-tenths of the very people they were purportedly “defending” to turn around and tell them they just didn’t give a hoot.

Alas, if the more liberal of the species is on the prowl for another aggrieved class to protect against derogatory idioms, perhaps they ought to turn their attention towards a less heralded shade of marginalized red – that being, America’s long-suffering, politically disempowered rednecks.

Oh yes, those ignoble rednecks – the non-college-educated, slow-talking sons and daughters of the Southern soil, whom the masses automatically presume are hate-filled bigots, homophobes and hypocritical holy rollers simply because they have an accent or might be missing a tooth or two. In a world where every conceivable minoritarian group jockeys for “representation” and tries to promote themselves as the greatest victims of contemporary society, America’s hicks, hillbillies and hayseeds remain a strangely silent peoples. With middle-aged, non-educated, rural whites now experiencing death rates higher than the death rates of gay men during the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, perhaps now would be a most opportune time for the bleeding hearts to take a stand for American’s most unsung ethnic group – the impoverished, Appalachian Caucasian.

In the pantheon of crude, ethnoracial stereotypes, the “redneck” is perhaps the last acceptable target for wide-scale derision. While just about everybody recoils at even the thought of the dreaded “n” or “w” words, using both bigoted and classist pejoratives to describe low-income, non-urban white folks remains not only culturally acceptable, but to some degree encouraged behavior. Each and every week, viewers are bombarded with sweeping, derogatory mass generalizations about rural whites, with talking heads like Bill Maher, John Oliver and Trevor Noah routinely typecasting them as loud, ignorant, oafish, prejudicial, far-right wingnuts who want to make the Book of Leviticus the law of the land. Even mainstream outlets like CNN use the depreciatory term in the headlines of stories on their websites and demonstrating just how pervasive the disdain for the poor, rural Caucasian is in American culture, The New York Times posted a short film about a mulleted sibling-suitor who hails from the faraway planet of Trailerparkia, charmingly titled “Close Encounters of the Inbred Redneck Kind,” on its fine arts website earlier this year.

Whereas the historical and contemporary marginalization and persecution of virtually every other ethnic group is treated as a serious issue, the plight of the redneck is all but ignored, their multitudes of miseries turned into yet another wellspring of stereotypical jokes about mobile homes and monster truckin’. While the mass media laments the children of Flint chugging down lead-tainted water, nary a word is said about the thousands of Appalachian kids living atop toxic waste dumps. And for all the talk we hear about economic inequality, rarely is it mentioned that nine out of the 10 poorest counties in the U.S. are predominantly white – with three of them comprising at least 95 percent poor white folk. Nor does the media seem to care too much about the staggeringly high rates of suicide in rural white strongholds, or their community-destroying opioid drug crises or the astounding lack of federal investments in infrastructure, education and health care services compared to the bountiful resources allocated to urban and suburban locales.

Which is why it is long past time America put aside its cruel indifference and actually acknowledged the pain, humiliation and suffering endured by impoverished Southern Caucasians as being every bit as legitimate as the sorrows of the nation’s poor urban African-Americans in the Northeast and Midwest and poverty-stricken Hispanics in the Southwest. And a big part of that means finally accepting the fact that derogatory terms like “redneck” and “white trash” are disgusting, insulting phrases that castigate and harm poor Caucasians just as much as those unutterable ethnoracial slurs directed towards Black, Asian and Hispanic-Americans.

The term “redneck” is unquestionably a form of hate speech. It is a word meant to belittle another person, based on not only a physical characteristic, but also because of their socioeconomic standing. Every time someone uses the phrase, it is meant to dehumanize the recipient of the pejorative, to make them feel like they are less worthy than the person issuing the bigoted remark. It is a holistic insult that does more than merely attack one aspect of a person; rather, the remark reduces the recipient to nothing more than inferior being status, a cultural mark of shame they can never overcome.

It is a term others have used to disparage me many, many times. I once had the father of one of my girlfriends tell me – to my face – that he didn’t want his daughter being around “trailer trash.” I’ve heard clerks at stores tell each other “keep an eye on the redneck” because – at the time – I drove a junky truck and they were fearful I might try to steal something. I even had a college professor, in his remarks on an essay about my “cultural heritage,” refer to my family as “a bunch of hicks.”

Each time, those words hurt and made me feel less than a human being. What was worse, however, was how the people who said such demeaning things did so sans any sort of guilt. Not only did they think their words weren’t harmful, they felt as if – for whatever reason – I was incapable of experiencing shame. To them, I just looked like I was too stupid to have feelings and too ignorant to experience indignation.

Few are aware just how long the term has been around, nor its insidious origins. The earliest known usage of “redneck” was – ironically – a term used by local Barbadians to describe the Irish, Scottish and West English indentured servants who often toiled to their deaths as free labor in the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a contemporary insult, the term grew in popularity during the Great Depression – not because of the farmers’ baked necks, but because of their ghastly, malnutrition-induced pellagra sores.

Some argue that the term has been “reclaimed” as a self-identifier. However, many of those who boast of being “rednecks” are fundamentally appropriating the term, having never experienced the crushing poverty and social castigation that real impoverished whites have been experiencing in the States for 500 years. Perhaps no individual has done more to popularize the phrase than comedian Jeff Foxworthy, whose potpourri of “You Might Be a Redneck” jokes have carried him to a net worth of $100 million. Despite making his fortune mocking impoverished rural-dwellers, it may come as a surprise to some that Foxworthy actually grew up in a wealthy suburban Atlanta home, attended Georgia Tech and spent years working as a computer technician for IBM. Simply put, Foxworthy describing himself as a “redneck” is about as mockingly insincere as a Berkeley trust fund baby claiming to be a product of the ghettos – all the while owing his fame and riches to perpetuating insulting stereotypes about the urban poor.

Considering the etymological roots of the word – which harken back to a time when poor, displaced whites were whisked away to what is tantamount to slave labor – the term “redneck” can hardly be considered endearing. Under its contemporary meaning, it conveys disgust and resentment towards an entire ethnic group, ascribing them unsavory characteristics and completely disregarding the brutal realities of impoverished, post-agrarian life – or even worse, declaring they deserve their miserable existences because of some sociopolitical transgression they may or may not have committed.

It’s a downright ugly, hurtful word that deprives innocent people of a human identity. Ultimately, it’s no different than any other ethnoracial slur used to demean people of color, because the intent of the term is the same: to make people feel worthless, or at the absolute least, less valuable than someone else based on unfounded, far-reaching generalities.

The people who are so heartlessly referred to as “rednecks” and “white trash” and “trailer trash” and scores of other bigoted and classist terms are scarred by the hateful rhetoric just as much as anyone else who experiences prejudicial and discriminatory slurs. But for some reason, we’ve decided as a culture that they represent the one minority group whose feelings don’t matter, whose rampant discrimination is justified and whose constant degradation is not something to be compassionate about.

I wonder what the results of a poll of poor, white Appalachian people would be if subjects were asked whether they believed the term “redneck” was insulting. I am sure quite a few would say they had no qualms with the term, but I am sure there would undoubtedly be a large sample who would say they find the phrase extremely demeaning and hurtful.

Which, naturally, raises the question: who are we to tell other people their pain – and the pain passed on to their children – doesn’t count?

Frankly, there is only one type of person willing to completely disregard the suffering, shame and indignation another human being feels from unwarranted, unwanted labels designed to make them feel subhuman. And that person, my friends, can best be described using an entirely different word – bigotedThought Catalog Logo Mark

James Swift is an Atlanta-based writer and reporter.

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