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"Redneck"--a racist term?

Posted by Howard Denson on February 7, 2013 at 11:40 PM

 

By HOWARD DENSON

Every town needs a rousing good argument to stir the social juices, and Northeast Florida’s pot of controversy has been bubbling up a storm because of a controversy about the term, “redneck.”

It started when a supervisor jokingly referred to her husband as a “redneck,” and three minority subordinates accused her of using a racially insensitive word. (The subordinates were under the gun because of alleged work deficiencies.)

The overall boss of the agency laterally reassigned the supervisor, claiming the term had racial connotations.

A flood of letters and e-messages then flooded into the local paper, with occasional minority writers saying the supervisor should have been fired for using the term and with white citizens saying that the term wasn’t racist at all.

A follow-up story weighed in with quotations from Professor This and Professor That about the history and appropriateness of the word.

As this Wild-Eyed Moderate puts in his own three cents’ worth, we would do well to recognize that minorities who have been horribly mistreated may have very sensitive antennae about perceived offenses. It is sort of like the O.J. Simpson situation: Most African Americans thought it was a set-up, whereas most others thought it was an example of a very wealthy and famous athlete/actor getting away with two murders.

Quick digression: Would African American families be more delighted to learn that their stunning daughter in her 30s announced her engagement to Denzel or Spike. . .or to O.J.?

Southern whites have a history of slighting blacks, often in subtle ways. One example: Years ago, I was working for a small newspaper, when the Chamber of Commerce announced the winners of a raffle. We were on a deadline, but the CofC representative was dithering about releasing the winners’ names. Why? Because they were trying to track down which winners were “colored,” so they could drop the “Mrs.” or “Miss” in their names. I thought it was silly nonsense, as did my boss, a native Mississippian.

When we look at the history of the word “redneck,” we see that it referred to yeoman farmers or tenant farmers in the South. They were out in the fields all day, and their necks were baked a dark shade of red. (Some sources want the term to refer to red bandanas they wore, and still others suggest that the red bandanas were a carry-over from Scotland, where various clans or septs in battle wore the bandana to show their allegiance. I think the latter is probably stretching things a bit since few, if any, rednecks or hillbillies sit around the fire jawing about what their great-great-great-grandfather did in Scotland.)

F.N. Boney wrote in Southerners All (1990) that the history of the South, the Civil War, and the aftermath mainly focused on the Planter Caste (the Bourgeoisie) and ignored two other significant groups: the yeoman white farmers and slaves, freed men, and ex-slaves.

When we watch Gone with the Wind, we see the major focus on the Planter Caste of Ashley Wilkes and those driving things toward war and catastrophe. Rhett Butler is lower on the social totem pole, and Scarlett absolutely humiliates herself when she marries relatively wealthy Frank Kennedy, who was (gasp) a merchant.

When the white trash are besieging Scarlet, they represent the yeoman farmers, the rednecks. They were rampaging and stealing because the Planter Caste had lied to them to get them to enlist and become cannon fodder. The planters had promised to grow enough vegetables to feed the families of those who had to go off to war. They largely didn’t do that, but continued to plant their money crops of tobacco and cotton. The Confederate military eventually quit paying its soldiers, but it reserved the right to shoot them if they tried to desert.

As Rodney Dangerfield would say, “The rednecks didn’t get no respect,” and that is why some Southern whites didn’t want to be called “rednecks.”

Immediately after The War, the yeoman farmers were realizing they had much in common with the freed men and former slaves. It was natural for them to unite, but the Planter Caste found it expedient to divide them. Forget the bitterness about deliberately starved families that the old folks are always complaining about; forget about the pay and desertions because soldiers are always grumbling about something. Instead, remember the wondrous days of the Lost Cause.

Fiddle-de-dee, the caste was also revising the history of the Civil War, so that the next generation could wax eloquently over the Lost Cause and how the peculiar institution really, really wasn’t all that bad. We even have foolish state legislators today echoing that silly nonsense.

If someone resisted the argument back then, the Planter Caste turned the ultimate screw: “You know what they’ll do to your wives and daughters” and “If we do nothing, in fifty years we’ll all be the color of tea.”

That was the ultimate hypocrisy because the plantation owners, in effect, had their own private bordellos in the slave quarters, much to the seething irritation of their wives.

When I read Charles Adams’ When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, I found a convincing case for the secessionists’ argument in 1861, but the major thing missing was the moral correctness of slavery. They found biblical acceptance, but strangely did not note that the rabbi from Nazareth did not keep any slaves.

The sophisticates in Jerusalem around the temple and court dismissed Jesus because, after all, he was a country bumpkin from the sticks.

Generally no one likes to be called a “country bumpkin.” Even so, when speakers today are addressing a group, they may try to communicate to their audience that they aren’t highfalutin. They are just folks. They use such expressions as “I’m just a plain ol' country-boy” (a cliché in legal circles), “I come from Georgia dirt-farmers,” or “deep down I’m just a redneck [who has worked hard to get where I am today].”

In the late 1930s and 1940s, Southern singers and musicians didn’t like it when folks said they played “hillbilly music.” They gratefully accepted the term “Country & Western” music when it came along. Similarly, African American singers and performers back then had their music labeled “race music.” They also embraced a newer term because “rhythm & blues” resonated more with what they did.

A funny thing can happen along the way with insults and name-calling. Sometimes the victim will embrace the word. In America, the biggest example is “Yankee Doodle,” a derisive taunt from the spit-and-polish British soldiers about the country boys from America fighting in the French and Indian War. In the United Kingdom, cattlemen began entering and then dominating politics, so the Tories called them “whiggamors” (cattle drivers from Western Scotland); the term was shortened to Whigs. In France, some painters were breaking away from the strict rules of the academy, and their critics said Manet, Monet, Renoir, and others were nothing but “impressionists.” They liked the term, and today we immediately recognize this “revolutionary” style.

”Redneck” was rocking along with little respect and acceptance until Stuckey’s and Jeff Foxworthy came along. Next to the pralines, Stuckey’s was selling the pamphlets, How to Speak Redneck or How to Speak Southern. These had minimal impact, but, when Foxworthy came up with his routine of “You might be a redneck if—”, he captured the imagination of the South and of Americans in general.

Most stories about the “redneck” controversy gave only passing mention to Foxworthy, but his routines should go under the microscope. His remarks reverberated throughout the country. In the olden days, comics such as Minnie Pearl and Stringbean appeared on “Louisana Hayride,” “The Grand Ol’ Opry,” and later “Hee Haw,” but cable TV gave us show after show of Foxworthy and his Blue Collar Tour buddies putting new thoughts in the minds of Americans.

As he is saying, “You might be a redneck if,” audiences knew they should wait for the social recognition when he says: “You think ‘loading the dishwasher’ means getting your wife drunk,” “You ever cut your grass and found a car,” “You own a home that is mobile and five cars that aren't,” and “You think the stock market has a fence around it.”

If he says you might be a redneck if you have been thrown out of a zoo for heckling the monkeys, a wife or girl friend often pops him on the shoulder and says, “See, that’s you!”

Emily Post for decades instructed proper behavior to middle-class girls and women, who then drilled it into their oafish brothers, boyfriends, and husbands. Foxworthy functioned as an Emily Culpepper, telling Southerners what not to do with, say, old tires (no swings or garden ornaments) or old toilets (not a planter for the front yard).

The term “redneck” isn’t racist in and of itself, neither is a pickup truck with a gunrack, but they may signal that the next thing out of the redneck’s mouth might be a racial insult.

Employees may feel more comfortable around supervisors who speak a language that is totally neutral.

Except . . .

It may only take a moment of stress, a glass of wine, or a bottle of beer to unleash a negative streak that was hiding beneath the surface.

A POST-SCRIPT: Were the three subordinates gaming the system to conceal the fact that they were slackers, or was their supervisor, despite an affable public persona, actually a boss with managerial problems? We don’t have enough information to tell. The subordinates could have been goof-offs, but not all supervisors make correct decisions.

Using the metaphor of my Kassandra’s Kitchen website, the dispute should have stayed in the kitchen and should never have spilled out into the dining area for us customers to see.

Categories: The Human Comedy or Tragedy

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1 Comment

Reply Peg Bonhaus
2:51 PM on February 8, 2013 
loved it!