Nothing Compares to the N-Word

It drips of blood and drags a brutal history. No other term can cause as much harm.

Rachel Jeantel (Jacob Langston/Getty Images); George Zimmerman (Joe Burbank/Getty Images)
Rachel Jeantel (Jacob Langston/Getty Images); George Zimmerman (Joe Burbank/Getty Images)

(The Root) — “Creepy-ass cracker.” These words have been on my mind since Rachel Jeantel spoke them on the witness stand in the trial of George Zimmerman. As a prosecution witness, Jeantel testified that shortly before Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, her friend told her by phone that some “creepy-ass cracker” was following him. Her appearance has been followed by days of analysis of this phrase, but to me most of the discussion has been misguided.

The defense attorney Don West asked Jeantel, “You don’t think that’s a racial comment?”

She said, “No.”

I almost missed the question because I was stuck on the word “creepy.” I wanted to know: Why did Trayvon Martin call Zimmerman “creepy”? What was it about Zimmerman’s behavior that made him seem “creepy”? I was not interested in the “cracker” part of the quote at all.

I understood that West had to do what a defense attorney does. He needed to try to take the racist burden off his client and place it on Trayvon. But still, from my perspective as a black woman, the phrase seemed less significant than “creepy.”

I understand “cracker” as a reaction to being born with the foot of racism pressing on your throat. But black people saying the word “cracker” never stopped white people from voting, never killed four little girls in Birmingham or put a bullet in an Enfield rifle to gun down the head of the Mississippi NAACP.

Even the derivation of the word is thought to come from the use of bullwhips during slavery. The white man “cracked” the whip and a black man hurt. It is unlike the n-word, which stands sentry at the head of a systematic set of rules, laws and stereotypes aimed at reducing the lives of other men to less than human.

I’m 64 years old, but in my old Maryland neighborhood, when I was a person Trayvon’s age, we called white people crackers also. And still, this does not mean we attacked them for all the things we thought they were guilty of.

While the Zimmerman trial plays out in a Seminole, Fla., courtroom, I’ve been recording the audio version of my autobiography in a Charlotte, N.C., studio. Walking into the soundproof room at the studio is like stepping back in time. But what is eerie to me is that when I walk out, I am struck by how short a distance my time travel seems, because the issues of this country 30 or so years ago are so wretchedly similar to the issues of today.

One morning at the studio, I read out loud the story of the beating death of a black man named Arthur McDuffie by Miami police officers. McDuffie had tried to outrun them on his motorcycle to avoid a ticket because he knew his license had expired. I was a reporter who covered the story. And this week, with Trayvon Martin on my mind, I recited the following:

The beating death of Arthur McDuffie reminded me in a bold, public way that regardless of my job as a reporter, I was still a nigger to some people. I knew that if I managed to assimilate into the white world, neither my brother, my husband, my nephew, nor any black men in my life could ever follow me, because America feared a black man more than it feared anyone or anything.