(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.
I read this — and then I went home to sit and watch the trial of George Zimmerman. I had traveled back to 1979, and yet I had returned to 2013 still feeling that the lives of black men and black boys are devalued and debased.
I read about the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and how, as I watched with my friends the TV images of riots, we screamed, "Burn the [expletive] down! Shoot those crackers!"
Yes, I was hurt and angry at the time, and it seemed to me that I had very little choice when it came to expressing my pain. I was pregnant and living in a suburban Maryland neighborhood, so I wasn't going to light up the skies with my rage. But at least, at the very least, I could shout my rage to my friends.
Meanwhile, as I record, Paula Deen has been explaining that she used the n-word out of fear and anger after a black man robbed her. Though it was long ago, she was talking to her husband, and she believed at the time that the use of the word was justifiable because of the situation she had endured. But the word drips of blood and drags a brutal history with it. There is no word a black person can conjure up about a white person that can cause as much harm as "nigger" has. (And Deen, at her age and raised in Georgia, had a front seat to that history.)
I have my own history, which makes me care more about what Zimmerman did that was "creepy" than Trayvon's mumbling "cracker."
On another day in the studio, I recounted the time my friend Gaile and I went to meet a Realtor in front of an apartment she was renting. The woman, who was white, drove off when she saw that we were black. Eventually we sued her. This was Charlotte circa 1975. An investigator found that she rented her worst properties to blacks, but never the type of apartment that Gaile and I wanted.
Furthermore, in court the woman referred to each white tenant with the title of "Mr." or "Mrs." while calling black tenants by their first names. She didn't even understand that she had internalized this racist practice or what it said about her beliefs about the difference between blacks and whites. Still, we lost our court case. All we had wanted was a small amount of money and the woman's management company to be forced to open up all of her properties to all people.
I had forgotten how hard it was to lose, until I read this aloud:
For weeks I felt as if I was a little out of sync with everyone else, on the edge. I choked back hysteria. I considered making a Molotov cocktail and hurling it at the courthouse, even going so far as to drive past the courthouse at night to see if there were security guards around. A month later, I was too exhausted from my thoughts to do anything. Also, I was afraid that if the courthouse burned to the ground, I would still feel dissatisfied.
That's the same way it is with calling a white person a "creepy-ass cracker." It really is all a frustrated, scared, even hurt black person can do to express his or her outrage at the audacity of racism to still exist, year after year, decade after decade. Or, I suppose, a black person could try to defend himself, try to stand his ground. But history has shown that black people, especially black men, who try this approach do not fare well.
Patrice Gaines is a veteran journalist, an author and a motivational speaker. She is also a national-justice advocate working to reform America's prison system. She lives in South Carolina.