The opening episode of Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race introduced us to a drag queen who called herself Miz Cracker, “Just like the snack and the racial slur,” she said. The New York drag performer said that as a resident of Harlem, a predominantly black neighborhood, she gets called “cracker” all the time. At another point, she explained her name by saying, “I’m thin, I’m white and I’m salty.” But her name and its racial implications gagged some of her fellow competitors with Monet X Change saying, “ “Miz Cracker loves that name because it causes a stir.” So let’s take a look at the history of the cracker slur to examine its history and potentially problematic use.
Where the cracker slur comes from
A week before the Season 10 premier, drag performer Vicky Vox issued a tweet offering her understanding of the cracker slur. Her tweet said:
“Cracker” as a pejorative term originated in the southern states for the poorest white whip crackers. Too poor to own slaves themselves, these white people were used as slave drivers cracking the whip to keep the slaves “in line”.
Vox is only partially correct. According to a Dana Ste. Claire, a Florida historian and anthropologist who wrote a book on the term, “cracker” originated as far back as the 1590s, referring to an extremely unpleasant, self-important speaker (think Donald Trump). The term appeared in a play referring to Scots-Irish people. The term followed them when they immigrated into America and were characterized as generally unruly and ill-mannered.
Ste. Clair says white American northerners began using “cracker” as a term for poorer white Southerners during the late 1800s. But while some people took it to mean a white person working as a whip cracker over slaves, Ste. Clair says that few poor white Southerners owned slaves (though many were complicit with the slave trade in other ways). She adds that cracker might’ve referred to poor, working class white people who cracked whips over livestock in general.
Ste. Claire says “cracker” became a term for bigoted white people in 1940. It was used predominantly amongst inner city black people, many who had fled the south for less racist climes up north.
The Cracker slur actually began as a class insult
In MTV’s explainer web series Decoded (above), Franchesca Ramsey explains that cracker is a classist insult invented by a richer white upper class to describe lower class white people. Though it has since turned into a racial insult, Ramsey says that upper class whites in the 1600s and 1700s used “cracker” to refer to dumb, lazy lower class people with “cracked brains.”
As she summarizes, “This term was started by rich white people to disparage poor white people. It was all about them being poor, not about them being white.”
Even when black people and Northern anti-slavery empathizers started using the term to describe whip crackers, Ramsey explains, the slaves using the term “weren’t oppressing poor white people, by using the term because they were still slaves.”
So in short, though the term has become racialized, she doesn’t see it as racist because it’s a classist insult. Though racism and classism often go hand-and-hand, they’re different because you can change your class, but you can’t change your race.
Nevertheless, Ramsey still discourages anyone from name-calling because the division it creates distracts from the bigger problem of rich people getting richer while poor people continue to struggle.
So is cracker racist? Yes, but….
The term cracker can certainly be a racist insult since racism is literally defined as “prejudice against people of other races” or “believing a particular race is superior to another.” Thus, if a black person says calls a white person “cracker,” it assumes the black speaker has superiority over an inferior white person.
However, racism differs from “institutional racism,” that is when a society targets and discriminates a certain group based upon race.
So, when white people say that black people saying “cracker” is the same as white people saying “nigger,” it doesn’t really hold up because white people have never faced the same sort of institutional racism in America as black people. “Cracker” hasn’t been shouted angrily at white people by slave-owning blacks or during anti-white lynchings. That is, “cracker” has never been uttered from a place of power and privilege matching that of white Americans.
This take us back to Miz Cracker. Miz Cracker’s original drag name was Brianna Cracker, a homophone of “brie on a cracker.” (Brie is a type of cheese.) But it never really took, so she shortened it to just Miz Cracker.
If a white person wants to use a class insult created by white people to describe themselves, she’s free to. But Miz Cracker is well aware that it’s a disparaging class insult that will make white and black people uncomfortable, and that’s undeniably part of the name’s appeal — it shakes people up and makes them remember.
The Cracker slur discussion belies a larger problem: racism among Drag Race fans
Regardless, Drag Race has a race problem amongst its fans. As Season 10 queen Monet X Change recently said:
If you want to talk about racism… you address the fandom. The FANS are the part of the show where the racism stems from. Y’all have not seen one episode yet, but I’ve already been called all kind of talentless Niggas, and Black this & thats.
Other queens of color like Kennedy Davenport have said that at Drag Race tours, fans will stand in line to meet white drag performers while largely ignoring more talented black queens who got further in the competition, chasing them for photos near the end of the event as an afterthought.
The show has undoubtedly done much to feature drag queens of color and launch their careers, but when it comes to the racism amongst its fandom, maybe Miz Cracker and her cohorts of color can use their newfound stardom to shed more light on the toxic effect of racism amongst Drag Race fans and beyond.
What do you think of the cracker slur? Sound off in the comments.
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