Though easy to take for granted, all words have a history. And, when some words are meant to delineate someone who is good from someone who is bad — like slurs, for example — knowing that history can make a big difference. That's why, as MTV host Franchesca Ramsey explains in a new video, #HistoricalContextMatters.
In the latest episode of the online program, Ramsey dives into the history of the terms "cracker," "redneck" and "white trash" to show that these words were actually invented by rich white people to separate them from poor white people.
According to Ramsey, "cracker" is actually 16th- and 17th-century shorthand for "cracked brains," a term used by British aristocrats to "disparage lower-class people as dumb and lazy."
Ramsey then explains that the term used by rich white people to disparage poor white people and to paint them as three L's: lawless, lazy and landless. In other words: dumb, lazy and didn't own a home.
Later, Ramsey explains, the term was used by slaves and northern abolitionist whites to explain slave masters: The term was short for "whip cracker."
However, as Ramsey notes, "The slaves weren't oppressing poor white people by using the term, because they were still slaves."
"White trash," Ramsey explains, originated in 1820s Baltimore and was a way for Southern house slaves to disparage poor whites. However, Ramsey explains, the term gained popularity in the 1850s when rich white people began to use it to replace other terms for poor whites like "sand hillers" and "clay eaters."
"White trash was stigmatizing and meant to draw a line between 'real' white people, who owned the best land — and people — and riff raff who lived on wastelands," Ramsey says.
For the final word, "redneck," Ramsey explains that this, too, has a classist background: Those with "red necks" worked out in the sun and were therefore poor.
As Ramsey points out, the terms are not exactly racist — they're been racialized over time, but have classist origins. However, in America, racism and classism overlap to such a high degree, that understanding the difference can get a little murky at times. But, as Ramsey points out, just because these terms aren't racist doesn't mean they're not hurtful — so that doesn't give anyone a pass to use them in conversation.
"They promote a long history of class-based bias," Ramsey says. "Classism of any kind is divisive and takes attention away from the real problem: that people are still struggling all over while the rich get richer."
Check out the full video below.