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The Future of ‘Cracker’

As their majority slips away, white Americans want to prove that they face racism

White Americans are on pace to lose their majority by 2044 — and Trump’s xenophobic immigration policies would extend that timeline just five more years. A staggering 55 percent of white people in this country think they face racial discrimination. The prevailing sense of white victimhood, resentment, and grievance fuels attacks on affirmative action and neo-Nazi rally chants like “You will not replace us,” which voices the fear of a browner generation that has already taken root. With these anxieties, racist Caucasians accidentally confirm what they’d never say: In the U.S., minorities suffer.

But because these same people have long viewed oppression as leverage in the political discourse — they love to throw out accusations of “playing the race card” or “less qualified” diversity hires — they’re keen to reap the supposed perks of what they consider a newfound marginal status. As a result, you have white Wake Forest University student Ryan Wolfe appearing on Tucker Carlson Tonight in a pathetic attempt to turn a meme about him into some kind of cause célèbre. Wolfe’s complaint, which the college dismissed because an investigation would only “make things worse,” was that classmates had given him saltines and Photoshopped his face onto a cracker.

He may have had a stronger case were he not a writer for the Wake Forest Review, a conservative campus publication whose own mission statement mocks “safe spaces” and notes that “attempts to shield students from speech, thought, and even people that might cause them ‘emotional harm’ are bad for us.” In this context, Wolfe is simply whining that he’s not protected by a type of authority he wants to abolish anyway. But let’s follow his bad-faith tale of discrimination back to its source: He expects us to believe he was offended by the unspoken but strongly implied epithet “cracker,” couldn’t bear to address it for 18 months, and still suffers from the emotional pain of the attack.

Wolfe contends that “cracker” is racist insofar as it codes a bias against whites — but the facts don’t quite bear this out. Unlike the n-word or similar slurs, “cracker” has never been applied to the entirety of a race or on the basis of race alone; it has evolved from Shakespeare’s time, when it referred to an “obnoxious bloviator,” into an American term for poor or uncivilized whites who settled and expanded through the south from the 18th century onward — some of whom embraced the disparaging vernacular. By the 1940s, it described bigoted white people. Throughout these eras, “cracker” had much more to do with behavior and socioeconomic class than the color of one’s skin. But Wolfe appears reasonably well-to-do, as the average suit-wearing college Republican tends to be, and, to his credit, he has denounced the worst white supremacists at large in this nation — so what does calling him a “cracker” really suggest? Related insults may offer a clue.

Another student called Wolfe a “mayonnaise monster” when he trolled her Twitter mentions. A popular meme ribs Caucasians for finding relatively bland flavors like ketchup and spearmint “too spicy.” Over in the U.K., you can own pasty-faced politicians by comparing them to gammon, a bright pink sort of cured ham. In each case, the targets are mocked not for their ethnicity but their fragility or privilege. Mayonnaise is white, yes, but it’s also greasy, uninspired, and annoyingly omnipresent; an aversion to spicy food speaks to a fear of other cultures; British Tories turn the ruddy color of gammon when enraged by some perceived slight. Among this vocabulary, “cracker” gains meaning as someone flat, flimsy, and boring who crumbles at the slightest pressure. The barb is borne out by the reaction to it, since the well-adjusted white person labeled a cracker would simply laugh it off as a small price to pay for systemic advantage. That Wolfe would cry harassment over “cracker” reaffirms his crackerhood.

“Cracker” also conjures a specific plainness defined by absence — crackers are meant to be paired with something, not eaten straight from the box. A cracker on its own is missing what makes it a decent snack. It resists the idea of collaboration or improvement, remaining a dry, mildly salty wafer. This has long been the ideology of the human cracker, who obstructs racial integration and frets for the future of his people in the melting pot of a heterogeneous society. The cracker is convinced that anyone who says “Hey, maybe throw some cheese on there” is impugning and assaulting his identity, of which he is bewilderingly proud, as if he deserves credit for any flour-based delicacy ever served. And so he remains isolated, hermetically sealed in a plastic sleeve that does not keep him from quickly going stale. The old cracker, dusty and unyielding, is the most unappetizing of all, devoid of the little taste he had to begin with. He has retained his purity, but satisfied nobody. He sits on the shelf, taking up valuable pantry space.

All of which is to say that Wolfe is correct to take umbrage with his depiction as a cracker, though not because it’s racist. Truthfully, it’s far more cutting than a comment about his ancestry could be, as it goes to his character, not his appearance. In our pluralistic future, crackers are made not by circumstance but by choice, and until Wolfe stops writing specious bullshit like “race is not a factor in police shootings” or bitching about hearing the words “intersectionality and institutional racism” in a university setting, then he’ll have to accept that he’s acting the part of the cracker, and that his peers will express themselves freely on this point — exactly as he’s argued they have a right to do.