May 3, 2013

Duck Dynasty, Rednecks, Race Baiting and Etymology

"It seems a fine line between being a matador and being a rodeo clown"

A&E's Duck Dynasty
Duck Dynasty chronicles the activities of a family in Louisiana who own a duck call business that has made them wealthy.  The show is a humorous 'reality' show,and the family is very likable.  But not to everyone.  A school in Phoenix is embroiled in racially tinged controversy that has roped Duck Dynasty into the story.

Via USA Today:
PHOENIX -- When members of the student council at an Arizona high school organized a schoolwide "Redneck Day" and encouraged classmates to dress — and spoof — accordingly, they hoped to build school spirit leading up to prom week.

Instead, "Redneck Day" at Queen Creek High School has angered African-Americans and civil-rights leaders and touched off a debate about free speech, social stereotypes and good taste.

Tom Lindsey, superintendent of the Queen Creek Unified School District, said the only intent of Wednesday's event was to satirize the A&E reality TV show "Duck Dynasty," which follows a family of duck hunters and entrepreneurs from West Monroe, La.

But some students and their family members weren't amused. Among them: the Rev. Ozetta Kirby, pastor of Holy Trinity Community AME Church in Mesa and vice president of the East Valley chapter of the NAACP.

"I'm sitting here crying and praying," said Kirby, whose grandson Marcus Still is a 16-year-old junior at the school.

"This thing really got to Marcus," Kirby said. "When you're in 11th grade, that can break you down and make you feel at the bottom rung of the whole society, where everybody is being jubilant. No kid should have to go through that. We all know the connotation of 'redneck.' "
This is an interesting issue.  I am not a proponent of political correctness, but perhaps some people may have been offended and it should be reviewed.  But not in a knee-jerk fashion.  And the issue is more complex than political correctness.  Before I get into the etymology, of the word redneck there are a few other considerations to this news story.
  • Was this originally a planned spoof of Duck Dynasty, or is that just an after-the-fact cover story for the "Redneck Day"? It's not clear in the story which is really the case.
  • Should the people who are rednecks not be angered by the idea that their culture is being spoofed?  How is it not okay to upset African Americans with a Redneck day but okay to spoof Redneck culture with  stereotyped persona for an entire day? Hint: It's not okay. That's political correctness at work - don't hurt the feelings of this group of people, but it's okay to spoof this group. That, is wrong.
  • If this was indeed upsetting for some of the students and faculty (which it clearly is) then why was the idea not vetted before being allowed to go forward?  It seems like a failure of the public school system. 
Redneck does have some negative connotations Rev. Kirby states, however the interpretation of those connotations is far from universal.  Wikipedia has an entry for the term that begins with the following (emphasis added):
Redneck is a derogatory slang term used in reference to poor, uneducated white farmers, especially from the southern United States. It is similar in meaning to cracker (especially regarding Georgia and Florida), hillbilly (especially regarding Appalachia and the Ozarks), and white trash (but without the last term's suggestions of immorality). 
In recent decades, the term has expanded its meaning to refer to bigoted, loutish reactionaries who are opposed to modern ways, and has often been used to attack white Southern conservatives. The term is used broadly to degrade working class and rural whites that are perceived by urban progressives to be insufficiently liberal. At the same time, some Southern whites have reclaimed the word, using it with pride and defiance as a self-identifier...

The term characterized farmers having a red neck caused by sunburn from hours working in the fields. A citation from 1893 provides a definition as "poorer inhabitants of the rural who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin stained red and burnt by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks"
Aside from the specious connection to the term cracker, which does hold more racially tinged connotations, there isn't any racial connotations about African Americans in there.  In fact, Wikipedia has a separate entry for poor whites - in and of itself an interesting distinction.  Yet it does add one element of clarity if rednecks do indeed equate to poor white as Wiki states (emphasis again added):
The Poor White (or Poor Whites of the South for clarity) are an American sociocultural group, of European descent, having origins in the Southern United States and Appalachia. They first emerged as a social caste in the Antebellum South, consisting of white, agrarian, economically disadvantage laborers or squatters often possessing neither land nor slaves. In contemporary context the term is still used to pertain to their descendants; regardless of present economic status. While similar to other White Americans in ancestry, the Poor White differ notably in regards to their history and culture.
Rednecks were disadvantaged - poor white - and almost certainly did not possess slaves.  Seems pretty straightforward to me - rednecks .  The term has taken on different connotations in the minds of some, including Rev. Kirby.  The action and reaction then become a matter entirely of perspective.  It was very not likely intended in an insulting or offensive way.  It was taken in an offensive and insulting way.  That should be resolved.  Dialogue might be enough to put this story to rest.  It is a tempest in a teapot and not deserving of such drama.

Do those reacting by "crying and praying" really believe that the students responsible were motivated by racial hatred or a desire for segregation? Honestly?  What group of kids heading into prom season are thinking like that, en masse? Certainly that is not the case here, regardless of what anyone thinks of the advisability of  such an event.

The most specific issue it turns out was a Confederate flag that was worn by one student, who did not do it to offend anyone and was unaware that the connotations of the flag meant to some:
Most offensive to Kirby and others was that one student chose to wear a Confederate flag — for many a grim reminder of slavery and segregation.

"The Confederacy represents the horrible institution of slavery, and that is a direct attack on African-Americans," said Steve Montoya, a prominent civil-rights attorney in Phoenix.

The Rev. Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County NAACP, who grew up in the 1940s in the South, said: "Our community knows what that flag represents. ... A school is supposed to be for education and showing people where we come from, our history, and to try not to go back to some things."

Lindsey said the student wearing the Confederate flag was pulled aside by an assistant principal and asked to change his clothes.

"It was no ill intent," Lindsey said.

The student, who is from a state where the flag is more prevalent, did not see a negative connotation, the superintendent said.
Again, uninformed actions lead to uninformed reactions.  A Redneck Day is not about going back to 1940s segregation as Rev. Tillman seems to suggest.  No ill intent says it all.

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