Nigger. Kike. Wop. Mick. Chink. Gook. Dago. Spic.
Bet those words made you cringe a little, didn’t they? Maybe even more than a little.
Now try another word: Redneck. Or how about cracker, rube, hick, good ole boy, hayseed, or hillbilly?
Not so much of a cringe from those words, is there?
Of course, maybe you’re not the cringing type. But here’s the real litmus test. If you were having a conversation in polite company and you referred to somebody as a kike or a chink, you’d instantly be branded a bigot. People would edge away from you.
Or maybe those same sensitive, politically correct people would brand you a redneck, cracker, hick, or dumbass good ole boy. They might even label you that if you’re perfectly polite and civilized but you own guns, hunt, live in a small town, or don’t vote for their party.
Funny, isn’t it? In this age where we’re all expected to respect everybody’s “cultural sensitivities,” the one culture it’s still okay to sneer at is the broad group—mostly rural, southern or western, gun-owning, hunting, fishing, NASCAR-watching, churchgoing, country music listening, conservative, libertarian, or just plain leave-me-alonian—stereotyped as redneck.
Unlike those eight nasty words in the first line of this article, “redneck” is not verboten in polite society. On the contrary, it’s actually trendy to insult “rednecks.” Sophisticates do it at parties. Opinion columnists do it online or in print. Heck, even Our Beloved President sneered at rural Pennsylvanians for “clinging to their guns and religion”—redneck traits, for sure.
In fact, when I checked thesaurus.com to find synonyms for redneck, the very first thing that came up at the top of the page was a paid link to an “Am I a Redneck?” quiz that featured such charmers as:
Q. You hate going to the bathroom in the middle of the night because?
A. Because if I had remembered to leave an empty beer bottle by the bed, I wouldn’t have a problem.
Well, maybe quizzes like that just reflect the self-mockery of a Jeff Foxworthy comedy routine. Maybe they’re nothing but harmless fun. Exactly as blackface comedy routines were once considered harmless fun.
But scan down the page at thesaurus.com and read some of the actual synonyms for redneck, and the fun dims. In addition to most of the above terms, you’ll also find these: boor, reactionary, bitter-ender, fogy, fuddy-duddy, hidebound, unimaginative, unprogressive, white bread, clodhopper, obstructionist, die-hard, stick-in-the-mud, bumpkin, yokel, and lummox.
Not so fun or funny anymore, is it?
In the mouths of those who sneer, the term “redneck” serves exactly the same purpose as terms like “nigger” or “chink.” The aim is to diminish and dismiss all members of an entire group without having to think about the complex reality of the individuals in the group. “All good people” simply know that rednecks are illiterate, racist, and as plug ugly and gap-toothed as the locals in Deliverance. ‘Nuff said.
You gotta wonder: why is “redneck” okay when nearly all other pejorative cultural terms are forbidden?
On the other hand, while I’ve never heard a Vietnamese person call himself a gook or an Italian refer to herself as a wop (except when being sardonic), plenty of rednecks proudly claim the title for themselves. And plenty who call themselves redneck aren’t what those sneering sophisticates think. One redneck I know has multiple advanced degrees from Harvard, but she can still tame a horse and cook from a chuckwagon. A redneck couple I know have written several best-selling novels. One “shitkicker” of my acquaintance is literally a rocket scientist when he’s not tending his bee-hives or his goats. And then there’s this guy:
I am a redneck myself, born and bred on a submarginal farm in Appalachia, descended from an endless line of dark-complected, lug-eared, beetle-browed, insolent barbarian peasants…—Edward Abbey (one of the founders of the modern environmentalist movement)
Dear Mr. Abbey: Me, too.
I’m the daughter of a West Virginia hillbilly. I grew up with talk like, “Time to redd up the table” and “You come be doin’ the dishes now, y’hear?” On Mom’s side, I’m pure redneck going back 260 years, when the first stiff-necked German farmer-ancestor settled in western Pennsylvania and the first Scots-Irish border battler in the maternal line secreted himself in a “holler” in Appalachia and no doubt started shooting at “revenooers.”
On Dad’s side, I’m 100 percent ass-kicking shanty Irish, prone to getting sentimental about lost causes. I never graduated from college and I’d be lost at a wine tasting party or a designer fashion show.
True, in some ways, I don’t meet the redneck stereotype. I can’t stand NASCAR or country music. I haven’t set foot in a church in decades. My politics are anything but conservative: they’re hell-raising, damn-it-all radical. I’d rather eat a salad than a blood-raw beefsteak. And my friends give me a hard time by claiming I like to watch “French art films with Romanian subtitles.”
But after a life that could have passed for sophisticated, I’ve now retreated to a drafty trailer on a far-lonesome patch of desert. I write for a magazine called Backwoods Home and I pump my drinking water out of a barrel after trucking it from town.
Once a redneck, always a redneck. You can’t escape.
And who would want to? It’s like Hank Williams, Jr. sings:
You can’t stomp us out and you can’t make us run,
Cause we’re them ole boys raised on shotguns.
We say grace and we say ma’am
And if you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.
We came from the West Virginia coal mines
And the Rocky Mountains and the Western skies
And we can skin a buck, we can run a trot line
And a country boy can survive.
A country boy (or girl) can survive.
If civilization ended tomorrow, who would you put your money on: a Wall Street investment banker or a hillbilly who feeds his children by poaching deer? Wall Street, investments, and banking might disappear, but that poacher and his deer aren’t going anywhere—or should I say “ain’t goin’ nowheres”? As far as he’s concerned, “civilization” never did anything for him anyway. He wouldn’t even miss it, except maybe he’d have to start brewing his own beer. But that’s okay. He can.
In these uncertain times, a lot more people have been thinking and talking about “prepping for survival.” When a non-redneck first starts thinking about how he might get along without full shelves at the Safeway, government-issued paper money, and the centralized electricity grid, it’s kind of like learning a new language. Not a logical, familiar language like Spanish or French, no. More like Gaelic, which makes no sense at all.
Questions like, how do you plant enough of a garden to actually feed your family? How do you defend that garden from bugs, rodents, deer and hungry strangers? How do you subsist on hunting and gathering? How do you build an off-grid electrical system? Terms such as country medicine. Edible (and poisonous) plants. Well-digging. Is that water safe to drink? It’s all like trying to speak Welsh. There’s a whole world of knowledge most sophisticates who sneer at “rednecks” and “crackers” were raised not knowing.
How many people would turn vegetarian if every chicken recipe began, “First, kill and pluck a chicken”? But wait! First you have to raise the chicken! How do you tell the difference between a fertilized and an unfertilized egg? Do you even know what chickens eat?
Bet Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer don’t have a clue. Bet you the average redneck does.
After all, where does the term “redneck” come from? From sunburn, of course. A redneck doesn’t spend his daylight hours tapping on a keyboard in a beige cubicle. He’s outside in the sun doing things. If he doesn’t know how to do a particular thing, you can bet he’s got a cousin or a neighbor down the road who does. And even if he’s city-bred and relatively incompetent like me, there are three great things every true redneck knows: how to mind his own business, how to barter or scrounge, and how to be a good neighbor to his good neighbors.
So let the anti-gunners and the anti-hunters and the high-rise dwellers from the left and least coasts call us rednecks. No point protesting. Even if we got together in the Redneck Anti-Defamation League and insisted they call us “Appalachian-Americans,” they wouldn’t do it. We don’t have the clout.
Nope. We’re rednecks forever. Might as well be proud of it.
Someday some snooty members of civilized society, fallen on hard times, might just come knocking on our door, begging for a rifle cartridge, a blue-speckled egg or water from our well. And they won’t have bothered to learn first how to mind their own business or be good neighbors.
I, for one, will know just how to treat ’em.