Once upon a time, I lived in a pleasant little town called Manassas, Virginia. It was predominantly Caucasian, but becoming more ethnically diverse as it grew. Being a young’un in a mostly white suburb, I was blissfully unaware of the racial issues of the day.
When I was in third grade, my family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, which had a higher degree of ethnic diversity (though not necessarily integration) than Manassas did. We moved in March, so the difficulty of being the new kid at school was exacerbated by the fact that I was being thrown into group of kids who had been interacting and developing their own group dynamics for the better part of a year. The academic adjustment wasn’t difficult, but apparently the social one was.
A few days after I started at the new school, a new acquaintance decided to approach me. Octavius was a young African-American kid who, if memory serves, was roughly 8 feet tall and was built like a tank on steroids, wearing another tank. Since I was short, quiet, and new, I think I was supposed to be intimidated by this monster of a kid as he ambled towards me, the floor caving under each step. He must’ve sensed that I was unschooled in racial matters, and decided that this would be the ideal time for my initiation. He stopped in front of me and called me “Cracker.”
I didn’t know what he meant by this. My eight-year-old, racially innocent mind could not grasp the insult intended by calling me food. I was fairly certain that he wasn’t going to try to eat me, because the teacher might’ve been able to stop him in time. But, being young, foolish, and remarkably brash considering the size difference at hand, I retaliated in the only way I knew.
I gathered myself, and with as much defiance, nerve, and force as I could muster, I called him “Cracker.”
He froze–the first sign that I’d put him off. He tried again, though with less conviction this time: “Cracker.”
It had already worked once, so again I fired back at him: “Cracker.”
He was confused, and thought I was confused, and thought he’d clarify matters: “No, you’re the cracker.”
“No,” I said, sensing victory. “You’re the cracker.” The tide had turned. By this point I’d found his weakness: clearly, calling him names–even the same names he used on me–would weaken him, and eventually force him to back down. There were a few more exchanges of the insult before it was over. I don’t remember whether the teacher intervened (though I do know she called my parents about the matter and couldn’t keep her composure from laughing so hard) or whether Octavius simply gave up.
Had he thought that he’d encountered an intellectual and rhetorical force not to be trifled with, or had he realized that I had no idea what he was talking about, which rent his insults powerless? I’d like to think the former, since he trifled with me no longer.
Why bring this up? I’m not sure. It might have something to do with the kid who checked me into the hotel. He had a Confederate flag pennant tattooed on his neck. Fill in your own insult.