Why writers should stop using ‘redneck’ as an ethnic slur, and probably won’t.

Redneck meme
“Redneck” is a staple of internet memes, but it’s old and tired.

Science fiction is awash with discussion about diversity. Almost since its inception, the genre has been dominated by Anglo-European men. (Oddly enough, modern sci-fi was invented by a woman, Mary Shelley, with her novel, Frankenstein.) In the past few decades, however, more women and some African-Americans, e.g., Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and N.K. Jemisin, have added their voices to the chorus. Recently, writers from China, notably Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin, have earned attention.

The emergence of female and minority voices, as well as LGBTQ writers, perplexes many and irks a few traditionalists, who decry stories that veer from the dominant tropes of sci-fi—ray guns, space ships, alien invasions, and so on—and take on social issues that reflect life as it’s lived in their communities. Reactionaries, such as the SadPuppies and RabidPuppies, resort to name-calling and worse to tamp down a trend unlikely to go away.

One facet of the trend toward diversity is pressure to avoid racial or ethnic slurs. Of course, if a word you’d never use in polite company is necessary for characterization or to move the plot forward, it should be available, like any other word. Too often, however, these words are used thoughtlessly or for shock value. More often than not, they’re unnecessary. However, ignorant storytellers label this reticence self-censorship or political correctness, meaning avoidance for fear of offending some group or individual. Well, duh! Using a word simply to offend is offensive. What would your grandma think?

However, there’s one word that has not, as yet, entered the lexicon of slurs that include n—, c—, or s—. The word is “redneck.” This fact was brought home to me in an interview of Charles Murray, a conservative thinker at the DC-based American Enterprise Institute. “Try to think of any kind of ethnic slur that you can get away with at a dinner party you attend without getting immediate pushback,” Murray says. He referred to a friend who had recently moved to West Virginia. The friend’s urbane social circle thought his new neighbors “would be dumb, illiterate, [and] have missing teeth.”

In one sweeping gesture, big city elites stereotyped and insulted an entire state and millions of other Americans.

Think about the cartoon image “redneck” conjures: male, white, uneducated, poor, rural, probably a Southerner, works with his hands, likes big-wheeled pickups, has a dozen guns, churchgoing, if hypocritical Christian, marries a cousin, cuts his hair into a mullet, has a beer belly, alcoholic, eats Cheetos by the bag, lives in a trailer park, wears a camo ball cap, on and on. Media has used this image to mean uncouth, stupid, even dangerous. The Duck Dynasty TV series is built on this image. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy makes a living satirizing it. Search Google Images on “redneck” to see what I mean.

Why might “redneck” offend as an ethnic slur? Bestselling novelist, former Secretary of the Navy, and U.S. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia offers the best explanation in his book Born Fighting. In the 18th century, before the Revolutionary War, hundreds of thousands of people with Scottish roots emigrated to America from Ulster, now Northern Ireland. No, these aren’t the Irish immigrants escaping the famines of the 19th century. These are the Scots-Irish, who made up one of the earliest mass migrations from Europe to America, along with the puritans and other northern European groups.

Though their story is as complex as any, the Scots-Irish were essentially rebellious separatists who despised authority they didn’t like and maintained a kinship social structure that placed loyalty to extended family above all other things, though they are patriotic to the core, one of their many contradictions. Spurning the New England elites and the “tidewater aristocracy” of the coast, they formed their own communities in the Appalachian Mountains, most famously in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio. They developed a distinctive culture, that is, country music, a sentimental love of their adopted land, a warrior ethic, and maintained, as their descendants still do, a fiercely independent, almost contrarian mindset. One thing they did not do, however, is self-identify as an ethnic group, unlike the Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans, Norwegians, and others of the European diaspora. They preferred to play down their ethnicity to the point of invisibility.

From the day the Scots-Irish arrived, the powerful, ethnically English officials, rich landowners, and taste-makers did not understand them and could not control them. Like all dominating elites, they ridiculed and dehumanized the immigrants, and the word “redneck” is a modern manifestation of this long tradition. It’s important to note that much of Scots-Irish culture has been adopted by today’s white working class, no matter the ethnic origin.

Acknowledgment of the necessity for diversity in science fiction and other media forms is an acknowledgment of the reality of the nation’s demographic and cultural evolution. Seen in this light, the word “redneck” is no longer funny, just as n—, c—, or s— said in public or private should make us uncomfortable. Trouble is, the word and image is as ingrained in our national culture as the stereotype of the dumb female, servile black, or inscrutable Asian was once normal and accepted. Giving up “redneck” and related images, such as “trailer trash,” “bubba,” or “good ole boy,” is hard. All we have to do is recognize it for what it is, a victimizing put-down. Things can change with regard to “redneck,” and they probably should.

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