Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Is "Yankee" a problematic word?
This was back when Japan was still a mega-super-power. The trainer for our region's (overwhelmingly Mexican-American) group of newly-hired clerks was an old white lady who took the training program's bizarre textbook very seriously and, more to this essay's point, complained to us constantly about what a shame the civil rights movement had been.
At that point in my life, I'd already learned the hard way that it was risky and sometimes counterproductive to distinguish myself by speaking up. Nobody else seemed to object to her gratuitous opinionating on the civil rights era-- indeed, no-one else seemed even to be paying attention. I didn't want trouble. What would arguing with this curdled bigot accomplish? I was young and just wanted a paycheck so I could move off my buddy's couch.
But I'm the son of a Freedom Summer volunteer, and as the trainer got more and more ugly about what scum and troublemakers those dangerous meddlers had been, I eventually broached some objection. Looking back, I wish I could claim my speaking out was grounded in noble anti-racist sentiment, but the reality was I got fed up with her denigrating my Dad. He had been brave to go into Mississippi and register voters. I knew my father wasn't someone who made trouble. To the contrary, he was pathologically quiescent, a nearly silent man who spent his whole life working at a job he didn't like. Participating in Freedom Summer was one of the only things I felt he'd gotten right.
So I objected to her characterization of the voter-registration volunteers, and she dismissed me as a yankee, saying I couldn't possibly understand. I then went on to spend many more years as a white guy in the blue-collar south, and got called and referred to as a yankee often. Sometimes it was meant as an insult, sometimes it was affectionate, mostly it was just a descriptive-- the same way poor whites from Florida were "crackers."
Black people didn't call me a yankee; people from Mexico or elsewhere in the americas didn't call me a yankee; college-educated and economically comfortable white southerners, most of whom seemed neurotically mindful of northern perceptions of the south, didn't call me a yankee... at least not to my face. In my experience of "yankee," it was exclusively a poor-white word, and used correctly it could sting like the dickens, at least as much as any other epithet I've had hurled at me.
But this isn't about my sensitive hurt feelings-- really, I promise it isn't! This is about the word yankee. I know many people who are deeply weary of hearing it, although to be fair, most of those are people weary of being called it. For those who aren't comfortable just saying "Hey, that hurts my feelings, why are you being a jerk?" the common complaint is that "Yankee" carries connotations of the Civil War and, by extension, regional white resistance to racial equality.
It'd be hard to argue it doesn't. The word can and often does mean what my convenience store trainer meant by it; snarled correctly, it can evoke not the underfed, grey-suited ghosts of the Confederate Army but the white-hooded terrors of the Klan. No matter how it's used, it always brings with it a whiff of Dixie.
I'll be the first to acknowledge all that. But it's also a "power word" used by poor people against affluent outsiders. It's one the few epithets that can make a sanctimonious and well-off white flinch. It's a useful word, because, let's face it, the majority of college graduates from the Northeast really are insufferable, condescending snobs, incurably arrogant, pious know-it-alls who wonder sadly why the rest of the country hasn't reached their lofty plane of enlightenment... and who've reached the private conclusion that it's due to inherent inferiority.
Are there exceptions? Of course! But you know I'm right-- you've met these people, had to endure them professionally, and quietly witnessed their Jane-Goodall-like manner towards those who weren't born into advantage. Some aren't from New England, but whatever coast they hail from, they share that same attitude: firm, paternalistic do-gooderism masking a rock-solid, burn-the-witch conviction that those who disagree are defective, ignorant, or evil. These are people who know what's best for everyone, especially the poor, the same way they know the sky's blue. They only want to help-- and saints preserve anyone who stands in their helpful way!
Now, that mindset is not the most pernicious form moral surety takes in our society, but it is a specific and noxious form of it, and it's rooted as deep as any religious fanatic's. What the fuck do we call these people, if not Yankees? It seems to me that's exactly what the word means.
Of course, calling one another mean names isn't really progress-- it's divisive, it's alienating, etcetera, and the word does carry ugly historical echoes. But why should anyone be in such a hurry to strip away and condemn a word that is a way for poor people to identify and call out bullying and coercive attitudes among the better-off? I also hold geographical words that mean "outsider" to be important and useful, however much outsiders may hate them.
I don't think my own opinion on "yankee" matters THAT much, but I wanted to at least put in a stroke towards its defense. Am I misguided? Do I, born in the north, have Stockholm syndrome? Has my own self-loathing led me identify with the southerners who've oh-so-cruelly oppressed me with the word's usage? Am I myopic, too hasty to brush off the word's associations?
Look, it sucks that bigotry exists. It sucks that when someone with a southern accent speaks, northerners make assumptions about them. That bigotry, which is a bigotry of privilege against a region with less privilege, is real, and I contend-- mildly, with a total willingness to be wrong-- that within a specifically white milieu, "yankee" as commonly used constitutes a reaction and resistance to that particular historically-rooted class and regional bigotry.
You might disagree. If you do, you're probably a yankee.