Better Use “Redneck” with Care
A man speaking in a city board meeting in my town this week got into trouble for using the word “redneck.” He was arguing that shrinking city funds would be better spent on maintaining the local cable access channel than on Christmas lights in the town square. He stirred up a storm of protest when he referred to the city employees putting up the lights as “highly-paid rednecks.”
The uproar got me thinking about this term, one of my least favorite group designators.
As far as I can interpret the man’s remarks, he wanted to convey the thought that the cable channel, as a means of communicating the workings of the city government, is of more value than mere seasonal display. So why did he choose to call the men putting up the lights rednecks instead of, say, workers?
The mind functions in curious ways. Our thoughts reside there in layers upon layers. Sometimes what may seem like an insignificant word choice reveals a layer we may not even be aware of. The speaker came to Arkansas from California. He may not realize it himself, but his choice of the word “redneck” suggests an attitude of superiority towards the natives.
For those readers who may not be familiar with the term, redneck in modern American usage is used chiefly to refer to a perceived type of Southern white person. The term has been used in other contexts with other possible origins, but the term, as popularized by standup comic Jeff Foxworthy, probably derives from the sunburned necks of outdoor laborers. Foxworthy, a native of Georgia, can use the term with impunity, rather as black comics can get away with nigger. Depending upon who is using it, the word redneck can be inoffensive or deeply pejorative.
As used in country songs, redneck carries a connotation of pride along with the characteristics of patriotism, belief in God, self-respect, and independence. This kind of redneck probably drives a pickup truck and owns a gun. He’s not afraid of hard work and would rather go hungry than accept charity in any form. He mistrusts overeducated people and prefers the country or small town to the city.
As used by outsiders, redneck seems to have replaced “hillbilly” as a word to stereotype Southerners. As a term of opprobrium, a redneck not only drives a pickup and owns a gun, he is loud, often drunk, ignorant, bigoted, xenophobic, and trashy. He dresses like a slob, speaks with a southern accent, fills his yard with junk, and has no appreciation of the finer things of life.
The term has its uses, both in conversation and in writing, but it can be volatile and is best used with care.
You’ll find further information about redneck and other terms often applied in a pejorative sense to Southerners here (Update: page no longer online).
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