What Is a "White Nigger" Anyway?

Fact & Fiction
tags: racism, immigration, Trump

Mr. Todd is a graduate student in history at West Virginia University.

There has been a more or less considerable furor over Sen. Robert Byrd's (D-WV) usage of the term "white nigger." Everyone seems to think that they know what this means. But do they? Before one can decide if the words are offensive, one must first know what they mean. Mary Mostert, at Banner of Liberty, thinks Byrd meant "poor white trash" in general, and Bill Clinton in particular. However, this has a somewhat dubious fit to the context. I should like to explore an alternative possibility.

Classificatory terminology has to do with identifying social groups. In the early South, biological race tended to be interlinked with servile status, occupation, education and social class. The word "nigger" per se probably meant a member of a group of rural field slaves, of comparatively pure African descent and recent arrival, living on a large plantation. Interestingly, William Byrd of Westover, in the early eighteenth century, does not refer very much to "negroes" or anything else that one might recognize as a racial term. He refers, over and over again, to "my people," a reflection of his patriarchal orientation.(1) The invention of the word "nigger" probably had to wait for the growth of the lower South, with its big cities (starting with Charleston, South Carolina, and running out to New Orleans), and its comparatively rentier-like slaveholders. By the time Fanny Kemble, the wife of an archetypal absentee landlord, visited Georgia, in 1838-39, the word was apparently in common use. (2)

The term "white nigger" is a marking, or qualification, of "nigger," a means of describing a group which resembles "niggers" in some respects but not in others. There seem to be two major bodies of early usage: 1) a white person who is conspicuously exploited. and 2) a member of the concubine class, intermediate between black and white.(3) This latter usage is characteristic of the slaveholding plantation regions, and is probably not directly relevant to West Virginia.

To account for what a West Virginian means by "white nigger," one should look at usage in economically similar regions. For example, in Edward Eggleston's late nineteenth century The Hoosier Schoolmaster (chapter four: "Spelling Down the Master") we find: "But to their surprise 'ole Miss Meanses' white nigger,' as some of them called her in allusion to her slavish life, spelled these great words with as perfect ease as the master."

The setting is a public spelling competition, in which Hannah, the put-upon "bond-girl" finds herself more or less involuntarily obliged to demonstrate her worth, to the mixed admiration and scandal of the neighborhood. George Elliott Clarke has pointed out a body of rather less amiable usages, in the works of early-nineteenth century Nova Scotian writer Thomas Chander Haliburton. Haliburton was writing in a Fitzhughian vein, and his story "The White Nigger" is about the auctioning off by the parish overseers of aged paupers and orphans to the lowest bidder. These are collectively usages deriving from predominantly white regions, as distinct from the slave-oriented south. Most recently, I have found the usage "white nigger" used as a self description by "B. Lokey" an anti-abortion activist born circa 1940. (4)

West Virginia is something like 95 percent white, and and only 3.2 percent black (2000). If the Ohio valley and the cosmopolitan college towns were left out, the percentage of whites would probably be considerably higher. I should add, however, noting the work of Duke Talbott, that a lot of people have escaped slave ancestors a long way back, the same as they have Native American ancestors a long way back. Among other things, the frontier was about escaping from the ownership of the tidewater aristocracy. The odd escaped slave got absorbed. West Virginia not like Mississippi, where Trent Lott's constituents are the declining white 61 percent, trying to stay on top of the growing nonwhite 39 percent.

Trent Lott has the best of reasons to do a bit of discreet race-baiting, but Robert Byrd does not have anything resembling a motive. I very much doubt whether senators have anything resembling racial prejudice in the ordinary sense of the word. They have one overriding prejudice -- an odd insistence on being reelected. Given the right circumstances, Strom Thurmond is capable of saying both "I have a dream..." and "we shall overcome." The balance of probabilities is that Senator Byrd was attempting to convey to blacks that they are not by any means the only poor people, and to invite them to make common cause, rather than becoming lost in racial separatism.

(1)William Byrd II of Westover, Secret Diary, entries for Dec. 31, 1710; Jan [2, 6-7, 22-23], 1711; Feb [6-7], 1711; Dec 31, 1711;Jan [1, 15-18], 1712; may 22, 1712, reproduced in Baym et. al., Norton Anthology of American Literature, 2nd ed., Vol 1, W. W. Norton, New York, 1985 This does not seem to be available on the web, save in odd fragments. It was originally written in cipher, and not decrypted and published until 1941. For available online information, see:

(2) Frances Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a a Georgian Plantation, 1838-1839 (1863), ed. John A. Scott, 1961 (Knopf), 1975 (New American Library).

(3) See: Lawrence R. Tenzer, "Stand up and Sound off!!" White Slaves, Chapter Three of "The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War: A New Look at the Slavery Issue," October/November 2001. William Wells Brown [1815-1884], Clotelle (1864) In this novel , the term "white nigger" is used to describe the daughter of generations of slave concubines, i.e.. someone like Sally Hemmings. One of the things we lose sight of about famous authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe is that they do not exist in a vacuum. There are always a lot of other people at the same time, working along the same lines. The heroine, Clotelle, is the offspring of a "quadroon woman," upwards of three-quarters white, and a slaveholder. She is described as being so light-skinned as to be instantly recognizable as her father's daughter. Interestingly, in chapter 13, the wicked stepmother character (more precisely the stepmother's mother) "manufactures" five-year-old Clotelle as a "nigger" by shaving her head (the traditional punishment of prostitutes), and then forcing her to become drastically sunburned, i.e.. to become a "redneck." (http://xroads.virginia.edu/ http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/wwbrown/cover.html;
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/wwbrown/ch05.html; http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/wwbrown/ch13.html)

(4)George Elliott Clarke, "White Niggers, Black Slaves: Slavery, Race and Class in T. C. Haliburton's The Clockmaker," Nova Scotia Historical Review 14 (1994): 13-40. Excerpts: http://www.dal.ca/~dmcneil/2227/haliburt.htm.

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Andrew D. Todd - 1/31/2004

Some points may be obscure to historians, who are not usually systematically trained in linguistics. I used to be an anthropologist, and there, linguistics is part of the core curriculum. There's an exam called "prelims," representing about half the work for comprehensive exams. Linguistics is one of the four set subjects, together with Archeology, Cultural Anthropology, and Physical Anthropology (Human Biology). The basic principle of ethnolinguistic classificatory terminology is that people invent words to describe the way they perceive the world as being constructed. It is notoriously dangerous for the outside observer to impose his own categories, and assume that a given word means such and such a category.
I must point out to Joe Moran that the Deep South and Appalachia are two different cultural regions, and one cannot assume that a word or concept means the same thing in both. I presume that the overriding cultural fact of the Deep South is the legacy of the plantation. That worked out to White men extracting a surplus from the labor of Blacks who were biologically better adapted to the semi-tropics. A caricature is the Simon Legree-figure: the White overseer on a horse flicking his whip down at the laboring field workers. Something of this has survived in the southern prison systems (for example, see Thomas O. Murton and Joe Hyams, _Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal_ , 1969).
The overriding cultural fact of Appalachia is the underground coal mine. This morning, when my clock-radio woke me up, it was with coverage of a debate between three of the five members of West Virginia's congressional delegation about who was doing more to help the silicosis victims. One important fact about an underground coal mine is that it is impossible to supervise work both safely and effectively. The foreman and the mining engineer had to be underground as well as the ordinary miner, and cave-ins, explosions, dust, etc. were no respecters of persons. The United Mine Workers was one of two groups of "ambiguous unions" (the other being the various garment worker unions), which represented the immediate employers as much as the workers per se, in fixing the price of the product at an acceptable level.
William Byrd, back in the eighteenth century was living in yet another world, in which the overwhelming fact was family and clan.Here is a short passage from William Byrd's diary of Dec 31, 1710:
"My Daughter was very sick all night, and vomited a great deal but was a little better this morning. All my sick people were better, thank God, and I had another girl come down sick from the [slave] quarters."
Byrd recognized the category of slave as a subordinate category within the larger category of the family of Westover.
On Jan 2, 1711, "...C-l-y was extremely ill, and so was A-g-y. I tended them as much as I could, but God is pleased to afflict me with His judgment for my sins. His holy will be done... I read a little English, but could not be easy because poor C-l-y was so very ill. I took a melancholy walk. In the evening about 6 o'clock C-l-y died and all the people was [sic] grieved at it. I read a little English and gave the necessary orders about the sick people who were 12 in number."
In essentials, Byrd seems to have been very much like Elspeth Huxley's father, Major Joscelin "Robin" Grant, as described in _The Flame Trees if Thika_. When Grant's Masai headman got into quarrel with a South African Boer farmer (a recent immigrant to Kenya), Grant unhesitatingly took the headman's side, following the traditional scots laird's principle of "my gillie, right or wrong." In such a clan-centric worldview, race as such is not a very useful classification.
A couple of other people mentioned related ethnic terms:


Paul Morris mentioned the use of "wigger" as a shortened form of white nigger, to describe white kids who listen to gangsta rap. Obviously, they would not listen to it if they did not think it was relevant to their lives. This is a continuation of Jerry Farber's 1960's trope of the _The Student as Nigger_. The notion of powerlessness is explicitly developed in Penelope Houston's White Nigger lyric:



The consensus seems to be that "Honkey" is derived from "Hunkey." While, technically, "Hunkey" signifies a Magyar-American, in actual usage it was apt to be used for miscellaneous slavs, eg. bohemians, moravians, slovaks, etc. Native-born white Americans were not inclined to make fine distinctions, and used a few ominibus terms, such as "Hunkey" and "Polack."
In Yiddish, there is a corresponding distinction, of "Littvak" versus "Galitzaner," that is, the Jew from the cosmopolitan Baltic, versus the country boy from the rural south of Eastern Europe. (see Leo Rosten, _The Joys of Yiddish_).
In the early 1920's, when large numbers of Blacks were arriving in the north, they were used by employers to break industrial unions. The work force consisted of the most recent immigrants, that is, Eastern Europeans. The employers' "divide and conquer" tactics resulted in race riots, as the Blacks and the Eastern Europeans fought it out in a darwinian struggle for jobs. Thus, the core meaning of "honkey" is probably something like "the White on the other side of the picket line."
(See James R. Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago's Packinghouse Workers, 1894-1922, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1987, 1990).

Ralf Wade - 12/12/2003

I hate nigger they are worthless. Any white nigger is an idiot why would anyone want to be a nigger. All niggers should hang.

Jim - 10/10/2003

The term white nigger was first used to describe Irish immigrants in the US, who considered to be "negroe" in every respect bar one, the colour of their skin.

Jim Crutchfield - 7/9/2003

1. The observation that Wm. Byrd rarely referred to negroes may derive from the fact that the original justification for slavery in Virginia was that the victims were not Christian, not that they were not white. The legislature had to pass a law specifically making race the basis for slavery because slaveholders, fearful for their own souls, wanted to have their slaves baptized but didn't want to lose their sacred property rights.

2. Some years ago, I attended a King Day observance with an African-American friend from West Virginia. The organ began to play "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and my friend delightedly whispered to me, "Oh! That's the nigger national anthem! I haven't sung it since college!"

3. John Lennon & Yoko Ono said that "Woman is the Nigger of the World". Was that a racist remark?

block - 6/12/2003

what is really going on in th world today ?

mtalbert - 2/14/2003

I don't think there is any argument that the term white nigger is intended to be disparaging to but people called white niggers and blacks by inference. A double-biased term. I think it is interesting to me in my lifetime what a change there has been in the use of the world nigger in the south.
When I was a boy, I think it was just a general term for Negroes, with it's roots via England in the spanish word for black, which survives today in the contries Niger and Nigeria. I recall once when I wrote a headline about the former nation and one of the black pressmen charged out of the pressroom with a paper in his hand demanding why I used that word. I asked him to read the story. I learned to not use that country in a headline. Yet even in the N-word usage, there was an implication of a lower order of creature. One has only to look at a newspaper from the 1850s, and the calssified ads to see the tone that went unchaged for a century and then some. And then there was that phrase I herad later, in a time when the changes from the civil rights movement has started taking hold. "There are Negroes and there are niggers, they aren't the same, and he is a nigger."
At the same time came the equally strange phrase that I think gave birth to Sen. Byrd's phrase, "Not all niggers are black, there are some white niggers."
Yet, sad to say, that for some people, too many the term nigger still is in use as the word for a person of African heritage: sometimes people who don't think they are racist. I can think of one particular old,old woman whose closest friend in the world is is her black half-sister, and who doesnt even hear herself using the word.
The language of race is sad and strange.

Joe Moran - 2/9/2003

Let's not try to tart up this discussion by straining to make farfetched interpretations.

I grew up in the deep South (Alabama, Georgia, North Florida). I have heard my own people use the term "white nigger." They weren't referring to economic status of social demeanor.

It's shorthand for "a white person who behaves no better than a black person." Implied in the remark is a propensity for laziness, drunkenness, promiscuity, and irresponsibility. On its face, it's a slur against poor whites, but it is, at its core, a very racist reference.

Right-wingers love to point to the Byrd remark as evidence that the Democrats get a free ride from the media while Republicans like Lott get raked over the coals. That, of course, is nonsense.

I wouldn't try to guess what Byrd was thinking (or filing to think) when he made the remark. But the remark revealed the he hasn't escaped the biases that marked his earlier life. His comment was absolutely indefensible.

jd - 1/22/2003

I was called a "honkey" once. Does that count?

Andrew Todd - 1/22/2003

Here is a response to the comment made about Robert Byrd's membership in the Ku Klux Klan. You should understand that our department makes a specialty of regional history, and the natural result is that even if one is not a West Virginia specialist per se, as I am not, one is necessarily exposed to a considerable amount of material, in colloquia and seminars, which has often not yet been published. Then one can test this material against the experience of daily life. On much the same principle, one cannot very well study history at Temple in Philadelphia without being exposed to a lot of urban history.

The Ku Klux Klan was not only racist, it was also nativist, anti-Catholic, and fundamentalist, and even anti-German-American-nationalist. William Kunstler went into these aspects at some length in his _The Minister and the Choir Singer_(1964), presenting the Hall-Mills murder in 1922 as an incident in a Klan "culture war" against the liberal intelligentsia. The setting of the murders was New Jersey, well before the major black migrations to the north. The case involved large numbers of working-class German-Americans, e.g.. housemaids and their boyfriends, etc.

I was able to get in touch with Duke Talbot after my article had gone to press. It's difficult to get in touch with people quickly over the holiday break. He makes a distinction between three significant ethnicities in West Virginia: 1) indigenous white West Virginians, meaning people like the Hatfields and the McCoys; 2) post-civil war Scots-Irish and Pennsylvania Germans; and 3) South and East European immigrants, mostly Catholic, dating from the early twentieth century (personal communication, Jan. 15, 2003). Eventually, of course, the groups merged in large part. I sometimes meet people who look like stereotypical Italians, but who speak with the characteristic West Virginia accent. A man named William Klaus in our department has done some work relating to the links between catholicism and working class militancy in the early 1920's. I've sent him a note, and I hope he will be willing to comment.

There is one unavoidable thing you must understand about West Virginia-- it is a mining state. It major industry has been coal mines. If you go down into a mine, nothing is necessarily said about coming back up again, and this fact has worked its way into the collective consciousness. At times, this fact has lent itself to some fairly grim "discussions."

Incidentally, here is something I turned up, which bears on the status of the small black community in West Virginia. In 1925, they successfully invoked an anti defamation law to have D. W. griffiths' _Birth of a Nation_ banned.


Andrew D. Todd

paul morris - 1/21/2003

in contemporary usage "white nigger" refers to white kids who affect the style and manorisms of inner city "gangster rappers".the term more often used is "wigger".i get hnn on line and always enjoy the articles. keep up the good work

Steve Brody - 1/21/2003

You leave out the most obvious(and recent) definition of "white nigger". That is , as an epithet used by the KKK to describe white civil rights workers and supporters of African Americans.
Considering Byrd's admitted prior membership in the Klan, the connection seems obvious.

dk - 1/20/2003

The term as used now referrs to sloppy, non-working people(not the unemployed) who have no self respect are ignorant despite the availability of education and their manner that they conduct themselves in their everyday life.White trash, nigger or just plain people you don't want to associate with. oops!!!!! I ended that sentence in a preposition.