I learned something interesting about the epithet “honky,” which, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, didn’t gain currency among black folks until the 1960s. (It was a Black Power thing. As when H. Rap Brown said: “We should take lessons in violence from the honkies.”)
The word is actually derived from “Hunky” or “Hunkie,” a slur which dates back to the early 1900s. A slur directed at Eastern European immigrants by white Americans.
For instance, in Upton Sinclair’s 1917 novel “King Coal,” there’s a character named Alec Stone, a pit-boss known for addressing his laborers by nationality (“Hey, Jap…” “You, Polack…”). He threatens one worker with a crosscut saw, saying: “Load them timbers, Hunkie, or I'll carve you into bits!"
Likewise, in Sgt. Ed Halyburton’s 1932 magazine story “Shoot and Be Damned!,” a character is quoted thusly: “You G*d-damned dirty Hunky!”
John A. Fitch, in his non-fiction book “The Steel Workers” (1910), reports: “A ‘Hunky’ is not necessarily a Hungarian. He may belong to any of the Slavic races.”
And John O’Hara, in his short story “The Doctor’s Son” (1935), writes: “You couldn’t be in business… without learning Hunkie names.”
Then there’s this, from Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935): “My dad was French and my mother a Hunkie from Serbia.”
What’s interesting to me is, this wasn’t entirely about ethnic name-calling. Some white Americans back then considered Slavs to be non-white.
In 1935, a Washington state legislator named Dorian Todd drafted a bill to prohibit marriages between whites and non-whites. Specifically, he wanted to outlaw marriages between Caucasians and “Negroes, Orientals, Malays, and persons of Eastern European extraction.”
That’s right, in this example of anti-miscegenationism, the non-white category included “those of Eastern and southeastern Europe embracing the Balkan peninsula or states, and Russia as now delineated.”
This bill didn’t become law. But it indicates that the definition of “whiteness” (which white supremacists seem to believe was etched in stone by God) actually shifts and slides over time.
Especially when it’s time to crack down on immigration.
Serbian-American historian Carl K. Savich writes: “[T]he U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 placed restrictions and quotas on the level of immigration from Eastern Europe. … Orthodox Slavs in particular were seen as subhuman and alien to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition of mainstream American immigrants.”
Such “anti-Slavism” was reflected by a commenter last year on a white nationalist website, regarding the influx of Slavic immigrants to the U.K.:
“The real British people are strongly against Eastern European immigration. It’s destroying the lives of millions of working class people who are losing their jobs and destroying the culture of the country. Britain is British, not everyone with white skin is welcome to settle there.”
Yes, this complaint is largely about labor competition. But based on what I’ve read about anti-Asian riots in the American West, it’s hard to tell where economic resentments end and good old-fashioned racism begins. It all gets mixed up in the stew pot of group consciousness.
Which means that “hunkies” and “niggers” are brothers under the skin.