Monday, March 19, 2007

Equal time for ‘honky’

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.


ItAintEazy said...

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.”

You're kidding? And this is after whites were "scientifically" labeled Caucasians after the people who live in the Caucasus Mountains because they were purportedly the most beautiful people in the world? Dag.

dez said...

Whites are weird. Thanks for the language lesson, UBM! I wonder how "hunky" wound up being a slang for a buff, good-looking man? And would "hunky honky" be redundant? :-)

Undercover Black Man said...

ItAintEazy: I used to hang out on white-nationalist websites and occasionally try to challenge and debate people. Nothing tickled me more than to see those guys bend themselves into pretzel shapes determining who was "white" and who was not...

Are Persians white? Are Turks white? Are Lebanese white? Are Sicilians white?

It'll make your afro hurt if you think about it too long...

Dez: If you don't mind being treated as the Latina-in-residence, what was the deal in East L.A.? What were the disparaging terms for white folks? Were there mild ones and nastier ones?

While researching "Kingpin," I came across "guerra," which is like "blondie."

dez said...

Cool, I've never been a "native informant" before! Anyway, I got called "guerra" a lot (and I used to think it was spelled "wera" because that's how it's pronounced, d'oh!). It does mean "blondie," but I've never heard it used benignly, only disparagingly (in a nasty, not mild, way). I'll have to ask my mom what some of the other names were since I only ever heard "guerra" and "pinche gringo" ("La Migra" was sometimes used to mean all whites, but mostly it was localized to immigration officials). I also got called something that amounted to "half breed," but I can't recall what it is right now. Since I'm like Cheech's character in "Born in East L.A." (not taught Spanish in order to assimilate more easily; meanwhile, my mom & grandparents conversed in Spanish so the kids wouldn't know what was going on in the house), it took me awhile to figure out that "guerra" wasn't a compliment.

ItAintEazy said...

UBM, funny you should mention that, because I used to try to "challenge" these skinheads too. But it was back when I was a young, impetuous and Manichean black nationalist and I let their bullshit get to me, no matter what knowledge I try to impart. So I just gave up and made fun of them using all type of slurs I can think of.

Problem was I was using the university's server back then, and one of them had the good idea to copy my IP address of my messages and send them to the dean's office. It was a good thing I only got a slap on the wrist, though.

Clampett said...

Great post.

I like this

"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." the racial dimensions of status within American Capitalism melt away in response to the death of de jure racism, we might find brotherhood based on unity in oppression increasingly scarce.

"It'll make your afro hurt if you think about it too long..."


Race was constructed in the virginia colonies, not exactly the most diverse place ever.

As time went on those first classifications were redrawn with xenophobic intent as to reap the benefits of immigrant labor while preserving the pre-immigration arrangement of power.

All of that changed when the bill of rights was applied to state governments in the mid 20th century and race stopped being a legal thing.

It is no longer useful in maintaining the arrangement of power, as the defacto power of race declines we will see a whole lot more class hatred, ex:

dez said...

I think classism is overtaking racism in this country, but the government is helping to make it less of a problem by eradicating the middle class so there's only the poor and the rich :-P

Back to Spanish slurs for honkies: Here's part of the e-mail from mi madre (btw, she says "guerra" means war, which is what I thought, too, so I'm trying to find out if "wera" is the correct spelling for "blondie"):

"I guess my favorite has always been gringo pendejo or manflor, maybe wedo (pronounced WED-oh) pendejo (white stupid sob…lol

I know when you are in Mexico, Mexicans think calling people Norte Americanos in a loud angry voice is an insult or I believe they still use Hippy go home."

dez said...

Oh, jeez, my mom just told me that manflor means "queer." FWIW, I've never heard my mom use that word and she did tell me not to be using any of the slurs she was repeating (and then I got the "What the hell brought this up?" lecture). It is interesting to me, however, that we have at least three slurs for gay (manflor, maricon, puto--that I know of, anwyay), but hardly any for white. And yet, gay Latinos aren't exactly uncommon--my late cousin, Jerry, was gay, e.g., but no one questioned his _machismo_ (he was a great guy). I guess I have to amend my "Whites are weird" comment to "Whites and Mexicans are weird."

Undercover Black Man said...

Dez: Thanks for that! And thank your mom.

"Guera" is the spelling (one R), and it seems to connote more as "white girl." Like you said, more nasty than the playful-sounding term "blondie."

But my favorite is "Hippie go home."

Clampett: Thanks for stopping by. And for introducing me to the concept of "chavs."

I'm interested in the intersection (or parallel) of class hatred and race hatred. I've noticed the phenomenon of some liberal whites, inhibited from saying anything derogatory about blacks, shit-talking poor whites instead... with maybe some extra gusto to boot. (I never heard the term "trailer trash" till I was in my mid-20s.)

I also,

Clampett said...

Undercover Black man,

Heh, interesting thoughts about liberal whites' unchanging magnitudes of oppression...I cant say I buy into that, but I can say that I really want to. Also, agreed on the importance of intersectionality.

The socialized disire to 'get ahead' of other people is why gender, race, age, class and soforth even matter.

The tough part is that the only folk with the time/capital to study this are usually people who are quite invested in the survival of the oppressive and inegalitarian liberal capitalist arena.

caged bird said...

"Hunky" is deragatory for Hungarians or Huns as they were once known. Slav is now defined to mean a linguistic group. When you speak about brothers under the skin the relationships are actually inverted, slave was derived from Slav.

WORD HISTORY: The derivation of the word slave encapsulates a bit of European history and explains why the two words slaves and Slavs are so similar; they are, in fact, historically identical. The word slave first appears in English around 1290, spelled sclave. The spelling is based on Old French esclave from Medieval Latin sclavus, “Slav, slave,” first recorded around 800. Sclavus comes from Byzantine Greek sklabos (pronounced sklävs) “Slav,” which appears around 580. Sklavos approximates the Slavs' own name for themselves, the Slovnci, surviving in English Slovene and Slovenian. The spelling of English slave, closer to its original Slavic form, first appears in English in 1538. Slavs became slaves around the beginning of the ninth century when the Holy Roman Empire tried to stabilize a German-Slav frontier. By the 12th century stabilization had given way to wars of expansion and extermination that did not end until the Poles crushed the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410. •As far as the Slavs' own self-designation goes, its meaning is, understandably, better than “slave”; it comes from the Indo-European root *kleu–, whose basic meaning is “to hear” and occurs in many derivatives meaning “renown, fame.” The Slavs are thus “the famous people.” Slavic names ending in –slav incorporate the same word, such as Czech Bohu-slav, “God's fame,” Russian Msti-slav, “vengeful fame,” and Polish Stani-slaw, “famous for withstanding (enemies).”

Euro-Americans may have used 'honky' to differentiate between slav(e)s.

-caged bird

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks, Caged Bird. Fascinating.

I'm deeply curious about the Slavs/slaves of medieval times... particularly Eastern European slaves in the Muslim world.

caged bird said...

Wikipedia has this, and a reference to slaves in the Muslim world:


Xboy said...

"I wonder how "hunky" wound up being a slang for a buff, good-looking man?"

Dez: in many Slavic languages "hunky" or something similar means strong, muscular -- Slavic immigrants used to show they were fit for hard work by calling themselves hunky, kinda like how Italian immigrants called themselves guapo, the origin of "wop." It's my guess that black folks picked up the word hunky/honky when they migrated north to places like Chicago and Detroit and met workers of Slavic descent in the slaughterhouses and factories.
BTW, Hungarian is not a Slavic language. It's in a whole different language family.

Anonymous said...

"Which means that “hunkies” and “niggers” are brothers under the skin."

we both do like jazz..