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Coonass is a controversial term in the Cajun lexicon: to some Cajuns it is regarded as the supreme ethnic slur, meaning "ignorant, backwards Cajun"; to others the term is a badge of pride, much like the word Chicano is for Mexican Americans. In South Louisiana, for example, one can often see bumper stickers reading "Warning Coonass on Board!" or "Registered Coonass" (both of which generally depict a raccoons backside). The words origin is unclear: folk etymology claims that coonass dates from World War II, when Cajun GIs serving in France were derided by native French speakers as conasse, meaning "dirty whore" or "idiot." Non-French-speaking American GIs allegedly overheard the expression, converted it to the English "coonass," and introduced the term back in the United States. There it supposedly soon caught on as a derisive term among non-Cajuns, who encountered many Cajuns in Gulf Coast oilfields. It is now known, however, that coonass predated the arrival of Cajun GIs in France during World War II, which undermines the conasse theory. Indeed, folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet has long rejected this theory, calling it "shaky linguistics at best." He has suggested that the word originated in South Louisiana, and that it derived from the belief that Cajuns frequently ate raccoons. He has also proposed that the term contains a negative racial connotation: namely, that Cajuns were "beneath" or "under" blacks (or coons, as blacks were often called by racists). Despite efforts by Cajun activists like James Domengeaux and Warren A. Perrin to stamp out the terms use, coonass continues to circulate in South Louisiana and beyond. Its acceptability among the general public, however, tends to vary according to circumstances, and often depends on who says it and with what intention. Cajuns who dislike the term have been known to correct well-meaning outsiders who use the epithet.
I am very grateful to Dr. Shane Bernard, author of the above-noted 'definition', for having provided me authorization to reproduce same from his web site at http://www.cajunculture.com/Other/coonass.htm
Courtesy: "Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture © 1997 Écu Media Design"
Letter prepared and circulated by Warren Perrin
1. History for Acadians
Early in the seventeenth century, France founded a colony in North America called Acadie. While the colonists, called Acadians, prospered and developed their own culture on the fertile marshlands for over one hundred and fifty years, France and Britain vied for control of the region. Britain won sovereignty over Acadie; it was renamed Nova Scotia in 1713. Four decades later, prior to the start of the Seven Years' War, British officials deported many Acadians. France and England settled the war in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. However, the Acadians were prohibited from returning to their lands; their exile was continued in effect. After being exiled, imprisoned and scattered about, some Acadian refugees found refuge in south Louisiana. As their settlements spread across bayous and prairies, their English speaking neighbors shortened the French term "Acadien" to "Cadien" then to the present-day "Cajun."
The most insulting and derogatory term levied against Acadians is the term "coonass." The use of this offensive term re-affirms negative stereotypes and its vestiges of pre-civil rights era racial discrimination. This insulting slang was never a proud or complimentary term affixed to the Acadian people; we will not tolerate the use of this racial slur which has pejorative connotations.
3. Slang's Genesis
According to James H. Domengeaux, author of an article entitled "Native Born Acadians and the Equality Ideal" published in the Louisiana Law Review, Volume 46 No. 6, July 1986, during World War II, the French soldier, possibly threatened by his "long lost cousin", referred to the French-speaking American soldiers as conasse. The non-French-speaking American soldier, either out of jealousy, or invidious jest, began to harass the Louisiana soldier by calling him "coonass" as a take-off on the word conasse used by the French forces.
The French noun conasse is defined as: "a stupid woman or man; used specifically for a bungling prostitute (prostitute jargon circa 1810-35); to a prostitute without a health card (1910)."
Although the slang's genesis is unknown, the word "coonass" has existed since at least the early 1940's, according to historian Dr. Shane K. Bernard. Not until the rise of a national ethnic pride and empowerment movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, did the Cajun people, led by former U.S. Congressman James Domengeaux, the first president of CODOFIL, finally speak out against the use of this ethnic slur. Since then, many Cajuns have been successful in discouraging the term's use, both by non-Cajuns and fellow Cajuns alike. Domengeaux, for instance, assisted Calvin J. Roach, a Cajun from Acadia Parish, Louisiana, to file suit against a former employer after being terminated allegedly for protesting his superiors' use of the pejorative "coonass." Known as Roach v. Dresser Industrial Valve and Instrument Division (1980), the case resulted in federal judge Edwin Hunter, Sr. declaring Cajuns a bona fide minority group protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and thus protection from ethnic slurs like "coonass."
Similarly, the term "coonass" may be a racially derogatory term if directed to, or perceived to be referring to, one of African-American descent. Example: In the case of Sherry S. Reid v. Hazel O'Leary, Secretary, U. S. Department of Energy, Civil Action Number: 96-0401-GK, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the Plaintiff, Chief of the Nuclear and Fossil Branch at the U. S. Dept. of Energy, filed a civil action on March 1, 1996 pursuant to 42 U.S.C.§ 2000 et seq. and 1981 (a), alleging that she had been the victim of racial discrimination in the work place because she was presented with a certificate entitled "Temporary Coonass Certificate." In support of her claim for damages, the Plaintiff, an African-American, submitted the testimony of Dr. John Staczek, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University, who opined that the term "coonass" is a racially offensive and derogatory term (His sources: The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1991, page 213 and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition, 1992, page 411 et al).
Further, Dr. Barry Ancelet, Head of the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, has stated: "...I abhor the use of the term 'coonass'.... I have tried for many years to discourage its use, both by outsiders and insiders as well." Dr. Jim Dorman explains in his book, The People Called Cajuns: An Introduction to an Ethnoshistory (Lafayette: UL Lafayette Center for Louisiana Studies, 1983; page 87): "The term 'coonass,' originally a term of ethnic derision introduced by 'outsiders' to apply to Cajuns, is of uncertain linguistic origin. It may have been a racial all usion suggesting a Cajun-black genetic mixture. But it has come to be used by participants in the Cajun ethnic revival efforts (however informal) as a term of pungent if crude approbation and self-identification."
The racial slur "coonass" does not have a proud genesis and it is not indicative of a proud people.
4. Equality Ideal
First, the Acadians are entitled to "national origin" protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; second, Section 1981, in view of its historical setting, affords protection to Acadians against invidious class-based discrimination; third, the "equal protection" clause was adopted to cure the evils of intentional discrimination against people on the basis of certain "suspect" classifications such as "race" and "national origin"; and, finally, under the Louisiana Constitution of 1974, Acadians were afforded every opportunity to fully develop their cultural heritage and are entitled to protection from "arbitrary a nd capricious classifications." (See: "Native Born Acadians and the Equality Ideal" La. Law Review, Vol. 46, No. 6, p.
5. Acadian Pride
During the post-World War II era, many Acadians experienced occupational and geographic mobility; these opportunities afforded Acadians the opportunity to fully integrate into the American socio-economic pattern. In 1968, the Council for the Development for French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was created under the leadership of James Domengeaux. Currently, the pride in the Acadian culture is soaring; the future of the Acadian people is sound. One can feel this "born again" pride by observing and conversing with Acadians in the many South Louisiana cities and villages.
6. Senate Resolution
In 1981, by Senate Concurrent Resolution, the Louisiana Legislature condemned the use of the word "coonass." The legislative body traced the slur's infamous history and condemned the sale of any items containing the word.
7. Application to the Internet
Two recent legal developments send a clear message that internet expression has its limits and may not be used as a medium for "hat e speech:" Firstly, in February, 1999, a Portland civil jury returned a $107 million verdict against the operators of an Internet site, Nuremberg Files, finding that the site illegally incited hatred and violence. Secondly, the U.S. Congress passed the Child On-line Protection Act, an attempt at banning indecent and racially pejorative speech in cyberspace.
8. United States Supreme Court Decision
Rejecting a free-speech appeal from the nation's second-largest car rental company, on May 22, 2000, the United States Supreme Court refused to let an Avis employee use ethnic epithets at his job. In Avis v. Aguilar, Docket Number 99-781 (United States Supreme Court, 2000) the justices left intact a ruling in which the California Supreme Court said an Avis manager who harassed co-workers with bigoted words could be ordered to stop using such language at work in the future. Further, Avis was ordered to pay $135,000 to each Hispanic employee who had been victimized by the pejorative term which the Court said was not "constitutionally protected by fundamental free-speech guarantees under the Constitution."
9. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
On April 13, 2001, the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended an end to Indian team names and mascots at non-Indian schools and universities. The group said Indian names in mascots could be viewed as "disrespectful and offensive" to Indian groups and could create "a racially hostile educational environment" that may be intimidating to Indian students. The Commission also said the names may violate anti-discrimination laws. As a result of the ruling, many schools voluntarily agreed to stop using an Indian mascot and logo for its sports teams. Recently, the N.C.A.A. prohibited the use of offensive mascots in post-season tournaments.
The pride and morale of all ethnic groups is seriously wounded when demeaning and/or pejorative
reference is made to any group. Some recent examples: "Cajun Taliban" (April 8, 2002, Roger McQuinty, ABC News Radio), "Coonass" (March 10, 2003, CNN's "CrossFire" used in reference to James Carville), "Cajun Cutter"(April 2003 used by Times of Acadiana's columnist to refer to the Louisiana serial killer), "Cajun Spammer" (May 28, 2003, Washington Post), "Cajuns as racial group" (June 25, 2003, Diane Sawyer and Patricia Cromwell, ABC News "Primetime"), unfairly stereotyping people (Red Water, 2003), "Cajuns Pour Hot Sauce on Trashman" (September 11, 2003 The Daily Cougar, University of Houston) "Cajuns Have Reputation Of Being Slightly Unbalanced" (June 13, 1997, The Dallas Morning News), "Love thy neighbor, hate thy inbred Cajun" (November 20, 2003, Daily Mississippian), "Be What You Is... I Are Cajun" (January 10, 2004, www.certifiedcajun.com), "It's Best Not To Make Waves In The Marsh" (January 18, 2004, The Clarion-Ledger), "Experiencing True Cajun History at Vermilionville" (January 28, 2004, The Vermilion), NBC TV Show "Las Vegas" for its pejorative portrayal of Cajuns, "Cajun-Style" primary election (March, 2004 Editorial in the Seattle-Times), "Cajun tactics" (January 6, 2005, Rush Limbaugh, The Rush Limbaugh Show) "Rear Admiral James Godwin, III, Director of Navy-Marine Corp. Intranet, apologized for using the word 'coonass' in a conference call with employees of the University of New Orleans [NMCI Director apologizes for use of ethnic term by Dawn S. Onley and Patience Wait, GNC Staff], and "CODOFIL Chief Demands Apology for Cajun Insult" (June 8, 2005, The Advocate).
Therefore, we respectfully request that you refrain from engaging in the use and promotion of this slang. To continue to do so would be a violation of applicable federal and state laws and a personal affront to many people of Louisiana.
If you do not agree to cease in the promotion of the pejorative, it may be necessary for us to take legal action which may include filing a claim with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Federal Communication Commission and/or filing a suit in U. S. Federal District Court.
Hoping the enclosed information may be enlightening to you, I remain,
WARREN A. PERRIN
I am very grateful to my friend, Warren Perrin, for having provided me copy of his letter, posted above.
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