Is 'Snowflake' a Racist Term?

Marco Tedesco/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University via AP

On Monday, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released the third episode of its podcast “Sounds Like Hate.” That episode told the story behind Randolph Union High School in Randolph, Vt., deciding to renounce its mascot, which was reminiscent of a mounted Ku Klux Klan figure. The SPLC framed the issue around the school rejecting the KKK-style mascot and flying a Black Lives Matter flag — as though the Black Lives Matter message did not also evoke the official Marxist Black Lives Matter movement. (I’m glad Randolph Union got rid of the mascot. The Black Lives Matter flag is a separate issue.)

Yet, as an aside during that discussion, the SPLC played audio from a man defending his grandson’s right to wear a pro-Trump “MAGA” hat and a Confederate flag hat. The grandfather used the term “snowflake” to criticize people who couldn’t stomach his grandson’s hats. Then the SPLC narrator decided to give some background for the term “snowflake,” seemingly to demonize the grandfather.

“This term snowflake is tossed around today as a derogatory term to describe someone who is overly sensitive,” the narrator explains. “Words, like symbols, can change meaning over time. And it turns out, in the 1860s in Missouri, a snowflake was a term commonly used for the abolishment of slavery.”

Why mention this arcane fact? Perhaps because straining to reach for a slavery reference makes the pro-Trump grandfather seem more nefarious.

Shortly after this, the narrator interviews Eric Ward, an executive director at the Western States Center and a senior fellow at the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. Ward argued that the Confederate flag is comparable to Nazi swastika.

“We have sanitized those symbols,” Ward said. “We don’t realize that people of color, gays and lesbians, native Americans, African Americans, are carrying a different burden when it comes to American history. That burden can be framed through racial terrorism and those are often reflected through these Confederate symbols. You don’t get to fly the Confederate flag, just like you don’t get to fly the Nazi flag and not claim that you are racist.”

Ward knows that the Confederate flag has become a symbol of Southern pride, disconnected from its history. The symbol Americans refer to as the “Confederate flag” was actually the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

As for the term “snowflake,” people in Missouri did indeed use it to mock someone who opposed the abolition of slavery. They used it this way in the early 1860s. As Mirriam-Webster explains, however, “This use seems not to have endured.”

“Snowflake” did have a separate race-related meaning in the 1970s, when some Americans used it to insult a white man or a black man who was acting white. The modern usage clearly has nothing to do with this. Others used the term to refer to cocaine.

The grandfather in the podcast used “snowflake” to refer to a person who is too easily offended, whose feelings are easily hurt. That use of “snowflake” traces back to Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club (1996). A member of Project Mayhem says, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”

In the movie adaptation (1999), Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) says, “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not the beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. We are all part of the same compost heap.”

As Mirriam-Webster noted, Palahniuk was not the first to compare a person to a snowflake. As a millennial, I remember growing up hearing the messaging that I was special. The self-esteem-obsessed 1990s was flooded with the inspiring message that each child is a unique snowflake, worth treasuring because he or she is uniquely beautiful.

This rhetoric gave Palahniuk’s message its force — and it also explains why attacking someone as a “snowflake” has rhetorical power when it comes to political discourse. The grandfather used “snowflake” in this sense, to criticize his grandson’s classmates who were so frail as to be offended by a MAGA hat and a Confederate flag hat.

The arcane detail about what “snowflake” meant in 1860s Missouri has nothing to do with Randolph Union High School in 2019. The SPLC only mentioned it in order to make the grandfather seem worse than he is.

Making people seem worse than they are is the SPLC’s speciality, after all.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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