Who Is White Trash?
For a lot of people, the term “White Trash” means poor whites – fake buxom blondes, overweight fatties, trailer park types. People like “Honey Boo Boo” and her mom (or the people featured on the “People of Walmart” website). Unfortunately, this particular understanding fails to capture the rich historiography of the term.
Historically, “white trash” referred to whites who were not adhering to their assigned racist societal roles. They were among other things “radical republicans,” “petty criminals,” “race mixers,” and so on. Hence, they were designated “trash” to distinguish them from the “good old boys.” The most important take-away here is that people who were white trash were understood to be potentially racially contaminated (not race pure). Eventually, the idea that someone was inferior due to “miscegenation” went out of fashion; this was quickly replaced by insinuations of genetic inferiority due to inbreeding. Since then, the term has been appropriated and used in ways that obscure this history.
To get a sense of how this works, you might check out the literature that focuses on white trash (see Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina), where the whites depicted are frequently called common racist epithets. Again, this is because “white trash” signified that although you may be white, you remain racially othered.White trash continues to be used in our current time as a way for whites to separate themselves from groups of people that, while they might be recognized as phenotypically white, they are not members of “proper” middle and upper-class tribes of white people.
Other scholars who study white underclass social identities include Arlie Hochschild (2016), Nancy Isenberg (2016), J. D. Vance (2016), Larissa MacFarquar, Charles Murray (2012), and Robert Putnam (2015). This body of work explores the history of how the white working class has arrived on the current political stage, where they claim a collective aggrieved social identity; one that is often steeped in pain, suffering, financial hardship, and loss of pride in work. While the studies are all different, they generally aim to illustrate how this group has become angry and disaffected over time. That is to say, how they have come to see themselves as the victims of government, financial institutions, coastal elites, professors, and the “progressive” media. and its commentators.
Connie Shultz, a popular columnist and journalism professor at Kent State University in Ohio, writes about how easy and socially acceptable it has become to “trash talk” the working class. In her column she writes:
Bear with me, please, as I start this column with a brief story about my two grandmothers who lived in trailer homes. They lived in Ashtabula County, which is tucked into the northeast corner of Ohio, an hour east of Cleveland. If ever you’ve traveled a good distance along U.S. 90, you likely passed our county’s handful of exits on your way to somewhere else.For all of my childhood, this was home, and I was seldom happier than when I had time alone with my maternal great-grandmother, Ada, who raised my mother from the age of 8. In the late ’60s, after her husband died, Ada sold her house and 20 acres to move into a trailer home a couple of miles down the road. It was closer to her church, her second home.
I spent weeks at a time in the summers with her, freed from the responsibilities of the oldest child always on duty. She taught me how to cook, garden and quilt. Every Sunday after church, rain or shine, we walked to the cemetery to tend my great-grandfather’s grave and say a prayer of gratitude for the time we’d had with him. We had our evening rituals, too. She believed a steaming cup of tea at sunset was a great way to settle the mind for the big thoughts that show up only under the night sky.
My maternal grandmother, Vivian, lost custody of my mother when she was 8 and spent the rest of her life trying to make it up to her and taking care of my uncle, who had a mental disability. His name was Francis, and she never spent a day away from him until he died from complications of diabetes in his late 50s.Grandma Vivian was the first person I knew to buy an aluminum Christmas tree. What a sight for my siblings and me. My mother stood behind us and whispered orders to close our mouths and stop acting like we’d just seen a ghost. This was the grandma with the trunk full of antique dresses and hats for us to play with whenever we visited. When my mother wasn’t around, Grandma often served me a cup of coffee loaded with milk and sugar — a grown-up reward for “being so responsible.” When her house in Ashtabula County became too run down to be safe, my grandmother closed it up and lived in a trailer on the back lot until Alzheimer’s robbed her of the ability to take care of herself.
I wanted you to know a little bit about my grandmothers so that you might better understand my outrage over a Cleveland Plain Dealer writer’s reaction to Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president:
“Thanks to Trump, the entire Palin clan is now back in the spotlight they so crave. Come July, Republican National Convention organizers should house the whole dysfunctional family at a trailer park in Ashtabula.”
This is surely not the first time a pundit has cast the Palins as “trailer park folks” — which is code, of course, for “white trash.” We are hearing these phrases more frequently as pundits try to make sense of Donald Trump’s soaring poll numbers.
In her book “Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty in America,” sociologist Diana Kendall describes how in 2008 then-“Late Show” host David Letterman “maintained a night-after-night monolog about Sarah Palin and why she is white trash.” He was joined, she writes, by “print media, television and Web blogs … full of descriptions of Sarah Palin’s trailer park lifestyle.”
Much closer to home, since Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms “white trash” and “trailer trash.” These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.
Every group has its “other.” For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class. Neither of my grandmothers had much money, ever, but they contributed so much to the lives of the people they loved. They were both storytellers who helped me understand the long-ago sacrifices of people I would never know but who live on in the blue of my eyes and the ambitions of my heart. They are why I’ve devoted a number of columns and stories over the years to people who live in trailer parks.
Just this week, I was remembering Marjie Scuvotti, a 24-year-old mother of four. I interviewed her in 2002, on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She talked to me in her home in a trailer park as she painted her 6-year-old son Issac’s face red, white and blue for a parade celebrating first responders. “You’re my American-flag boy,” Marjie whispered in his ear. She couldn’t have been a prouder mother.
This campaign year has barely begun, and it promises to be a long one. Regardless of which partisan lens we look through, we will see some voters who confound us. Mocking them will never bring us closer to understanding them, but it will surely reveal us, and we will not benefit from the exposure.
White Trash Loser
Comedian Louis C.K. calls attention to the same issue, as he makes it clear in this routine that making fun of “trailer trash” is one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry people are permitted to get away with in contemporary American society. Looking down on the poor is not only socially acceptable; many people find it to be downright funny. This particular illustration shows us how people are condemned on the basis of both race AND class. He invokes the term “white trash loser” to summon the image of a person that many of us might easily relate to [language disclaimer].
“Punching Down” the Class Ladder
The term “punching down” refers to a psycho-social dynamic that aptly characterizes individuals that I like to call “bootstrappers.” Bootstrappers like to think of themselves as having been dealt a difficult hand (and often this is true). Despite their personal challenges, they somehow manage to leverage their existing resources to get out of their difficulties. The “bootstrap” themselves to success in this regard. Having attained this success (with or without help) they feel empowered to declare that everyone, regardless of the obstacles and troubles they might be dealing with, should be able to similarly overcome disadvantage.
In light of this, bootstrappers tend to be among the first to mete out harsh judgment on those who are poor and struggling. They lash out, which is to say they “punch down” on their former social peers with whom they once shared common problems and low social status. Punching down, however, says more about the person doing the punching than it does the people they might designate a target of social sanction (the welfare queens, immigrants, drug-takers, or those that lack education). It speaks to a very deep-seated fear that bootstrappers harbor. First, it speaks to the fear that someone will discover the “secret” of the bootstrapper’s less privileged/low birth past. To avoid discovery, they work hard to maintain the veneer of success that THEY ALONE built. One way to overcompensate is to declare for anyone willing to listen how they used to be a “poor person”( criminal, drug addict, etc.), but due to their overwhelming dedication, drive, and work ethic, they overcame these difficulties and are a success (good person) as a result. To put it another way, they are obsessed with shouting out to the world “I used to be a person who confronted adversity in my life and was part of a low-status group, but now I am not. Please see me as worthy.”
First, it speaks to the fear that someone will discover the “secret” of the bootstrapper’s less privileged/low birth past. To avoid discovery, they work hard to maintain the veneer of success that THEY ALONE built. One way to overcompensate is to declare for anyone willing to listen how they used to be a “poor person”( criminal, drug addict, etc.), but due to their overwhelming dedication, drive, and work ethic, they overcame these difficulties and are a success (good person) as a result. To put it another way, they are obsessed with shouting out to the world “I used to be a person who confronted adversity in my life and was part of a low-status group, but now I am not. Please see me as worthy.”
Second, there is a fear that if they stop working, even for a minute, they might fall back to the low place from where they ascended to success; falling into failure, they will cease to be the successful (good person) they worked hard to become. Part of buying into the American Dream and its cult of individualism means one must always remain vigilant and castigate those who didn’t invest/buy a “dream ticket.” Rather than acknowledge the structural problems that are glossed over by “dream” ideology, they prefer to focus on individual failure. Consequently, such a person may be easily aroused to upset whenever anyone attempts to unmask the system of exploitation from which they perceive they narrowly escaped.
Part of buying into the American Dream and its cult of individualism means one must always remain vigilant and castigate those who didn’t invest/buy a “dream ticket.” Apparently, accepting the “con” of this logic is easier than acknowledging that very real social structural problems are glossed over by “dream” ideology. Instead, they internalize a focus on individual failure, which falsely conveys a sense of personal control.
Such a person may thus be easily aroused to upset whenever anyone attempts to unmask the system of exploitation from which they perceive they narrowly escaped. In the end, they get to be the “hero” of a narrative that they alone contrived.
“Here We Go Again: Trash Talking the Working Class,” by Connie Shultz
Have you ever found yourself laughing at or using the term “white trash?”
Do you find that you sometimes either use the term or at least judge poor people (as a result of perhaps having at one point in time been one yourself)?
Do you ever think, “if poor people simply made better choices, they could simply overcome their difficult life circumstances?” In other words, if they accepted “personal responsibility” for failure they might be more successful?
How does the work of C.Wright Mills demonstrate that what are often referred to as “personal responsibility” narratives might not be the best way to explain poverty and failure? What does Mills say about learning how to cultivate a “sociological imagination” to better understand the social world?