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White Trash Is an Un-claimable Pejorative

October 18, 2008
The term white trash cannot be reclaimed as an endearing phrase in/for a larger scale than individual-to-individual, and even at that level, I think its acceptance would be subjective and dependent on mood and tone. “I’m not in the mood for that shit today.” “Yes, I will normally say white trash myself, but I don’t particularly care how you are calling me white trash in this context.” I think the phrase is entirely too loaded and universally accepted as a pejorative by people (not just white people) who identify with white middle class ideology/morality to be reclaimed. Or at the very least, there is little empowerment value in reclaiming the phrase.
White trash is a pejorative term targeted at lower social class white people with poor prospects and/or low levels of education. To call someone white trash is to accuse a white person of being economically, educationally and/or culturally bankrupt.

The term white trash does not have the collective positive acceptance that the term redneck (a term I may explore some time later) does. On a white middle class approved, endorsed, promoted and maintained hierarchal level, a redneck is superior to white trash, even if that redneck is a known bigot/racist and the white trash is not. Bigotry (perceived or otherwise) does not taint the white middle class’s image with the same magnitude that white trash (perceived or otherwise) does, therefore, the redneck is given the higher status.

If there is a policing phenomenon in white middle class ideology as I suspect, then being labeled white trash is the metaphorical equivalent of being shot unarmed while reaching for one’s wallet. Note the word metaphorical before concluding that I am saying a phrase is equal to an actuality. The white trash must be removed in order to keep the perceived purity of the whiteness. There are white people who will go to great lengths to fight all perceptions of being seen as white trash and avoid every possible association with people labeled white trash. There are people of colour who will freely use/assign the term white trash in a way that suggests that everyone, even people who have been historically and systematically oppressed have no scruples sustaining a system that relies on a dominance hierarchy. The very act perpetuates our (Western) hierarchical system because it continues an inferior/superior structure. Nevertheless, the white middle class (along with the upper classes of course) do it more often because policing the trash is advantageous to the predominant players, more specifically white males.

In 1994, I worked with a white woman; she was a twenty-two year old graduate of Texas A&M and had a bright future. She was heterosexual, thin, blond, blue eyes and belonged to some sorority that was big on social networking and remaining in close contact. A sorority that was obviously an unapologetically haughty one, judging by the stories she told about having to wear a girdle to events even if the member was a size 0 or 2 as she was (not that anyone above a 6 was admitted, I suspect). What stuck out most in my mind when she talked about her sorority stories were how most of their rules were geared toward fighting any possible perception of being white trash. Acrylic nails were white trash. If a member had to have acrylic nails, she could only have them short with a French manicure (natural pink with white tips), no colour. If her hair was highlighted, it had to look professional, natural, no dark roots and no split ends. They could not engage in verbal tiffs in public, especially with people who were beneath them, this included heated debates in classes with hot button topics, such as politics, feminism, multiculturalism, etc; instead they were not to verbally participate and reserve their opinion to essays. So public displays of protest was clearly a no-no. None of that would have registered had it not been for working with her the whole time she was planning her wedding. The guiding force she considered when choosing a florist, a caterer, a location for the reception, her wedding dress, her bridesmaids dresses, her hair style, was if it would make her look like white trash. She spent more on her caterer than my parents spent on buying our childhood home. In addition, I know for a fact people of colour never entered into her consciousness and if they did, she would conveniently utilise the double points technique that politically so-called progressive men have perfected, –she knew when to use benevolent yet supposedly empowering terminology, and at the same time subtly separate the exceptional ones from the collective. “Oh, I don’t mean you. You had a disadvantage. I own my privilege. wink wink. I do. I really do.”

Nevertheless, people of colour were those people over there, not her, not her family not her fiancé. Being secured in this fact, she was able to keep a distance. Being white trash or not does not allocate the same distance because the same skin colour is shared. Proving she was not white trash was the end all to be all. It was the goal in life. It was her life defining necessity. That is another reason why I say, until the white middle class (and people who identify with its ideology) become aware of, and, own acts of relegation in their own race (be it socially assigned or not) they will never tackle and successfully dismantle a system that is set up to disadvantage other than white people.

Apparently seeing people as individuals and judging them by the content of their character is too much of a stretch for some people who are too obviously different in situation and skin colour. Therefore, baby steps are necessary to move along the scale, and a good beginning would be, I believe, to stop using pejoratives that send racist, classist and sexist code to one’s readers/listeners. Using the phrase white trash (and all of its derivatives, such as Female Resident of the Methamphetamine Mile Mobile Homes) does just that.

13 Comments
  1. Rent Party permalink
    October 19, 2008 3:32 am

    From what I’ve observed “proving that one is not white trash” *is* the main focus of sororities – they are veritable universities with that as their major.

  2. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    October 19, 2008 4:39 am

    Amazing isn’t it? It’s like what is to gain, or more like what is the tangible gain of sacrificing your entire time proving to not be something that is only a policing creation to be with. It is like once you sign on to proving that you are not white trash you become this fragile piece of glass that can be chipped or broken with the slightest motion. What kind of life is that? It sounds like imprisonment.

  3. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    October 19, 2008 4:39 am

    Amazing isn’t it? It’s like what is to gain, or more like what is the tangible gain of sacrificing your entire time proving to not be something that is only a policing creation to be with. It is like once you sign on to proving that you are not white trash you become this fragile piece of glass that can be chipped or broken with the slightest motion. What kind of life is that? It sounds like imprisonment.

  4. Anna permalink
    October 19, 2008 2:49 pm

    Kitty – 2 very good posts about the "trash" & "middle class" of whiteness.

    Historically america's middle class has been sentimentalized as the central core of all that makes this country moral, pure & admirable. Both political party's suck up to the middle class come election time. Everything is always about saving the middle class as if no one else mattered. And – the idea that middle class is now defined as being up to $250,000 income annually is absurd.

    I digress – my point is that the middle class (historically mostly white) has begun to believe in its own hallowed image to the point that has forgotten that there are many who are worse off than they are.

  5. Jennifer Cascadia Emphatic permalink
    October 20, 2008 10:31 am

    I used the term in the epilogue of my memoir, which surprised me at the time, but I was writing in a mood of vitriol. It seemed to me that it was a way to draw the readers’ attitudes out into the open, to make them see how genuinely geared towards hatred and hostility their otherwise merely apparently benign moral and political stances are.

  6. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    October 20, 2008 9:46 pm

    Yes, Anna, exactly, the middle class has bought its own hype. They are the poor ones, the abused ones, the used ones, the mistreated, proof by how many people cried foul when $75,000 disqualified for a tax refund (really a loan against a possible refund for next year). The hallowed image=fragility. The attempt at holding the fragile foundation, or should I call it a frame, together is what makes the middle class spew venom downward, instead of upward, in the direction that is supposedly holding the gun to their head, an imaginary gun (as I previous noted) is not pointed at the heads of the less fortunate.

    Jennifer I can believe it was a mood of vitriol, because I see it as acknowledging (without shame) what you know others probably label you, or your kind (the general you and your). They hate that without shame part though. I think white trash can be acknowledged without shame but at the same time not owned. Not own because of the assigning properties that come along with it. If you (the general you) were to own the label white trash without any interaction from an outside power it would serve no purpose, no benefit. The only point in acknowledging (loosely owning) the label white trash, would be in response, retaliation, rebellion against the people you know are viewing you, labeling you, assigning the label to you. I think it is perfectly appropriate and hard hitting used as a tool to show others how their attitudes are geared toward hatred and hostility. Although I would be far too pessimistic in their awareness capability. As soon as you said something that made them uncomfortable instead of thinking about it, they will dismiss you as white trash (with your permission, —–in their eyes).

  7. Jennifer Cascadia Emphatic permalink
    October 20, 2008 10:54 pm

    Kitty — yes. But there are the half-conscious more educated ones who might analyse their own reactions and start to get what I am doing.

  8. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    October 21, 2008 12:20 am

    Yeah, I guess, the whole, the glass is half full instead of half empty thing.

    However, I no longer expect the more educated ones to be the ones more open. I am learning daily that some of the more educated think they know what is best and anyone who thinks otherwise is just an anti-intellectual. Because of course, it is the more educated who take on the role of determing what is intellectual and what is not.

  9. Jennifer Cascadia Emphatic permalink
    October 21, 2008 3:00 am

    Yes. ;(

    But let me do my acid test in the next few months, as I try to promote my memoir, and see what this reveals.

  10. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    October 21, 2008 6:09 am

    Good luck. /said without sarcasm

  11. Jennifer Cascadia Emphatic permalink
    October 22, 2008 9:31 am

    Oh I always learn something that enables me to sharpen my blades. They are becoming gleaming. 🙂

  12. Nella permalink
    October 24, 2008 2:19 pm

    “They could not engage in verbal tiffs in public, especially with people who were beneath them, this included heated debates in classes with hot button topics, such as politics, feminism, multiculturalism, etc; instead they were not to verbally participate and reserve their opinion to essays.”

    Wow, these people would not be popular in my classes. Especially if myself or the other students were the ones they considered too ‘inferior’ to engage with.

  13. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    October 24, 2008 8:08 pm

    The thing is Nella, this group certainly knows how to not let on that they see others as inferior, because that would bring them confrontation. They have perfected the non-confrontational face, thus can feign innocence,—which for many people is more angering than a KKK sitting in class with his hood in hand. It is angering because people who are aware can sense instinctively the troubling aspects of people like this group but can never work toward reconciliation because the opportunity is off the table, because the opportunity was never on the table.

    btw, are you named after Nella Larson?

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