White Trash? Badge of pride or label for hate?

It feels wrong using "trash" to refer to a human being. In public and private discourse there seems to be no moral dilemma with calling a certain segment of the population white trash?

In context, the phrase by definition is prejudicial.

Meaning from Merriam-Webster -- usually disparaging: a member of an inferior or underprivileged white social group

Its usage dates back to the first half of the 19th century based on annotations and documentation from writings, most notably slave narratives, personal memoirs (Ulysses S. Grant) and formal works of writing (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

Legend and literature speculate that the plantation house slave likely was first to use white trash to dismiss any attitudes of superiority on the part of whites that were not landowners. Stowe, believed to be pro-abolition, was the object of backlash for her 1852 book depicting the rigors of slavery and graphic mistreatment of black people. In her follow-up work, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the author devotes an entire chapter to “Poor White Trash.”

A friend and follower of this blog recently suggested exploring the label for eRACE your isms. My friend, who is white and had used the term in the past as a descriptive for a certain lifestyle and behavior, wondered about a double standard. My friend had specifically been taught not to use the n-word. Why had there not been parental guidance on use of white trash?

The conflict is a valid one. I wasn't familiar with the term in childhood. Guess my parents, like my friend’s parents, figured from the phrase itself restriction is more than obvious if you learn the Golden Rule. As an adult, I have inexcusably on occasion spoken the words in conversation. What’s interesting is that curiously I first encountered its use among other whites. Did that make it OK?

From history we learn that folk of color were not and are not above using pejoratives for whites. Just as white trash probably came from plantation slaves, African Americans at the height of the 1960s black power movement and black militancy also created other terms of dis-endearment for the group they regarded as the enemy. "Honky" and "whitey", to pick a couple more print-palatable ones. And before that, remember cracker? (Though we learned from the Trayvon Martin killing through trial testimony by his friend Rachel Jeantel that "cracker" as a hate label has evolved and may not be a race-specific pejorative among black millennials.)

Throughout history, Americans have been very good at slurring their own. Along with the 19th and 20th centuries’ immigration wave of hyphenated Americans came rivaling and jockeying for ethnic hierarchy that resulted in name-calling. I was introduced to this practice in my early 20s when a first-generation Italian-American friend in Washington told a joke using the W-word. When I looked at her with puzzlement, realizing my innocence she explained how the word was common among her people and gave me examples of how Irish and Jews and others had similar words. “Do I repeat these words, or is it exclusively theirs?” I had asked myself.

In 2013, I suspect more than in any other period since its usage, whites that "fit" the definition of white trash proudly embrace it. The surge in acceptance of reality TV stars Honey Boo-Boo and Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, and show brands such as TLC’s Jersey Shore and A&E’s Duck Dynasty prove there is plenty of reverence or irreverence, depending on your worldview.

White trash celebrity ratings and their accompanying shows' numbers are through the roof. In real reality, stars and programs are beyond mere fodder for water cooler chat or a passing fad. Fans of phenoms Snooki and Honey Boo-Boo cross demographics. To the devoted both are legitimate iconic figures. (Snooki has close to 6.5 million Twitter followers.)

That’s television entertainment. In the printed medium and online, there's plenty of w-trash love to go around. Last week, in time for this post, author-commentator Charlotte Hays blog white trash(1) released her new humor title: When Did White Trash Become The New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question. blog white trash(1)Ms. Hays’ new laugh-out-loud book details the many ways white trash is not only pop culture but a lifestyle and state of mind embraced by poor and working class whites and multimillionaires too. (Read my review of her book.)

SO amid the just-published book and the culture's commercialization of white trash, I wrestle with the morality angle. Google white trash or type in the phrase at Amazon.com, and it is astounding. In the hunt are thousands of books alone (works include use of the phrase in title or texts and include revered literature such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.) Online search results include cookbooks, etiquette guides, how-to craft titles, romance, adult, joke and gardening selections. The general merchandise search also turns up practical items such as diaper pails and white (colored) trash cans.

While Ms. Hays' book, TV shows and related merchandising are sources of bemusement for the masses, and lively topics for entertainment and consumer writers, as well as other bloggers, I wonder if all this white noise is purely about smart economics. Find a captive audience, promote, and sell, sell, sell.

If money is motivation behind pejorative pride, it makes sense that the African American millennial and Gen X entrepreneur,poet, rapper, and artist, among others, argue for free speech and feel justified in using the same strategy/model to lay to rest n-word stigma. Isn't it doublespeak, if not hypocrisy, to be willing to bolster the case for the Hollywood and Madison Avenue marketing genius behind white trash, yet harshly judge commercializing efforts for creative use of the n-word?

I’m bothered by the conflating and conflicting ethos of what should be a glaring cultural no-no. Meanwhile on the business side of white trash already deep pockets grow deeper, and the money managers laugh all the way to the bank.

Readers may remember my audio interview late summer with Nate (n-word, the flip side), and how he struggles with what's the big deal?

I recently contacted Nate, 28, for his views on white trash. He’s now a first-time Dad to newborn, Ava. blog nateAs readers that listened to my previous conversation with Nate might guess, Nate’s reaction was low-key. "Sure, I've heard people call themselves trailer park trash...Yes, I figure they are proud of it.

“I understand the pure ugliness behind n-word.” Nate continues to explain how he also understands the business and ethical motive driving black entrepreneurs "to put it out there. Why not? Whites came up with that word to make my ancestors feel like less than human beings. The word trash is not there. It's hidden. Which is worse.” When I asked Nate if "white trash" should be off-limits for blacks and others the same way n-word should be banned for whites, he was on the fence.  "People should make their own choices. Based on their own conscience." 

One thought on “White Trash? Badge of pride or label for hate?

  1. Dee Barello

    Very good food for thought. I think the two phrases are not any more similar as discrimination -vs- reverse-discrimination (impossible). The reason W-T has gotten palatable is because of the racial divide going on right now (and has been growing for the last 10-15 years) and it has become okay to be trashy and poor only if you are white. When you use racial words as a description of people of color, you are disparaging their total being that cannot be changed, whereas racial slurs made to a white person in general is only disparaging their way of life, which can be changed (for example Honey Boo-Boo). I also believe that the popularity of this group of poor white people has been vaulted by the social media due to their association with the Tea Party. Having said all this, I think we should all try to stop throwing words around that generalize and demean a whole group of people, of any color, but to continue to use common sense in discerning in what context the words were said.

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