Monday, March 27, 2006

White Trash

Chuck Darrow of the Courier-Post in New Jersey has an interesting commentary on the casual use of the phrase "White Trash." He suggests that if we have the good taste and sensitivity to avoid ethnic slurs - from the N-word on - then we really should avoid using White Trash as well. "I truly cringe every time I hear or see "white trash" tossed around so blithely," he writes.

But I wonder. I think it may have been Cornel West who pointed out that it is essentially impossible to malign those at the top of the social and power structure with the same vicious effect as you can denigrate those at the bottom - "Honky" and "cracker" simply cannot, and never will, carry the same power to shock and horrify as their equivalent slurs on blacks, Asians, Hispanics, the disabled, or anyone else at a significant social and economic disadvantage. In fact, if anything, such a term is almost comical because it is so fundamentally empty in its attempt to undercut the dominant social class.

But I think Darrow misses an even more important semantic distinction between "White Trash" and any even remotely comparable ethnic slur. Here is a letter I dashed off to the Romenesko journalism site, which links Darrow's column today:

While it is true that "White Trash" can be taken as fighting words in my native South, I think Chuck Darrow of the Courier-Post is way off base in equating the term so closely with an ethnic slur of the same caliber as the infamous "N-word." The phrase "White Trash" suggests a class or economic distinction that, however great the implied difficulty, can be corrected by education, hard work, and, ultimately of course, money. As such, it can't possibly deliver the same pain as a word that dismisses someone as irredeemably inferior - that attacks the very humanity of the person described - no matter his economic, social or educational accomplishment. I think Chuck Darrow's outrage at the use of the phrase is both unnecessarily thin-skinned and considerably misplaced as a social and historical matter.

Am I wrong here?


we saw that... said...

agree with you and would add that while calling someone white trash isnt nice its like what you have shown in that it refers to a subgroup within a larger group. in other words you couldnt honestly refer to all white people as white trash.

because "nigger" on the other hand is used to dismiss an entire race and partially for that reason (another reason for example would be that its wrong to call names in the first place) people should refrain from using that word out of respect. other words like this apply too like chink, spic and kike.

as far as using words like these in reviewing films and all that, well if the character is described in the movies script as "white trash" "nigger" or a "crack whore" then whats wrong with referring to it like that?

none of these words would be used lightly in serious reporting though and people realize this.

Cassie said...

The term "white trash" has always felt to me as though it is still a racial slur against non-whites, as strange as that may seem. The implication I've always felt is "Others are automatically trash because of their race whereas you are trash, in spite of the fact that you are white and have no excuse." Otherwise, why bother to say "white" trash?

Sean Scully said...

That's an interesting perspective, Cassie, and makes a certain amount of sense. I'll have to ponder that.

Magna said...

I appreciate Cassie's comment. "White trash," to me, seems to say "You may be white (and therefore superior to those other races), but you're still worthless."

Besides this, there's the fact that human beings are being referred to in all seriousness as worthless trash simply because they're poor and come from low-status families and therefore, they're also presumably ignorant and shiftless. Emma Lazarus uses the term "wretched refuse" in her poem "The New Colossus" to refer to so-called "trash" - people unwanted by their own societies, but who in fact are worthy people who deserve acceptance. As the term "white trash" is commonly used, though, it doesn't seem to refer to something that anyone expects to be remedied by education or wealth or even social acceptance. Rather, it seems to refer to an immutable inferiority.

Sean Scully said...

Provocative points all. I do still think however that there is something implicitly changable about "white trash," after all, one remains fundamentally White (as opposed to the irredeemable ethnic minorities). Lesser members of the same tribe, as it were, but still members of the dominant tribe. I only really mention it because there are parts of my own family in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina that can and have been referred to as White Trash, and over the generations the family has swung between "white Trash" and "respectably lower middle class" with dismaying rapidity. It makes me feel keenly sorry for those black families in similar circumstances who were never afforded that luxury of social mobility, up or down. Perhaps it is a little New South guilt that I cannot wholly remove from my hands.