Racism/Talk--racial and ethnic slurs

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Old White trash debate over racial and ethnic slurs

First: Karla can't be white trash. She's Italian.

Be that as it may, it's strange to even have this debate because it is a moving target discussion. Karla is a TV image of an urban minority: an Italian American. She is confused now with a white, rural poor person. It's interesting why this is. A "white trash chick" is loud, uncouth, liberal with her discussion of sexuality and bodily facts, uninterested in pretension and generally disgusted by the "hoity toity" pose put on by a "proper lady". That essentialy describes Karla perfectly. Except for one thing.

Karla is Italian.

This is important. The character she represents is more akin to something out of a mob movie. She's a lower class urban minority. For all intents and purposes, she's NOT white. Explicitly so. We may not see it that way because TV has taken stereotypes and sort of smeered them around and watered them down into cultural images as bland as bologna. But the image of the inner city Italian "greaseball" (which Karla is best classified as) comes out of the attitudes of a nineteenth century America where to be white was still a very discriminating idea. White meant you were a WASP. More pointedly, white meant you were a Mayflower upper class east coaster with a very specific lineage and income level. Italians were not white. Poles were not white. Swedes, my god SWEDES, were not white (I'm Swedish and my folk come from the mines of Northern Michigan and I can tell you with some authority that even those seemingly ideal Aryan supermen the Scandanaivian were essentially just above black in this country 100 years ago.) Almost no one 100 years ago was WHITE. Pure, clean, as clear and lovely as snow. The Irish weren't (Black Comb, anyone?). The Greeks still aren't (swarthy folk, they might say). Even WHITE people weren't white.

And that is where White Trash come from. White trash are a unique type of non-white citizen. Essentially, there were the Mayflower Whites that dominated the top 10 percent of the country. (and, secretly of course, they weren't pure either... that's the problem with purity). They had their garden parties and their plantations and their new style high rises and their tracts of tenements owned all over the cities and their fleets of boats. And they employed, or oppressed, or enslaved (one way or another... whether through chattel slaver or indentured servitude) everyone else:

Africans. Indians. Irishmen. Welshmen. Poles. Italians. Swedes. Norwegians. Finns. Greeks. Germans.

But, occassionally, weirdly, there would be some small group of non-whites that WERE white. And that was puzzling to the Mayflower folk. Every once in a while there was a sharecropper scraping by that wasn't irish, or welsh, or free black, or scotch or even german. There would occassionally be a nice Smith working in the mines. Or a Cox with family living back in Kent would come along and ask to plow a field off in some corner of the plantation for a share of the profits and the some food to live on.

Essentially the Mayflower people would be presented with someone else who was an Anglo-Saxon protestant, but miraculously, strangely, that person or family would not be wealthy and successful and lord of all they surveyed. This was DEEPLY troubling to the white Mayflower Plantation owners. Especially troubling when it came up in the Reconstruction South. It meant, pointedly, that WHITE people could fall on hard times. It meant that WHITE people could lose their way and fall out of favor with GOD. It meant that poverty was not a disease of the skin. It meant that Tracing your mother's mother's mother's mother back to the Adams family of London did not necessarily guarantee that your children would be priveleged and powerful and justly rule over the lesser races who neede their help so desperately.

One look inside of the homes of these "fallen whites" revealed that Catholicism alone did not cause population explosions. It revealed that africans were not the only people who struggled with violence. And it made things absolutely clear that the Sioux were not the only people with a drinking problem. Not immediately, but surreptiously, it began to occur to WASP upper class people that you might not be able to predict criminal behavior by the length of a man's nose or the thickness of his curls.

And that was damn scarry. So, they decided (like the completely illogical idiots that nineteenth century upper class people tended to be) that rather than face the possibility that WHITE people were like everyone else and susceptible to all of the same foibles and problems, and therefore did not have the right to fullfill their manifest destiny regardless of how many "injuns" and "niggers" died along the way to "that alabaster city on the hill"... rather than come to that simple conclusion, they invented a term.

White Trash.

Sure these people were "white". Sure they "seemed" to be like the WASPS who ran the corporations and managed the engine of government, but clearly they were not like those people in fact. They were close to white. They were similar in aspect and manner to the white leaders and pillars of the community. But they were not white. And so they became known as White Trash.

Ironically, of course, this is a term that isn't often used at the time by the Upper Class. Black people as early as the 1830s are identified as using it as a disparaging remark:

"1836 J. K. Paulding Slavery in U.S. 205 The slave of a gentleman universally considers himself a superior being to `poor white folks'."

And this, more than anything, has been how the term evolved. It was very convenient during Reconstruction (both emotionally and economically) if the newly freed blacks and the always impoverished "poor whites" just fought amongst themselves for the scraps. If Blacks could see the "trash" as being "uppity" and trying to reach higher then their place, they would easily be convinced of the need for squabling. And more importantly, if the newly freed slaves could be identified as the source of the poor white man's lack of money (rather than an extremely unfair distribution of land and resources that invariably benefitted the WASP landowners) then maybe the poor white man would spend all of his time fighting negroes and not worrying about the master up on the hill.

Name calling and setting the poor against each other.

White trash people are uncouth, uncivilized, over-sexed and violent. Wife beaters one and all. They'll hunt you down and eat you alive if given half a chance (DELIVERANCE, Anyone?) They would be really dangerous, too, if they weren't always whoring and getting drunk and generally decaying into an idiotic stupor right before our eyes. At best they are comic relief. At worst they might string you up on a tree and hang you dead.

Boy, they sound like niggers, don't they? Or Kikes? Or Pollocks? Or Greaseballs? Or peasant "villains"

"Villain 1. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes:

  • 1303 R. Brunne Handl. Synne 11557 Goddys treytour, and ryt vyleyn! Hast fiou no mynde of Marye Maudeleyn;
  • 1320-30 Horn Ch. (Ritson) 857 The begger answered in that tide, Vilaine, cunestow nought ride?
  • C. 1380 Sir Ferumb. 5471 flanne he cryde and gan to sayn: `Whar art fiow, Charlis, fiow vylayn?'
  • 1501 Douglas Pal. Hon. i. lvii, Ane me fand, quhilk said, and greit disdeneit, `Auant veillane, thow reclus imperfite'.
  • C. 1590 Marlowe Faustus vi, Villaine haue I not bound thee to tel me any thing?
  • 1596 Shaks. Tam. Shr. i. ii. 20 Now knocke when I bid you: sirrah villaine.
  • 1622 Massinger & Dekker Virg. Martyr iv. iii, Theoph. It matters not, We can discharge this work without his help... Sap. Villain!
  • 1663 Cowley Cutter Coleman St. v. xii, Villain, Rebel, Traitor, out o' my sight.
  • 1821 Scott Kenilw. xli, Drunken villain,..thy idleness and debauched folly will stretch a halter ere it be long."

So, why is Karla imagined to be White Trash?

The reasons are as old, at least, as 1303. Whoever sits on the throne wants to believe that they BELONG there. And they want to STAY there. So for emotional as well as practical reasons its easy to assign to your enemy all of those things people universally agree are bad. Alcoholism, illtempered manners, sexual deviance (whatever that might be) and generally ugliness. Big noses, big lips, crooked teeth... monsters one and all. Out casts. Roamers along the misty moors like Grendel or the Cyclops... uncivilized brutes who are partly driven to their crimes by their deformities and the outcast status that those deformities earn them.

Quasimodo, one and all.

In the first, names like White Trash serve to ease the worries of the upper class by making that thing, however similar it may apart, distintcly apart. Even when there seems to be NO difference, that appendage of "trash" creates a sullied, vaguely spoiled sense... it almost sounds diseased.

And in the second, those names create an easy scaffolding for intra-class conflict. A Swede hates no man more than he hates a Finn. Except maybe for a Norwegian. And if a black man wanders into Crystal Falls, Michigan, well for that occassion all of the Scandanavians will join forces to run him out of town. And if a jew shows up? Who knows who join forces with whom. But rest assured, no one will wonder why Nike doesn't manufacture their shoes in the USA. They'll be too busy hating each other.

Because everyone knows that X is loud and uncouth and drunk all of the time and stupid. And they'll steal your women and your jobs and rob you blind when you aren't looking.

Villains, one and all.


That turned into a rant. But I hope it was a useful one.

Now, why people LIKE to be known as White Trash is one I am not sure I understand entirely. Like black people who call each other "nigger" or when I heard my Grandfather refer to his brother as "that old Swede--dumb as they come" with a smile... an interesting inversion of the tools "the man" uses to keep you down? Like GEEKS who revel in their childhood appelation, I suppose. Rednecks love being rednecks these days. And Queers absolutely own their own name now. Jews tell the funniest Kike jokes, I have found, and even Poles have gotten into the act in my experience. What does it all mean? I fear that no answer would be sufficient.

The gay lobby calls that "reclaiming" the language, and I heartily approve. It amounts to disarming the enemy without touching him, by turning his mental sword into your mental pillow. When anyone asks what I do, I always say "I'm a computer geek". I like wearing bow ties, though I do think pocket protectors are ugly. An amusing aside--I was once asked that question by a stripper, who responded to my answer by saying "why would you want to call yourself a geek"? At the time, she was wearing a black leather collar with "slut" spelled in rhinestones. --LDC

Something that has always bothered me about the expression white trash, is that there isn't equivalents for black or other people, so, it feels like telling that these particular whites are trash, but all blacks and others are too....is it just my impression?

This is precisely the point. Everyone who isn't A White Rich Anglo Saxon Protestant (WRASP?) is trash. Period. White Trash are sort of a special case of this general truth. They are White Anglo Saxon Protestants, who are somehow, mysteriously, not Rich. There so close to being perfect, but in a way that makes them the farthest there can be. It's a puzzling place to be, socially. You can't fit in with other whites, because you are Poor. You can't fit in with other poor people because you are White. Blacks can have solidarity with Hispanics or Native Americans... to be non-white is so powerful that it can transcend other differences (not always, but often). But to be White AND Poor is in some ways its own kind of terrible. It's a classic double bind. As a class they were, typically, completely outside of the institutions of Slavery. Racism itself was thrust upon them by circumstance. Certainly they, as a group, did themselves no honor by how they dealt (and continue to deal) with the situation from the KKK to White Power to Militia Movements, but the extreme anomie of their group identity... the fact that in some ways we want to deny them the kind of group identity that just about every other oppressed minority can enjoy to one degree or another... well, I have a kind of horrified sympathy for the group. I mean, my Mom is old time West Virginia mountain folk. She's white trash. I grew up with my share of rural Michigander Trash. I know people in the Michigan Militia. I have read the Turner Diaries (which, I think sometimes, is the poor white version... or inversion rather... of knowing "why the caged bird sings"). So, yeah, I agree that White Trash is like a special kind of poor. I suppose from the point of view of a lot of other minorities (and this has been true for at least two hundred years) it can seem to be a sort of "boo hoo, poor little rich girl" sort of group identity. When a jewish friend of mine and I talk, it frequently boils down to the issue you point out:
I say I am white trash. And he says "Yeah, but you still get to be white." And yeah, no one ever made lampshades out of my ancestors. And no one ever kidnapped my ancestors and chained them up and stacked them like chord wood in the bottom of leaky old boats. And no one ever handed out small pox blankets to my ancestors. But is it really valuable to anyone to start lining up our cultural scars for comparison? White trash is a special kind of trash. It's the kind of trash that even the other trash won't talk to.
And the other thing is that all of this stuff is all already ancient history. We still hate people and we still have racism and we still have code words, but these codewords that we are talking about have lost their meaning. I can write these things because they are ancient history. "White Trash" isn't entirely dead, just like "Nigger" isn't entirely dead. But they are coals that are cooling quickly. I mean, I'm poor white trash on one side, and old Swede miner on the other... but I teach in the academy at the University of Michigan. And I teach african american students right next to Arab American students right next to rich white girls from Bloomfield Hills, right next to more "white trash" from my old hometown. I don't know what this new world is, but it isn't the old time stratfied class world that Marx described or EV Debs fought against. And maybe it never really was, entirely. Carnegie was a Poor Scot. And Henry Ford was as white trash as they get. Hitler wasn't even German, and Malcolm X had white blood in his veins. J Edgar Hoover was gay and Thomas Jefferon loved a slave girl as much as a man of his time could. Were things ever the way they seemed to be? And how are they now?

Just to clarify, I think why I am writing all of this stuff is to raise a question (a long winded question perhaps) about what the actual entry SHOULD say. Do we write an entry about Black People that talks about eating Fried Chicken and gang banging? I feel like the white trash entry that is there now is just that narrow minded. But I also recognize that it was written, probably, by someone who identifies with the stereotype and is, in someways, reclaiming the name--In a Jeff Foxworthy sort of way anyway. And I am trying to present an historical context because I really don't know what the entry SHOULD look like but something tells me it shouldn't look like what it looks like at the moment.-- Confused Trimalchio

As the "narrow minded" ;) writer of the original White Trash entry, I must say that I'm not sure I'm pleased that of all my entries (see: Matt Stoker), this one seems to have gotten, by far, the most attention. Nevertheless, I do like most of what you have written. Adding historical context and different points of view is important. However, I think we really have two articles here now. One is a definition of White Trash and possibly how this definition has changed with time. The second is a discussion of white, what it means to be white and how this has changed with time. It might also include non-U.S. definitions of whiteness. It might for the case of Whiteness in the U.S. touch on the issue of immigration and discuss how various distincly "non-white" immigrant groups have through the American melting pot morphed into the current non-black, non-asian, and non-hispanic definition of white, in which an Italian or a Swede are considered white. -- Matt Stoker
I absolutely agree. I have no idea how to split it up, though. And after reading the Texas Pride guy back on White trash/talk I think the whole entry is not long for this world, two articles or one. Arguing for the distinction between what we commonly hold to be true now, and what we can say to be empirically true (as best as we are able) has worn me out. I'm going to listen to some old Skynyrd albums and sleep for a week ;). --trimalchio

I agree, Trimalchio. That was part of the point of my original comment. Basically, I think the entry needs to be rewritten by someone who is more sensitive to all the subtexts that have been discussed above.  :-) --LMS

White trash Debates, part two

On this point: "the absurdity of claiming that "white trash" are "non-white". -HWR"

That's more fact than a lot of this debate. White was a real touchy word 100-200 years ago and CANNOT be judged on what we today might imagine is a clear and stable definition. Irish people were EXPLICITLY non-white. As were Swedes. As were all sorts of European immigrants. Even today you hear the epithet of "black comb irish" which singles them out as not belonging to the racial group defined as "white". Whatever that racial group might actually contain is unclear. It has always been more defined by what it DID NOT contain. And yes, that is a messy and unclear situation. But it is a factual one. A shorthand of the time was to say that, despite a person's physical appearance, it was easier to identify their whiteness by way of their pocketbook. But that wasn't always true either. Certainly there were grades of non-whites and grades of whites. French aristocrats in Lousiana, for example, were sort of white, but if they came to New York city their catholicism and Frenchness would have created distinctly racial problems. We still see this today in places like Northern Ireland, were the debate is not only political, but distinctly racial, ethnic and cultural, even though from an American point of view at least we would classify both groups as "white". -trimalchio

Granted that the definition of "white" as a term of racial identification is essentially subjective, and thus historically and geographically variable, nevertheless the term "white trash" clearly indicates a distinction within the racial category, however it is defined. -HWR

No it doesn't. If a racial category is pourous, then all sorts of illogical contradictions are not only possible, but generally the rule. In fact, I would submit that those illogical contradictions of arbitrary exclusion and inclusion are precisely the fact of racial categories. Racial categories are, I think, in almost every instance an exercise in just this sort of confusion. All of the terms are essentially subjective. What we are dealing with is a fundamental contradiction. A Racial Category is fundamentally flawed. It is a fallacy of metaphor. Race has NO biological foundation. So to establish categories and try to apply logical formulas of classification is doomed to failure from the start. There can not be a categorizing of Race in any emprical sense if Race is itself non-empircal (and without a biological foundation for race, I would submit that such an empirical foundation cannot be found). There is one species: Human. Everything else is just phenotypical variation. Race itself is an illdefined and slippery term that doesn't describe anything except misunderstanding. I don't deny that groups exist clustered around ideas and culture, and that culture exists as a result of the preception of race, and therefore there is something worth talking about when talking about race, something real in terms of the effect it has on individual lives (like lynching for example, or blacklisting Jews or all the rest), but it would be erroneous at the start to think that any of this stems from anything concrete and biological.

Classification requires empirical foundation. Race can only be proven to empirically exist if there is a defineable biological distinction. Without a biological foundation, race cannot be empircally investigated and therefore cannot be classified in any sort of concrete terms. Therefore it need not follow that White Trash be a defineable subset of the category of "white." It can in some cases be imagined in that way, but it is not empirically so. That is what it means for a term to be essentially subjective. If the term is subjective, it does not belong to a solidified hierarchy and therefore cannot be said to include or exclude anything with certainty. The discussion can only be about its possiblities, and about specific examples of those possibilities in action.

This of course raises all sorts of sticky questions about what the Wikipedia is and can do, and that may be a seperate discussion. I agree with your general uneasiness about the entry as it stands. As the principle author thus far, I can say only one thing with certainty: I ain't sure about it. My mom's old time white trash from West Virginia. But her earliest American ancestor was a Hessian soldier that switched sides. So, from a nineteenth century point of view she would be German, but no one knew her families heritage because they had all assimilated so completely (like everyone else) that they were part of the country at the time. They were poor, and their skin was pale, and that made them White Trash. It didn't make them White of the Trash variety. It made them White Trash which was its own separate mess. The name evolved because of notions of biology and class and category, and people might have imagined that they were accurately describing her family and her genetic heritage, but that was in their heads and had nothing to do with anything else. My Dad is half Swedish, half English. But both familes had been in the country for several generations, which makes him essentially American like my mom. But he had money when he was a kid in Michigan in the fifties. That made him middle class. My mom lived on a mountain with a tin roof and eight other siblings. That was what made her White Trash. Her whiteness was incidental to the term. It was her perceived "trashiness" that was important when she interacted with other people. She studied hard to minimize her accent and become an English teacher. She assimilated. But assimilation was not an empirical, biological act. It was cultural. It was subjective. --trimalchio

I agree that racial categories are biologically meaningless and essentially subjective. I do not believe that either "white" or "white trash" are objectively defined categories. But the appellation "white trash" clearly implies "white". If your mom had not been perceived as "white", she would not have been identified as "white trash". -HWR
But that doesn't change the fact that she would not have been allowed into "White" society. An irishman is non-white, but if he fixes his accent and gets better clothes and improves his manners relative to WASP society, he can BECOME White. Just the same with "white trash". They can BECOME White. And the fact of their skin tone makes that easier on them then, say, a Greek or an Italian, but it doesn't change the fact that being white trash at the outset is a non-white status in a practical sense. At best they are the deformed cousin of White society. But all of the groups are classifiable in terms of their ABILITY to BECOME White. And we can rank them as such in some sense. But the fact that an Irish immigrant had to BECOME white is, i think, proof enough, that no one is pale enough in skin tone to automatically qualify as White. There was something else, something important, that prevented even the MOST WHITE irishman from becoming White automatically. White trash are the irish immigrants who weren't irish or immigrants. They were white like the irish, and they were poor like the irish. And so, while they couldn't be given a nationality in place of a race, they were given this vague name which implied race. I mean, the Irish were irish trash. and blacks were Black trash. And italians were Italian Trash. They should have been called American Trash, I suppose. But they weren't. They were called white trash, but that didn't mean they were white.
I have to say I can't understand this. An Irish person is white. Maybe there is some strange U.S. definition of white here, but I have never heard anyone, anywhere in Australia, call Irish people non-white. A white person is a person whose ancestors come from Europe -- which includes Ireland, Italy, and all the rest. -- SJK