Monday, April 27, 2009

associate the term "white" with "white trash," and rarely with themselves

Someone arrived on this blog today by asking Google this question: "Can [a] white person call other people white trash?"

I don't know if I can answer that question; actually, in America, pretty much anyone can call anyone else whatever they like. The likely consequences, though, are more complicated.

How's that for avoiding the question?

Anyway, someone asking that question today is interesting timing, since I've been writing a post about white people who identify other white people as, basically, "white trash." Or "trailer trash," or rednecks, hicks, hillbillies, and so on.

So, when it comes to white people labeling other white people, here's a thing that I've noticed a lot of white people doing--limiting their use of the word "white" to descriptions of white people that they'd also describe as "white trash." When they talk about other classes of people, those are just people, or else "middle-class" people, or "upper-class" or "rich" people (or other kinds of people who happen to seem unremarkably white, like Catholics or Methodists, or New Yorkers or Californians or Midwesterners, and so on).

I think a lot of white people who don't consider themselves "white trash," or working-class, or lower-class, also don't commonly think of themselves as "white." It's a sort of unconscious given for them, a taken-for-granted, unremarkable, and thus (to them) unmentionable part of themselves.

These white people do of course realize that the word "white" describes themselves, especially if something reminds them that they are white, like being in an elevator with people who aren't white, or noticing when a taxi stops for them after passing up a potential black customer.

The word "white" itself has bad connotations. A lot of baggage, you know? Aside from the usual workings of social and cultural hegemony--whereby the dominant tend to see themselves as members of the dominant group less often, and less strongly, than those outside or "below" that group tend to see them that way--many white people don't like to think of themselves as "white" because the word conjures up nasty associations. Like racism, of course, but also specific examples of racism, like lynchings, white supremacists and the KKK, the Civil War, segregation, the Confederate flag, white flight, sterile white suburbs, a supposed lack of culture, bad dancing, and so on.

In the past, and still today, it seems that the white people who care about most of those things, and cling to them, also care about being "white." They even seem proud of being white. So, the thinking seems to go, if I'm white and I don't care about those things--and in fact, I hate those things--then why would I want to declare myself white? I think I'll just be "me" instead, and I hope you'll think of me that way too. (And hey, if you're black, I'll think of you that way too--I promise!)

I spent my adolescence in an upper-middle-class, very white suburb. Among the people I knew, we almost never used the word "white" to describe each other. However, we did use the term "white trash" to describe some other people, and that's basically what we meant when we also described small-town white people as "hicks." Their whiteness was somehow visible, and noticeable enough to label. And ours, we seemed to think, wasn't.

I was reminded last week of this denigrating and distancing thing that some white people do, when I read a column by a white liberal, "politically incorrect" commentator, Bill Maher. I often enjoy his sarcastic, sometimes scathing rants, but I've noticed that like so many comedians and other commentators, he often limits his use of the word "white" to those who are commonly labeled "white trash."

Unlike some other white comedians, Maher does not himself identify as a lower-class white person. Seemingly as a result, his references to lower-class whites are often disdainful. As Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz write in their book White Trash, "Americans love to hate the poor. Lately, it seems that there is no group of poor folks they like to hate more than white trash."

Most Americans know who "white trash" are, or rather, who they supposedly are. The stereotypes are solidly engrained in our culture, and continously regurgitated by corporate entertainment. The most relentless, sickening example I can think of is the 2001 movie Joe Dirt.

In the following scene, Joe (played by David Spade) acts out the stereotype that supposedly accounts for "white trash" stupidity--their sexual attraction to their own family members.

As far as I know, Bill Maher is a self-declared liberal, so you'd think he would be on the side of the poor, instead of the side of the rich (even though he himself must be relatively rich). And in most of the commentary that I've seen and read from Maher, he is on the side of the poor, at least in what he says.

So it becomes paradoxical, or maybe hypocritical, when he slings around classist stereotypes that signal a hateful disdain for poor white people. I noticed Maher doing this common, ironically white thing last week, in a Los Angeles Times column that he wrote about the recent Tea Party protests and the troubled Republican Party.

Right from the first sentence, Maher indicates that he was struck (as I was) by the overwhelming whiteness of the crowds. He also indicates that this whiteness is going to be a big part of his focus on the protesters:

If conservatives don't want to be seen as bitter people who cling to their guns and religion and anti-immigrant sentiments, they should stop being bitter and clinging to their guns, religion and anti-immigrant sentiments.

In this allusion to Barack Obama's campaign-season comment about small-town voters, Maher not only begins by raising the specter of racial whiteness. He also immediately attaches the concept of "white," without even saying it, to lower-class white people.

Obviously, a lot of politically conservative white people--and thus, presumably, a lot of the Tea Party protesters--are not poor. In fact, since Republican policies generally favor the rich instead of the poor, it makes sense that a lot of people with money, white or otherwise, will vote Republican.

Nevertheless, Maher wants to joke sarcastically about Republicans, who are mostly white; since the white people commonly deemed worthy of prejudicial, stereotypical humor are poor white people, his jokes continue to descend downward on the class ladder. Early in the article, he writes,

It's sad what's happened to the Republicans. They used to be the party of the big tent; now they're the party of the sideshow attraction, a socially awkward group of mostly white people who speak a language only they understand. Like Trekkies, but paranoid. . . .

That's not especially classist yet, and in fact, I don't know about you, but I associate Trekkies with suburban, mostly white kids who spend too much time in their basements (not to fling around my own stereotypes). But then Maher continues:

Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota recently said she fears that Obama will build "reeducation" camps to indoctrinate young people. But Obama hasn't made any moves toward taking anyone's guns, and with money as tight as it is, the last thing the president wants to do is run a camp where he has to shelter and feed a bunch of fat, angry white people.

Look, I get it, "real America." After an eight-year run of controlling the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, this latest election has you feeling like a rejected husband. You've come home to find your things out on the front lawn--or at least more things than you usually keep out on the front lawn. You're not ready to let go, but the country you love is moving on. And now you want to call it a whore and key its car.

That's what you are, the bitter divorced guy whose country has left him--obsessing over it, haranguing it, blubbering one minute about how much you love it and vowing the next that if you cannot have it, nobody will.

But it's been almost 100 days, and your country is not coming back to you. She's found somebody new. And it's a black guy.

How many "white trash" markers did you read?

Who else but those white people "below" people like Bill Maher are commonly described as worried about having their guns taken away; as "fat and angry"; as keepers of a lot of things on their front lawns; and as especially disgusted by the idea of interracial relationships?

At the end of his article, after castigating nearly the entire Republican Party in this classist mode, Maher suddenly shifts into a bifurcated conception of it:

And if today's conservatives are insulted by this, because they feel they're better than the people who have the microphone in their party, then I say to them what I would say to moderate Muslims: Denounce your radicals. To paraphrase George W. Bush, either you're with them or you're embarrassed by them.

A close look at Maher's attempt at humorous commentary reveals some bad logic. He goes from casting aspersions on the "trashy" lot of them, to perceiving them as a group with both loud, attention-getting extremists and moderates. This bad logic comes about because he's known as a humorist, and in order to write funny, he resorts to classist stereotypes, collapsing a bifurcated vision of Tea Party protesters into a singular vision of white trash lowlifes, who exist in a place that's definitely beneath people like Bill Maher. If his appeal to Republican moderates is at all sincere, I can't imagine why he thinks it would work.

So why do some white people do what Maher does here, that is, limit their explicit identification of whiteness to lower/working-class white people?

I think the primary motivation, a mostly unconscious one, is pretty simple. As
Wray and Newitz write, "The term white trash helps solidify for the middle and upper classes a sense of cultural and intellectual superiority."

By explicitly or implicitly highlighting the whiteness of "white trash," middle and upper-class white people can escape, once again, the discomfort of being labeled white themselves.


  1. i had a professor who referred to "hillbillies" as "mountain-folk." not sure how i want to read into that.

    white people love to "other" people, even themselves. anything to preserve privilege, i guess, and create boundaries of have and have-nots.

    in conversation, i make a point to say if someone was white. i decided that white isn't a standard, so if i'm going to describe someone involving their race to paint a picture or whatever, i shouldn't act like whiteness is assumed unless otherwise specified. this usually earns me such gems as "you're white too." yeah, i know.

  2. It still amazes me (though maybe it shouldn't) that so many people feel OK calling anyone "trash", and that more people don't immediately see "white trash humor" as "making fun of poor people". And yeah, "liberal" classism - blech.

    I think the term also implies that all people of color are trash - you never hear about "black trash". White trash are exceptions - "we" expect "colored people" to be uncultured losers, but it's more noteworthy when white people are.

  3. By explicitly or implicitly highlighting the whiteness of "white trash," middle and upper-class white people can escape, once again, the discomfort of being labeled white themselves.But anyone with eyes, ears and ability to read and comprehend history can see the folly of this trick.

    I've been thinking about banning 'white trash' since Levi Johnston went on Larry King to change the perception of his family as 'white trash' that it's become such a shorthand for the unworthy similar to the way 'ghetto' is tossed about in certain settings.

    But before we get to banning the phrase, the collective needs to come clean about how each class within white America uses each other to conveniently demonize anyone who isn't white when it suits their purposes.

    The Tax Day events showcased this with such an off the charts display of ignorance and fear. Obama as Hitler. Obama as a monkey.
    Obama as an enslaver of white people.
    I mean, damn! You would think Obama tortured people the way they dogged him out on April 15th!

    I understand why Maher wrote the piece because so many white people who have much more power and money than Maher revel in championing ignorance and fear as a means to maintain their political / cultural hegemony. (e.g. John McCain Presidential run)

    Of course if Maher wanted to he could have said it very plainly:
    To my fellow white Americans who are tired of wealthy powerful white elites using fear and ignorance to manipulate the rest of us, I need you to start fighting back. Because yes, your country's survival is at stake.But then he would have been shouting that from the 405 Expressway and not writing it in the LA Times or from the cozy confines of a studio at HBO.

    Again, I enjoy your blog immensely because it makes me question my perceptions about the country, the world and myself.

  4. I believe Bill Maher identifies himself as a libertarian....

  5. "white people love to "other" people, even themselves"
    To be honest, all humans love to do that...

  6. I believe Mara is right that Maher calls himself Libertarian.

    That having been said, maybe I'm not sensitive enough, but I actually kept reading the quote from him to find where he starts dissing poor white people, and I didn't catch them. I agree that in this country, we love to hate poor people - and when "whiteness" rears its ugly head, plenty of white people like to blame it on "white trash" - it's not me: it's those hillbilly whites who are racists. i'm just a person.But "white trash" as the butt of jokes is disempowering in the same way racist jokes are. And you see it among POC too. When provoked, a person of color may tell a white person to go marry his sister or something - it wouldn't be the first time, you know? And by saying somethign like that, we're tacitly approving of the idea of wealthy white people as ordinary good people - and the poor ones - inbred, uneducated, ignorant, all the stereotypes - they're the the ones to watch out for.

  7. Thanks for your thoughts everyone, and I'm wondering what a Libertarian identity for Maher does to the points I'm making in this post.

    Giles, in your search for where Maher starts dissing poor white people, didn't this summary of mine (in the post) of Maher's images help?

    Who else but those white people "below" people like Bill Maher are commonly described as worried about having their guns taken away; as "fat and angry"; as keepers of a lot of things on their front lawns; and as especially disgusted by the idea of interracial relationships?|
    Do you not see these as stereotypes of lower-class whiteness?

  8. I've always lived in the South. At least eighty per cent of the time I've heard the phrase "white trash," it's been as justification for a recent use of the N-word. I ask someone not to use that word around me, and they say "There's black people and there's N-words, just like there's white people and white trash."

    I agree with Colin that the presumption is that all people of color are trash. People use the above utterance to signify that they know they're talking to a liberal type, so they want to give the appearance of thinking not all black people are trash.

    But it's code for something else too. I can hear a threat behind it, one that says "You, for asking me not to use this term for black people, are in danger of being considered white trash." Because one of the markers for "white trash" status is "having to" live near and interact with black people. If you protest that black people are human and you have a Southern accent, you're an "N-lover" and may be disposed of in the "white trash" category so nobody has to listen to your silly objections.

  9. "White trash" = "trailer trash" without the trailer, and by definition white. It's not a relative term, so white people can certainly use it. Above the crackheads, heroin hookers, and Listerine fiends, but as the grouping (where I come from) is made on attitude and not actual income, it'd be an insult to those that are actually considered "lower class" to put them in with them, even the ones that make more.

    The boundaries of "have" and "have not" for differentiating human "trash" isn't money - if you're calling people "white trash" based solely on their bank accounts, you're misusing the term. Bigotry is an absolute requirement. Hell, the people going out to the lake in the middle of the night "nipper tipping" may have incredibly expensive fishing gear, but they're still white trash.

    -Psychoceramics, unable to login

  10. I think you're onto something. The white liberal is an interesting creature. It outwardly proclaims its disdain for racism, and for just generally judging people, yet liberals love nothing more than dividing people up into little boxes, especially by race. Case in point: the distinction between themselves, and the loathsome “white trash racist redneck.” White liberals hate being white. White liberals carry around a load of white guilt, which is why even the word “white” is so dirty to them. They would give their left arm to prove that they are not one of those “redneck white trash racists,” but a cool, open-minded liberal who “believes in the human race.” But what many white liberals fail to realize is that this “white trash” boogeyman is exactly that: it is a caricature, a straw man that gives white liberals an easy target to attack, and as I wrote above, to show to the non-whites that “I’m cool, I’m not like one of them”

    One of my favorite comedians is Chris Rock. He does a brilliant job at calling out the white liberal. In one of his most recent stand up routines, he makes a very graphic and racist joke about black people. He then goes on to mention all the white people in the audience, and their reluctance to laugh at the joke. He says something along the lines that so many white people these days are so hung up on trying to prove that they’re not one of those “redneck white trash racists,” that they just end up looking ridiculous, and seemingly obsessed with race.

    Another instance I can think of is in Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary on right-wing America during the ’08 elections. She travels to Mississippi to try to catch one of those “redneck white trash racists” on camera. She approaches a black man to try to ask him about all those evil KKK whites down South. He then proceeds to rip her a new one. He says something along the lines of “you stupid liberal. You think you have to come all the way down here to Mississippi to find racism? You’ve got racism in all the major cities, the Bostons, New Yorks, and Los Angeleses. You’ll find black guys calling whites “crackas” and whites calling blacks “ni**ers” in those places, too.” That man hit the nail on the head.

  11. FilthyGrandeur, why does it matter so much to explicitly point out that the person is white? Why do you make a point to say if someone is white? It sounds as if you are very obsessed with race...

    With that being said, most people, white, black, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, when talking about somebody with whom they do not share a common group, especially when conversing with someone who also shares the same group as the speaker, will explicitly point out that they are talking about someone who is not apart of that common group. If I'm speaking to another American about an encounter I had with someone from France, it is very likely that I would point out that person was French. It does not mean I think I'm better than them, or that I think being an American is the norm, nor does it have anything to do with privilege. I went to a predominantly black high school. I was often referred to as "that white girl," because in a conversation between two blacks, I was the odd person out.

    Geez, white guilt at its finest.

  12. I wholeheartedly agree with the critique of the term "white trash," and I don't really have much to add to what's been said about it already.

    BUT: Bill Maher doesn't use that term. Moreover, I think I agree with Giles that there isn't much that is actually classist in the Maher piece except for the "stuff on your lawn" comment. And yes, the reference to the Obama quote suggest "small town" folks, presumably implying rural, poorer communities... but that's a tenuous link at best. The most important point, I think, is that saying conservatives are often fat angry men who are afraid of losing their guns isn't classist: Limbaugh, Cheney, Rove, etc. have plenty of money (and girth, and anger... and maybe guns? I don't know about that last one).

    Pointing out that those same men are white could maybe invoke an alternative image of whiteness: that provided by Michael Moore in "Stupid White Men." I'm not a huge Moore fan, and haven't actually read that book, but it does seem like an alternative to the stereotype being referenced here: instead of the "ignorant trash" you have the "belligerent but successful middle-aged white man."

    I suppose my point is this: I agree that, very often, white people only label others as white as part of a classist distancing that also implies a pretty awful attitude toward non-whites; that certainly happens, and it should be critiqued. I just don't think that Maher's piece was a particularly good example of that.

  13. the only "white trash" reference I saw in what Bill Maher wrote was what he said about having stuff on the lawn. I don't think that the tea baggers are seen as having a certain SES, I think they're seen as being the far-right of the right wing. So I get what he's saying about how republicans need to take their party back.

  14. As a white person who grew up poor, but turned into a liberal, I understand the problematic nature of nominative language in "white trash": that it implies "trash" is not normally white. That said, I embrace the meaning behind the term, which for me distinguishes the "good" poor people that I knew (those who worked hard but had rough lots in life for whatever reason, but remained genuine and compassionate for their fellow humans), from the bigoted, hateful poor people that I knew. For me, the term isn't a matter of attacking the poor in general, but the hateful, ignorant poor who have so much spite towards all the wrong people.

    I do agree that the language of the term is racially problematic. In general conversation I've recently started shortening it to "trash." I still self identify as "white trash" on my blog, however, because I feel that the term is quite loaded to describe my experiences as a poor, white, rural-dwelling girl and woman.

  15. "In one of his most recent stand up routines, he makes a very graphic and racist joke about black people. He then goes on to mention all the white people in the audience, and their reluctance to laugh at the joke. He says something along the lines that so many white people these days are so hung up on trying to prove that they’re not one of those “redneck white trash racists,” that they just end up looking ridiculous, and seemingly obsessed with race."

    So not wanting to laugh at racist jokes makes liberals look ridiculous?

  16. "So not wanting to laugh at racist jokes makes liberals look ridiculous?"

    Being so incredibly uptight, and obsessed with race makes you liberals look ridiculous. Even black people think so, hence why Chris Rock made that whole joke.

  17. "Being so incredibly uptight, and obsessed with race makes you liberals look ridiculous. Even black people think so, hence why Chris Rock made that whole joke."

    Chris Rock is not representative of what all black people think.

    What is this uptightness and obsession you speak of? Trying not to offend people of other races? Being sensitive to their feelings? Having empathy and compassion for their historical suffering and current situation?

    Why do conservatives think that having empathy and compassion for others is a bad thing?

    You criticize the white trash caricature and yet you constantly caricature liberals.

  18. I have read the same text and have been unable to find any exclusive markers that mark 'lower class white people'.

    Fat - isn't reserved for poor white trash

    gun toting - isn't reserved for poor white trash

    sideshow vs. big tent - isn't reserved for poor white trash

    anti-immigrant sentiments - isn't reserved for poor white trash

    Although explicit or tacit class hatred is and will be a part of any libertarian discourse, this one doesn't reveal itself exclusively towards 'poor white trash', or, lower class white people. So, please, find a better sample to voice the obvious.

  19. I'll keep looking, Otisagabey. But please do tell -- what's being stated here that you find obvious? Because whatever it is, it may not be as obvious to everyone as it is to you.

    As for "exclusive markers," I don't think they need to be exclusive to be winking markers. That conglomeration of markers in that context tells me what kind of Americans Maher is referring to and joking about.


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