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.