We talk a lot about language at the Same Rowdy Crowd, and in a week when we’re talking about dehumanizing language, I’d like to nominate a dehumanizing term that we all agree to avoid.
If you peruse the 13 million hits you get when you Google “white trash,” you will see that this term is very normalized and accepted in popular culture, as is it’s cousin “trailer trash” (7 million hits). This is highly mainstreamed dehumanizing.
If you doubt that “white trash” is a dehumanizing term, try retrofitting it by replacing the word “white” with “black,” “Mexican,” “Asian,” or “female.” Make you squirm? If a talk radio jock started calling people in North Minneapolis “black trash,” would that be okay?
I don’t intend to be all self-righteous about this, because I’ve used the term, and laughed many times when others used it. But when I associated human beings – parents, kids, and grandparents, people who love and are loved– with the filthy decomposing crap we all thoughtlessly discard while holding our noses, I was messed up. Not my finest hour.
I’m not a big PC guy. But language is powerful, and the problem with dehumanizing language is that once we start labeling people as inferior Others, it becomes too easy to abuse them through personal, economic or policy-related actions. Even genocide. After all, they’re just trash.
I’m not suggesting anything approaching censorship here. I’m mostly just talking about avoiding the term. But if you’re particularly brave, maybe you could give the same kind of treatment most of us give someone when they use the “n” word: A gentle shake of the head and a “no, that’s not right,” the way Republican Senator John McCain gently did when the Minnesota woman asserted that Barrack Obama was not an American because of the sound of his name. Quietly, McCain did a noble and courageous thing by taking on the crowd that day, and we could do the same by quietly doing our part to take the social acceptability and hilarity out of “white trash” labeling.
Will avoiding the term “white trash” save the world? Nope. We’ll only be a barely better world. But hey, that’s not a bad day’s work.