Taking Out The “White Trash”

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.

“White trash.”

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.

– Loveland

8 thoughts on “Taking Out The “White Trash”

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Being a wet-blanket killjoy, I vote nay on the title choice. But I’m sure the Asparagus Pie is divine.

  1. john sherman says:

    Like villain, boor, and churl were originally, “white trash” seems to be an insult based largely on economic class. It carries with it the suggestion that anyone who doesn’t have much money also doesn’t have much taste, intelligence, ambition or morality.

    I’m not sure about the origins of the phrase but my sense is that it grew up among well-to-do Southern whites as a way of describing those whites who they disdained almost as much black people. I can’t remember, but I think somebody in Huck Finn refers to Pap Finn as white trash although that may simply be short hand for the way I remember him.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      John and Jim, great points about Mark Twain and Harper Lee. Writers have to use the term to portray the world as it is. (But the rest of us have to bear the responsibility of changing the world as it is.)

      I cut a lot of slack to people who use inappropriate language without malice, such as the 90-year old with no history of mistreating African Americans who says the “n” word because that’s what he heard through much of his life. Intent matters.

      But the way “white trash” is used by most, there is a lot of malice. It’s intended to demean.

      1. john sherman says:

        Where are you on redneck, cracker and peckerwood? They all seem to refer to the same demographic. How about yahoo? It doesn’t carry the class, race or regional loading, and I need a word to describe someone who is loud, ignorant, bigoted and brutal other than Republican and asshole.

      2. Joe Loveland says:

        Re: Redneck, cracker and peckerwood.

        When you look up the definition in the Urban Dictionary, and survey common usage, there’s a lot of demeaning wrapped up in those terms too. But to me, those aren’t nearly as dehumanizing as labeling someone “trash.”

      3. Jim Leinfelder says:

        Sorry, Joe, that was not my point. In the anecdote from “Mississippi Burning,” and in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the fuse that lead to the explosion of evil perpetrated by those men was primed with the constant dunning of shame and self-loathing that the phrase “white trash” is meant to instill.

        Whereas, when Atticus uses “trash,” he is condemning men of high class standing for their behavior, not for the economic circumstances of their birth.

  2. Jim Leinfelder says:

    “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash. ~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 23, spoken by the character Atticus

    I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks. ~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 23, spoken by the character Scout

Comments are closed.