White Trash

Introduction:

After several discussions about the concept of white trash in early 2008, I wrote in my notes on October 28 that it appeared to me that the notion of white trash is constructed to distract from the real issue. I noted my thought that if society can talk about white trash, then society can say in a manner “see?…we are talking about whiteness.”

Only days later a printed chapter from the book White Trash: Race and Class in America (1997) was handed to me to read. The chapter written by Annalee Newitz titled White Savagery and Humiliation, or a New Racial Consciousness in the Media.

Navel Gazing?

Newitz writes on page 133:

Partly as a result of criticism directed at whiteness by civil rights groups and minority intellectuals for the past several decades, whites are slowly undergoing a transformation which involves reevaluating racial stereotypes. Not surprisingly, however, this reevaluation is causing an internal instability within whiteness. It has generated a stereotyped white Other which is called, among other things, “white trash.”

Of note in this quote is Newitz’ use of the term “whiteness.” At this point in the book the term whiteness is used as if it is an understood concept. In addition it is used as if it is an accepted term. Something like using the term “bundt pan” to describe a specific cake baking dish. Also, the phrase “stereotyped white Other” introduces the notion that whites too -poor things- can also be the Other. There are two questions here. Is “whiteness” an accepted term, and can those labelled as “white” also be Other?

While there are several ideas in this chapter worth mentioning, one in particular bothered me. Newitz discusses (pg 147) the idea of “new abolitionism.” Most often associated with Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger. Newitz quotes from Race Traitor:

The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin…The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a predictor of behaviour will lead to its collapse…Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.

She interprets and sums up this passage as “whites must abolish themselves for humanity to be free” (147). Newitz does go on further to explain that this is not her position, but I found the interpretation to be troublesome. I acknowledge here that this literal position is not necessarily that of Ignatiev, Roediger or Newitz.

The idea whispered in my mind for some time simply nagging at me. It took some time for me to work this out, but I may be able to give the nagging feeling some words at this point. It feels to me like a type of arrogance and self-centeredness. Almost as if whites are so important, or at least have made themselves to be so incredibly necessary to the rest of the world that for anyone else to be free “whites must abolish themselves.” It becomes a kind of navel gazing. I could be completely wrong about this at this point, but I think it is worth looking into.

(As a side note, in talking about white trash one is sure to invoke Greenberg’s ideas about kitsch.)

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