White Trash


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.)

More on White Trash


Exploring the idea of “white trash” further I found the article by Charles Castle titled “White Trash” Identities, Media, and Popular Culture: Redefining White Hegemony in Contemporary American Culture (published in Cultural Landscapes by Columbia College Chicago in 2007).


Castle introduces the reader, with several quotes from other authors, to the idea that “whiteness” is generally invisible. “It is always whiteness that is centered and assumed. Difference is understood in relation to it” (Rothenberg 2 qtd. in Castle 4). “To be white in America is not to have to think about it” (Terry 120 qtd. in Castle 4). [Whites] “stand as unmarked, normative bodies and selves” (Wray and Newitz 3 qtd. in Castle 4).

Castle’s position is similar to that of Wray and Newitz in their assertion that the way to contribute to the dismantling of whiteness (racialization) is to expose the dialogue, the institutionalization, the material, as well as the cultural practices that hide whiteness and essentially make it invisible. The goal is to “make whiteness visible to whites” (Wray and Newitz qtd. in Castle 5). Castle also uses a quote from Frankenberg (in discussing the identity of white trash): “The naming of whiteness displaces it from the unmarked, unnamed status that is itself an effect of its dominance” (29). It is here again that there is an acknowledgement that whiteness needs to be named. This whole process in turn seems to continue to entrench the idea that there are different races.

It becomes a kind of paradox. To talk about and expose the present construct of whiteness (what it means and what it is) in order to again make it invisible. Although in attempting to articulate what needs to happen here, I am tempted to suggest that this should not be the goal (and these authors may also be saying that). What seems necessary to me is to recognize difference (with a sense of the awesome diversity of this planet), but to not use that difference to oppress or dominate.

Pulling a few other relevant ideas from this article it becomes apparent that the whole notion of whiteness is very complex. For example Castle states:

Being white is not something I choose, and the related manifestations of privilege are not something that I consciously take and, therefore, do not have the option of not taking. Privilege is something that society bestows. Unless I speak and challenge the conventions which continue to give me privilege, I will continue to have it no matter how much I try to live my life outside it (6).

Another idea that deserves to be mined is the notion that the elite use etiquette to ostracize and create a lower social Other (white trash) in order to dominate and control (10-11). What comes to mind is the the use of the the term “lady”, as well as the definitions of “Mrs.” and “Miss.” For instance a portion of the definition (Oxford) of lady is “woman belonging to the upper class or fitted for it by manners, habits, and sentiments” (emphasis mine).

Castle also discusses the commodification of white trash where whiteness buys select portions of the white trash identity, which in turn constructs whiteness. It is not a question of being born into whiteness (although I think this still does happen too, which Castle acknowledges when he earlier says that he does not have the option of not taking the bestowed privilege), but being able to buy into it (14,15).

Castle concludes his article by asserting that the appropriation of a white trash identity in popular culture serves to continue to make whiteness invisible. He explains that positive white trash images (rather than stereotypical dirty imagery) serve to embed a positive construct of whiteness essentially acting as a distraction (by becoming a spectacle) to keep societies (white?) eyes away from the the notions of institutional whiteness.

The main question here as I understand it (and this has come to mind many times now) is how to discuss and dismantle the construct of whiteness (as lived and experienced), without continuing to uphold and affirm the same construct.

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Work Cited

Castle, Charles S. “’White Trash’ Identities, Media, and Popular Culture: Redefining White Hegemony in Contemporary American Culture.” Cultural Landscapes 1.1 2007 3-33. Columbia College Chicago. Web. 2009.