Via KF, I found this post from Meg about how the term ‘white trash’ or its abbreviation ‘WT’ bugs the shit out of her because it’s racist. There’s some discussion of ‘redneck’ in the comments, but Meg doesn’t seem ready to call ‘redneck’ a racial slur.
I have a lot of thoughts that are, as always, jumbled. If one had to rank them, I would say that redneck is the worse slur, by far.
I think, for those of us keeping score at home, white trash seems on the surface like the worse phrase because we tend to think that, if the word ‘trash’ has to be modified by ‘white,’ the implication must be that trash is, in general, non-white. I think, though, this completely overlooks how white people think about race, which is to say that, in general, we don’t think about race much at all, at least not in the way that we liberals would like white people to think about race.
To make a broad generalization, we white people assume everyone is white. When we say “we,” we mean “we white people.” When we’re talking about our friends and someone asks us to describe, say, the Professor, we say “She’s kind of short and has brown hair and an infectious grin,” the implication that she’s white is just there.
The one place in our language where the implied “white” is actually verbalized is in phrases that describe class. Why? It is not because we need to specify what kind of trash the person is (which would be the case if ‘white’ modified ‘trash’); it’s because we need to specify what kind of white the person is.
When we talk about East Coast WASPs, we mean some very specific things about how those people look and behave. No one suggests that the term WASP itself is racist because needing to specify ‘white Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ insinuates that the standard for ‘Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ is otherwise non-white.
When we lit crit folks sit around and complain about a canon stuffed to the gills with dead white men, the term ‘dead white men’ is not based on the assumption that the standard everyday use of the term ‘dead men’ is to describe dead non-white men.
Now, it’s true that, if there weren’t a bunch of non-white people in the world that white people at least subconsciously view as not them, there wouldn’t be any need to describe folks as ‘white.’ The term wouldn’t have any meaning.
So, yes, at some core level, one might say that the term is racist. But I don’t think Meg is talking about a level that needs archeological expeditions to reach. She means that it’s racist right under the surface, because she thinks it insinuates that the standard for ‘trash’ is non-white.
I, on the other hand, would guess that, really, ‘white’ is never in question; it’s whether the person is trashy or not that is up for scrutiny. ‘Trash’ is the word that carries with it the possibility of being something else; not ‘white.’
So, I think ‘white trash’ is a disparaging term and one that polite people ought to avoid when describing others. But, if someone called me or mine ‘white trash,’ I wouldn’t be nearly as offended as I would be if someone called us ‘rednecks.’
I think country music bears this out, too. How many songs are there about white trash? A handful. Why? Because no one takes that seriously as an insult.
How many songs are there about rednecks?
A shit ton.
Because that’s a term designed to put a person in his or her place; that’s a term designed to cut you right down at the knees. Inherent in ‘white trash’ is the idea that at least those people are, in some way, like us. They’re white; they’re just trashy.
Redneck is a way of constantly reinforcing the idea that white folks at the bottom of society have no access to power. If the default “we” is white, “redneck” is a way of designating that group of folks as “not us.” They are ignorant, superstitious, hateful, sickly, obese, drug-addled, alcoholic, abusive, squalor-ridden, country music-loving, racist, back-woods, gun-toting, fucktards–they are ‘not us.’ They’re not even “our” color.
Songs about ‘rednecks’ are about trying to take the sting out of an ugliness. Fuck, Jeff Foxworthy got rich helping folks laugh in the face of a word designed to remind them they are stuck at the bottom and going nowhere.
Is it any wonder, then, that we see so much ‘white pride’ among the ‘redneck’ contingent? Sure, it’s about hating non-whites, but there’s a way in which it also works as a way for the ‘redneck’ contingent to say to other white folks, “Fuck you. We’re ‘us,’ too.”