White Trash vs. Redneck

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.

And why?

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.” 



46 thoughts on “White Trash vs. Redneck

  1. I disagree. White trash, or more correctly, po’ white trash, is much more derisive than it’s baby cousin, the redneck.People aspire to be rednecks. Jackson Browne, Ben Folds…all have paid homage to the redneck in song. Buford Pusser was a redneck. He was not white trash.White trash is about trailers, incest, and irregular hygene. Think Jerry Springer.Redneck is an attitude. It’s PBR, monster trucks, and pro wrestling. Rednecks have jobs, make money, and are very much into being consumers. Redneck is an industry.Rednecks are Williamson County. White trash is Antioch.

  2. You make reasonable points. They are wrong, but reasonable.Clearly, the only way to settle this is a duel.

  3. Rednecks get out on the lake. White trash sits in a kiddie pool in the front yard.Jim Goad touched on this in "The Redneck Manifesto". Every one was indoctrinated into looking down on poor white trash. Especially the blacks.From Archie Green, "Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol.There is no point in documenting the obvious by noting all the contemporary nuances – negative or comic – that describe the Southern mountaineer or backwoodsman today. Two snatches of folksong, however, add biting twists to the term as well as relate it to specific areas of agrarian conflict. In the Kentucky tobacco wars of 1907 organized farmers sang derisively of their dissident neighbors. "Oh poor old hillbilly, oh, where do you stand,/While the Dark Tobacco Planters Association is forming its clan?" In Texas, some years later, sharecroppers and muleskinners chanted, "I’d rather be a nigger an’ plow ol’ Beck,/Dan a white hill-billy wid a long red neck."Or this old fiddle tune,The poor white man, the poor white man,Livin’ up north in a cold white land;Never seen a banjo or heard a nigger band,I druther be a nigger than a poor white man.The poor white man, the poor white man,Never seen a possum or a possun in the pan;never had a chicken or a razor in his hand,I druther be a nigger than a poor white man.I’m an old nigger and I’ll take a dram,I druther be a nigger than a poor white man. This line is also sometimes heard sung:My name is Sam, I don’t give a damn,I’d reather be a nigger ‘n a po’ white man.

  4. I’m going with the traditional explanation that my grandmother gave me.A "redneck" was defined as a person who had to do manual labor outside in the sun. Thereby getting a "red" sunburned neck. What this said about them socially was that they were rural and not necessarily educated enough for working at an inside white colllar job. Her definition comes from a time when a factory job up North meant you weren’t a redneck any more. I think those times have changed.White Trash is tricky. From an old school southern perspective, that’s about as bad as it could get. Even Scarlett’s Mammy looked down on White Trash. I wonder if the term was created to differentiate Free Black people who might have been poor but with values and morals versus an already existing poor white underclass. Times may have changed on this idea too. Is Ghetto an equivalent?

  5. First of all, I can’t believe you went to the effort to type out all those song lyrics. And second, of course, I agree with you and Goad that there’s a lot to it that has to do with keeping poor white people and poor black people fighting in order to keep them from banding together.I think the mistake you both make is this "especially the blacks" crap. Look at how you structure your sentence even–"Every one was indoctrinated into looking down on poor white trash. Especially the blacks."–with the passive voice: was indoctronated.Well, by whom? By the people with power, who want to stay in power, who do disgusting shit and then say "there are some white folks to take your anger out on" while at the same time working to guarantee that those white people rarely, if ever, get access to the benefits that come from being a white person of any other class.

  6. Hmm. Good point, Saraclark. I wonder if there are regional differences in the perception of which is worse. Growing up in the Midwest, we had a lot of white trash or trailer trash or whatever. It was a way to make fun of people, but it wasn’t a terrible insult. After all, a person could, persumably, stop being trashy.But a redneck? To call someone a redneck in my neck of the woods was to call them someone dangerously ignorant.When I heard Gretchen Wilson’s Redneck Woman, knowing she was from Illinois, I was bowled over. You might call yourself trashy, but I don’t know anyone who would have proudly called themselves a redneck, unless there was some implied threat of violence behind it.

  7. When are you going to open your Poem Repair shop? The lyrics were cut and paste, like you didn’t know. The sentence was ill-constructed, as my attentions were elsewhere.

  8. I would have an awesome Poem Repair shop! If only I had better grammar, I could be an All Kinds of Manuscripts Repair shop.As for the rest of your post–"Oh, B., I’m sorry. I was busy getting a blowjob/washing my hair/watching The Wire and could only pay cursory attention to your innane blathering."–Pbthbhthbpth.Ha, I’m twelve.

  9. I WOULD be watching the Wire, if the cocksuckers at Comcast could get the On Demand up and running. It has been down since at least yesterday.My attentions are captivated by old ladies watching the Perry March trial on Channel 5+ calling in to the witless Nick Beres with their idiot questions and whacko theories. Hence, the Tonto/Tarzan/Frankenstein syntax.Fire bad!

  10. White trash is definitely more malicious than redneck. Credit goes to Foxworthy and the plethora of others who have mainstreamed the term, and even embraced it as their own, much the way members of the black community have taken over the term ‘nigger’.Speaking of which, perhaps the ‘white’ in ‘white trash’ is necessary because, other than redneck, there isn’t a good, single slur to call the trashier members of the white community.The black community has ‘nigger’ to differentiate the black community in general from the trashier part, based on a quote from a friend of mine as we went to the Atlanta Bus Terminal, "I may be black, but these folks are niggers." (True Story)Without, redneck, what have you got?

  11. Funny you should bring up Gretchen. Maybe it struck me the wrong way,but Redneck Woman seemed to be the most un-feminist song I had heard in years. I felt like it dragged every woman back by 40 years and glorified everything the feminists had been fighting against.Appalling. All I could picture were pregnant high school girls in the outback areas suddenly having a theme song and role model. Maybe she’s proclaiming that she’s part of a different social class, but it didn’t stike me as something to be proud of. I did not percieve any implied trashyness about this image, plenty of redneck but that could have been the southern cultural filter.Hell yeah.

  12. "I wonder if there are regional differences in the perception of which is worse."I grew up in St. Louis (central corridor, which is different from north St. Louis and south St. Louis) and never heard either of those terms used. The first time I heard people intending to be really insulting to the group best described as "either white trash or redneck, whichever you perceive as the truly culturally godforsaken, but here in the city" the term used was "hoosier." It took years before "hoosier" got replaced by "white trash" or "trailer trash."

  13. And yet at the same time we would use it for people from Ohio with no bit of insult intended. Go figure.

  14. Oh, and did the ex smack you if you said "St. Louey"? Because anyone from my nabe would have hissed at you and said "St. Lou-ISSSS."

  15. Yep, Shug lives down there (up there, I guess, downstate from where we used to live) and she’s always complaining about the hoosiers. I’d only ever heard the term used to describe people from Indiana before that.

  16. One of the many reasons why she is the ex. She didn’t find it funny when I would say, "Sorry, dear. Of course it is St. Lou-iss. As in, St. Lou-iss sure is a ssshithole."

  17. Out of deference to Aunt B., and to maintain the illusion that I am a competent, level-headed adult, I’m not going to respond to that.

  18. I think Jerry Springer has accomplishged one thing and that’s showing the world that white trash and rednecks are not confined to below the Mason Dixon line. Williamson County DOES have white trash. Trust me. Lots of rednecks too, but they have their share of white trash.

  19. Any place with a free zoo, plenty of beer, and lots of Jesuit priests is just never going to be a shithole, or if it is, it’s my kind of shithole.

  20. From a long life among both rednecks and white trash,a simple definition;A redneck would drive a beatup,rusted 76 CadillacWhite Trash will steal it!!

  21. The town is a demolition contractor’s wet dream. At one time, there was a great city at the same location."In 1890, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in America. Today it’s ranked 48th.In 1950, there were almost 900,000 people living inside the city limits. Today that same land is home to only 300,000. That’s out of two and a half million people in the metro area.In the 1990s, the metro population increased by 1 percent. The land consumed by that population went up fifty percent.At any given time there are about 6,000 abandoned buildings in St. Louis. I say approximately because the old ones keep falling down and new ones keep taking their place. An entire industry has built up around the millions of red bricks that come from wrecked houses. They’re stacked on pallets and shipped to other cities."http://www.builtstlouis.net/northside/1900_montgomery00.htmlCompare the crime stats between Nashville (for example) and St. Louis.http://saintlouis.areaconnect.com/crime/compare.htm?c1=St.+Louis&s1=MO&c2=Nashville&s2=TNForest Park is one of the best city parks in the country. Not only do you get the free zoo, museum and science center, but you also get 27 holes of cheap golf. Too bad the rest of the city is dying.

  22. I can take a redneck attitude now and again (leave your goddamn nose out of my private business, most notably), but my momma would whup me if I acted like white trash. So, maybe, redneck is a set of ideologies (a claim to cultural authenticity and commingled race/class pride); white trash is a set of behaviors against which redneck is constructed.Complete the analogy: Redneck is to Lost Cause as White Trash is to ??

  23. My southern perspective on the whole Redneck vs Whitetrash distinction:Whitetrash was a term either invented by or celebrated by overly selfconcious Southern middleclass peoples who were tired of Northerners (Is Damn Yankee apropriate here?) describing them with the derogatory term for a field hand, redneck. I also believe that ‘Whitetrash’ gained popularity in the South during the late 70’s onward when it was used by deluded white people with the purpose of defending the overtly dehumanizing term of nigger.Eg."I don’t know what the big deal is with using nigger. There are blacks and there are niggers, just as there are whites and there are whitetrash." You will hear this quote anytime ‘nigger’ is whispered in a private conversation between southern white people (rednecks?) – which unfortunately, isn’t as uncomon today as one might expect.Sorry, rednecks. I guess the cat is out of the bag.

  24. <i>Whitetrash was a term either invented by or celebrated by overly selfconcious Southern middleclass peoples who were tired of Northerners (Is Damn Yankee apropriate here?) describing them with the derogatory term for a field hand, redneck.</i>Sorry, I don’t think I explained myself as I should have. In other words. Southerners created the po white trash term to show the North that who they were calling rednecks were really "po white trash" (their term), the exception to the Southern rule. As I wrote above. The term was used mostly by an overly selfconcious middleclass trying desperately to distinquish itself as "worthy" in the eyes of Northerners.

  25. Well shit. As someone who uses the word Hillbilly in her blog name AND whose very good friend (and maybe cousin though we’ve yet to suss that out*) calls her blog White Trasherati, I feel like I should say something eloquent here. Too bad I am not up to the job right now. I will say that as far as my hillbilly peeps are concerned, white trash is the lowest rung on the ladder. *How trashy or hillbilly or redneck of us.

  26. I wondered how long this discussion could go on without the n-word being brought into it. For those keeping score, we do differentiate between the -er and the -a versions, and we don’t call each other the -er versions unless we’re being ironic to the nth power. Many of us don’t call each other the -a version. Keep that in mind when you’re making your analogies. Otherwise, this is all dead interesting.

  27. Gandalf,Very much like Foxworthy’s demographic proudly calling themselves rednecks, but I suspect, not enjoying it so much if the calling was from someone outside of their clique.Yes, I referred to them as a clique.

  28. Alabama/Texas perspective:Redneck implies a blue-collar, rural, proudly anti-intellectual/anti-elite cultural perspective. Specifically, the southern Pro-wrestling/rodeo/monster truck/hunting type of things. More generally, a kind of pride in a simple/old-fashioned/conservative lifestyle.Redneck does not necessarily imply antisocial or immoral behavior. White trash implies a lack of class even as defined by self-proclaimed rednecks (as opposed to "elites").White trash = bad upbringing.

  29. Oh yeah – white trash is worse than redneck, from a Southern perspective anyway. Redneck doesn’t mean dangerous, it doesn’t even mean dirt poor. It just means an outdoor labourer (or someone of that background), perhaps a little ignorant. White trash implies a lot of bad choices – and a meanness of the soul. A redneck may better himself and cover that neck with a fine collar, white trash ain’t never crawlin’ out of the gutter.

  30. Lemme illustrate this in a way anyone familiar with Jason Lee will get. Earl was white trash before karma got to him. Now he’s a redneck.

  31. I’m not sure that the term White Trash came from either the upper class or the middle class. My grandmother’s family were dirt poor, but they never cussed, washed before dinner and went to church *every* Sunday (Southern Baptist). My grandfather’s family were hillbillies, and probably would have been (probably were) called White Trash by his wife’s family. They never would have gotten married if WWII hadn’t pulled him out of the hills and put his squirrel shooting skills to a more acclaimed use. I think that the social distinction was much more important to the non-trash poor and their pastors, than it was to the other classes looking down from on high.

  32. Gandalph, I know you might just skim over the longer Sarcastro rants, but if you go back and check the comments, I think you’ll see that ‘nigger’ first showed up in comment three.Don’t you think, though, that part of white people wanting to ‘reclaim’ nigger (let’s just ignore the ridiculousness of that and role with it) is that we want to believe that ‘nigger’ is the equivalent of ‘white trash’ and not a shorthand way of referencing five hundred years of shitty history in order to remind you of where you’ve stood in that history.We want, I think, ‘nigger’ to be okay because we want to feel okay about our history. We want to be forgiven without ever having to articulate what it is we need to be forgiven for and we want a history we can feel good about–yes, we did some wrong things but it turned out for the best, no harm no foul, heritage, not hate.I think Jim Goad makes a good point in *The Redneck Manifesto* that American history is not just about how we fucked over Africans, but also how we fucked over other Europeans (ha, using ‘we’ again to mean white people, sorry). But I still think that Goad’s anger is misplaced. He wants black people to acknowledge that some white people also have similarly bad, exploited histories and he’s pissed off that y’all don’t. His mistake is two-fold–being angry at other people who have suffered (especially when your suffering has been systematic and enshrined in the laws that are the foundation of the country) is stupid and not keeping his anger focused on the people and systems responsible for the suffering is counterproductive.So, I think I’m convinced that ‘white trash’ is worse than ‘redneck.’ Is ‘white trash’ inherently racist? Does it carry in it the assumption that trash is normally non-white?I still say no, it’s not that simple.

  33. >Does it carry in it the assumption that trash is normally non-white?No, it doesn’t. There is a big pool of trash out there, all kinds. At the moment I am trying to draw your attention to a certain subset of all trash, that which is white. This is an issue of specificity, not normativity.

  34. B.Oh, that one kinda caught my eye. However, he didn’t use the N-word to make the analogy, so I didn’t count it.On the second point, I concur, though I wonder if that only applies to us high end Gen X’ers and those of the elder generations? I think younger peeps, especially those who have never known a world without hip hop, see things more concretely, for better or worse. Perhaps they don’t.third: 2 formulations of "white trash":White, but trash.Trash, but white.Depends on how you look at it.

  35. Hmm. Indifferent children, I’ve been thinking about your grandparents all afternoon. But I think you’re actually supporting my point in your efforts to refute it.Because aren’t you arguing that the term ‘white trash’ was used by rural folks to make a class distinction between the ‘good’ folks and the ‘bad’?Why would this have been important to the good folks except that they perceived themselves as being judged by outsiders as being the same as the ‘white trash’?

  36. Why would this have been important to the good folks except that they perceived themselves as being judged by outsiders as being the same as the ‘white trash’?B, except of course, the "good folks" wouldn’t want the "trash" to assume they were equals.I’m also assuming that you’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird. That sums up the difference between redneck and white trash. The Ewells were trash; the Cunninghams and many other characters would have been redneck if the term was used, I haven’t read it for a few years, but I’m fairly sure the term redneck was avoided.

  37. Aunt B., I don’t think that the non-trash rural poor who used (likely invented) the term White Trash were motivated by urban and/or middle-class outsiders. I think that they drew these distinctions internally (was there ever a group so bad off that they didn’t look down their noses at somebody?) Besides, at least when my grandparents were small children getting the White Trash message, the middle-class were a mythical race like Tolkien’s elves.Though I think that the drawing of distinctions was inevitable, the local church probably had a strong influence over where the lines were drawn. If you behaved like an unrepentant sinner (drinking, dancing, cussing, etc), then you probably got the WT-brand, and you were used as a bad example in the pulpit and at the quilting bee.

  38. How do the "white trash" themselves feel/think about all these distinctions? Does one say "I am NOT either trashy" or say "yes I’m different from you and you just don’t get it"? I’m thinking about the girl in Bastard out of Carolina and her fierce identification with the things that make her family outsiders.

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