Here’s your sign

October 19, 2007

Okay, Wray & Newitz. Two questions: what is white trash, really, and can/should it be thought of as a culture, an object of study within the framework of multiculturism as practiced in the academic literary world?

When I opened the book White Trash, assigned for my multicultural southern lit class, the last thing I expected to read about within its pages was myself. Yet, within a few pages, I had fought down several shivers of recognition. Reading about white trash in Detroit, I just had to ask myself, was I white trash? No, but the interesting part of that question isn’t the answer. It’s another question: why wasn’t I white trash? So many of the outward markers could have been applied to me, or almost applied. Grew up in an industrial town in Michigan? Check. Qualified for reduced lunches? Check. Child of a single mother, conceived out of wedlock? Yup. House a chronic mess, no matching bedsheets or furniture or flatware (save the tupperware)? Yes. Wore hand-me-downs and shopped at consignment stores when we were flush, Goodwill when we weren’t? Yes. Considered a trip to Ryan’s Family Steakhouse a nice dinner out? Oh yeah, you betcha. Kristen Bell, aka Veronica Mars, refers to her family as white trash, and she grew up in Michigan, so why not me?

For starters, there’s as many superficial markers in the solidly middle class direction that could be placed one me as well. Both of my parents went to college (eventually), my dad completing a Master’s degree at Berkeley well before I was born. My mother was our only residential parent, but my dad did send money and my grandma lived nearby so we usually had two adults around. That money sometimes ran out, but when it did there were credit cards, so we were never in real danger from one month to the next. My mom paid a mortgage instead of rent from the time we moved to Michigan onwards–I never remember living in an apartment during my childhood years.

So those are the tangibles that kept us out of white trash-ness, but to be honest I still don’t think these are the heart of the matter. There’s something else, something that is not even truly attributable to education, seeing as my mother did not finish her college degree until I was in the third grade. My parents had some innate sense of culture that they made it a priority to transmit to us–a sense of culture that neither of their own parents had either. When it came to music, our ears were always filled with Bach, Beethoven, and British rock & roll. It was assumed we would all play at least one instrument. The first “luxury” item I can remember coming into our house was a beautiful upright piano. We watched plenty of television, but we were only allowed to watch it on two channels: Disney and PBS. (An exception could occasionally be made for Nickelodeon.) Grades were important, and not just getting good ones– Mom insisted that we do our best work no matter what the grade was. I remember being sternly lectured when I brought home an A paper which my mom considered subpar writing. I re-wrote it that day during my free time at school, I was so ashamed of myself for disappointing her. Also, I distinctly remember my mom explaining homosexuality to me around the time of Ryan White’s fame. I was 8 or 9 maybe? She told me that sometimes men love men and women love women. Just like that–sometimes, people are attracted to the same sex. (I was too young to realize that the fact that my mom had spent her 20’s in San Francisco in the 70’s meant that she probably had plenty of friends who were so attracted.) Our material trappings were questionable, but intellectually we were definitely not white trash, which seems like a sliver of a difference but kind of a big one, when I think about how I have been perceived as I’ve moved through the world.

We did have friends who definitely were white trash, though, and although I didn’t know the term at that time, I had a deep and abiding fear of not them but the lives they lead. My mom had a friend who lived an hour away from us, who was also a single mother, and once or twice a year we would spend the weekend together. Usually us going to their house, once in a while at a motel in some city with a kids’ museum, and much more rarely them coming to our house. Whenever we went to their house, I couldn’t wait to leave. I clearly remember the shock of our first visit. I had thought no house looked worse than ours, but this one did, and much, much worse. I’ll never forget the fear I had of using their bathroom, which forced me to look at the buckling, black-mildewed tile of their shower. My fear of that tile was primal. It was like my boogeyman. I thought about it for days after we left. If I was being honest with myself–there was also a phase in which I felt profoundly guilty for hating their house, in which I realized that the fact that they didn’t have the money to fix their crumbling bathroom fixtures or broken windows didn’t mean that there was something wrong with them.

In hindsight, I know I wasn’t really scared of them or their run down rented house. I was scared that we could turn into them–if mom got sick and lost her job, if dad stopped sending money, if I wasn’t careful and accidently broke something around the house that cost too much to fix. There is still nothing that frightens me more than an ordinary thing breaking around the house. Every time the car stops working or the plumbing goes wonky, I feel ashamed and terrified. What if this is the last time we manage to fix it? What if this is the beginning of our transformation into that kind of people? Deep down, I still fear that, and I fear that no amount of education will help me if I run out of money to keep up some semblance of appearances.

But, obviously, the most important questions that reading White Trash raises are not the personal ones. The big question is, do we need whiteness studies to match our womens’, African American, Asian American, Native American, Latino/chicano studies? Is that a useful thing to devote our time and attention to deeming a social construction, or is it just one more way for the dominant group to talk about itself?

I haven’t decided yet, and I can see it being both useful and harmful at the same time, and I am inclined to agree with my fellow grad student PH when she says that no one should need to be in a category at all. But in general I’m inclined to say yes, we should talk about whiteness. Whiteness, like middle classness, is usually considered the unmarked category, the category in which you don’t need an adjective to describe yourself. As a permanent member of at least one adjectived category, woman, I feel that this is chronically unfair. Case in point, as SOS brought up recently, at readings, Sherman Alexie is going to get asked how being a native American has influenced his writing at most Q&A’s, whereas no one would think to ask a white writer that. The audience would start with questions of style and artistry rather than identity. The fact that there are whole subsections of academic discipline to deal with my existence–women’s writing, women’s history, women’s health–is evidence both of increasing sensitivity to my difference but ALSO of my permanent implied exclusion and non-normativity in the unmarked versions of these disciplines. In some way it does reinscribe my marginality at the same time as it writes me into existence. So, ironically, those who argue that creating whiteness as a category of study is another potential form of domination are completely overlooking the fact that categorization to some extent equates with marginalization in every other case. You see? If that argument held up completely, it would work the same in both directions. It couldn’t simultaneously bring us down and bring them up.

So, to steal Jeff Foxworthy’s formulation, I think we should starting handing whiteness its sign. It probably won’t work any better than anything else we’ve tried, but at least it would be even-handed, and once it’s even-handed maybe it can change. I’d prefer that none of us have to live and work in the marked identity ghetto, but as long as someone’s in there we probably all should be.

But aside from those kind of academic considerations, which can make me feel overly safe from the often scary realities of white trashness, it’s the class part that continues to haunt me. We can change all the adjectives we want, but very little will change on the ground until material reality and opportunity do in a real way. I’m thinking of the people of Jena who want the world to know that their town just isn’t “like that.” If, as one of the essays hints, that racism is a product of a classist system so deeply integral to how we think of America, it’s not going to be a matter of education alone to end it. If right wing political power is so dependent on getting large swaths of white, lower middle class America to vote against their own economic self-interest, how can we ever hope that a bill like the current S-CHIP one to pass? Because that would help middle class people, and moreover, it would be fair. Fair cannot be the goal if you want the middle class to stay hostile toward the poor rather than claim even a strategic solidarity with them–because then whoah, you’d kind of have a majority of people who might favor going in a more socialist direction for certain areas of civil life, and that’s anathema. Profound unfairness is the basis of a lot of American identity, even when it is mythically recast into absolute opportunity.

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3 Responses to “Here’s your sign”

  1. S.O.S Says:

    What an articulate, enjoyable post SJ. I have a thought or two to add, and may do so tomorrow (after I get some sleep). But I couldn’t leave the page without saying I enjoyed the post a great deal.

  2. Wide Lawns Says:

    This is good Liz. You could publish this, but ultimately I don’t think you were white trash because your parents were educated. I normally associate white trashedness, as I call it, with lack of education. I think social class has so much more to do with education than it does with actual money. For instance, uneducated poor people are considered white trash (or ghetto trash or immigrant trash or whatever race they are’s trash), whereas educated poor people seem to be viewed more as quirky, slightly or very eccentric, and absent minded as a way to explain their lack of money and often messy houses, but they are never considered with the same type of low class derision I’ve experienced with the uneducated. Additionally I’ve seen several people with a lot of money who were uneducated and uncultured and still considered white trash. Elvis is the patron saint of rich white trash.

    So it seems in our society there is a certain nobility and affection attached to being educated yet poor, while there is a disdain for being uneducated and uncultured no matter the contents of one’s bank account.

    I wish I had taken that class because I’ve experienced and lived all sides of this topic. Maybe you could bring me in for show and tell.

    Interestingly, I viewed myself as white trash before I got an education and as soon as I started grad school I realized one day that I had stopped viewing myself this way, although I had the same amount of money.

    Ok done. I shall now stop typing.

  3. S.O.S Says:

    I am going to second what Wide Lawns said. I think one of the key identity markers to “white trash” is a lack of education. However, there is something else there too. I can honestly say I have never viewed my family as white trash. I grew up in rural Ohio with my dad’s side of the family. My grandmother, dad, uncle and aunt all dropped out of school at early ages (my dad, uncle, and aunt received GEDs later…I think dad got his when he was close to my age…maybe a little older). Mom & dad expected my brother and I to graduate from high school, but there were no expectations for us to go to college. There wasn’t a premium put on culture or educational trips when I was a kid; I visited my first museum when I was 19 (if I don’t include a school trip to the Zane Grey museum, which I barely remember). However, there was a premium put on reading and working hard work My grandmother took us to the library regularly. My parents worked five days a week and were always reading as well. We didn’t have much money, but that didn’t keep mom/dad/grandma from keeping what they did have looking nice and in decent shape. I identify my mother a little differently than my dad and his family, simply because she came from another country where she received an education and excelled at school. However, I’m sure my dad and grandmother would never have identified themselves as white trash because I think they viewed that to mean people who live on welfare and refuse to take care of themselves, even if they have the ability to do so. So their definition of white trash didn’t depend on education, but on what they perceived as a person’s work ethic.


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