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Why It's Time To Retire The Disparaging Term 'White Trash'


There are not many racial slurs that you hear on cable TV or read in the headlines these days. One exception - white trash. As part of our Word Watch series, Leah Donnella with NPR's Code Switch team looked into what the expression white trash really means.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: When you hear the phrase white trash, there are probably a bunch of images, maybe even some jokes, that come to mind.


CHARLIE DAY: (As Charlie Kelly) You don't know karate. You're white trash.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It's the mullet and the Ted Nugent votes.


CHELCIE LYNN: (As Trailer Trash Tammy) I like to call them Tammy's trashy nachos.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Shut up, you stupid...


REBEL SON: (Singing) I'm proud to be a redneck piece of white trash.

DONNELLA: But the words we tend to associate with white trash are actually pretty serious - poor, lazy, uneducated, violent, dirty, immoral, racist.

MATT WRAY: Nowadays, the connotation is that they're probably crack or meth addicts or opioid addicts.

DONNELLA: That's Matt Wray. He's a professor at Temple University.

WRAY: They live in trailer parks and ramshackle cabins in the woods. And they are rude and crude and obnoxious.

DONNELLA: Wray is also the author of "Not Quite White: White Trash And The Boundaries Of Whiteness." And he says the term is kind of an oxymoron.

WRAY: White suggesting purity, cleanliness, even the sacred, while trash is about impurity, dirtiness and the profane.

DONNELLA: Wray says that contradiction exists because white trash is used to describe a contradiction - white people who don't act like white people. We have all these racist stereotypes about black and brown people that they are poor and lazy and violent. But those same stereotypes don't exist for white people. So they're put into a whole different category.

WRAY: This is a term that really has white supremacy baked into it because it's kind of like it's understood that if you're not white, you're trash.

DONNELLA: Wray says that poor white people have actually faced some of the same conditions as people of color throughout U.S. history. They've been disenfranchised, experimented on, institutionalized, even forcibly sterilized. And Nancy Isenberg, of Louisiana State University, says the term white trash is used to silence those people when they try to speak out.

NANCY ISENBERG: Somehow, their complaint is threatening the power structure and the class order and the way in which they imagine the world should operate. So this is how the poor are always silenced. Whether it's attacking poor blacks and, you know, accusing them of being dependent on welfare, it's the same kind of strategy.

DONNELLA: Isenberg wrote a book called "White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story Of Class In America." She says it's super common to ignore real issues that affect poor white people and, at the same time, blame them for things that all kinds of white people do.

ISENBERG: This is what happened during the Trump campaign. Working-class whites were attacked by the media who called them white trash. And this becomes a way to not engage in what the issues are that reflect different class groups because white trash kind of throws them all into one group. And we know that people across the class spectrum voted for Trump.

DONNELLA: These days, there are a lot of people who celebrate being white trash. There are white trash cookbooks, songs about being white trash. You can buy T-shirts and sweatshirts and hats. So does that make it OK? Well, these experts say reclaiming the term is not that simple because it reinforces a dangerous premise that when white people act in ways that are frowned upon, it's unusual and unexpected. And when everyone else does it, that's just how those people are. Leah Donnella, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW CENTURY CLASSICS' "ROOM ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
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