Monday, December 28, 2015

(Re)claiming "white trash": a commentary on race, class and geography

NPR's Race Card series ran a piece this morning headlined, "6 Words:  Yes, I'm Tobacco Pickin' White Trash."  Michele Norris, who runs the "Race Card" project selected this submission on race and identity from Tracy Hart, an economist in Washington, DC.  Norris notes that Hart is one of many who have made a race card submission to describe their roots at the intersection of race, class and geography.  The term "white trash" shows up fairly often in the six-word submissions for The Race Card Project, Norris says, as do words like hillbilly, redneck, hayseed and bumpkin. Norris is quoted:
People are sometimes writing about pain, sometimes they're using humor to distance themselves from the pain, sometimes it's associated with a kind of nostalgia.  
Some other such submissions listed in the story are:
Hillbilly White Trash? I'm Oxford educated — C. B., West Va.
"Appalachian" means "none of your business" — Amy Tanisha, Petaluma, Calif.
Hillbilly – the wrong kind of white — TR Kelley, Swisshome, Ore.
I'm Appalachian — it's an invisible ethnicity— Catherine Vance Agrella, Asheville, N.C.
Poor white trash, not welcome here — Tracie Combs-Cantu, Austin, Texas
Do hillbillies have white privilege too?— Tony Van Winkle, Knoxville, Tenn.
One thing I like about these is that most recognize explicitly that whites have race, too.

So how does a well-traveled World Bank economist like Hart come to claim the phrase "white trash" for herself?  Well, Norris suggests it involves a bit of nostalgia and pain, but I would suggest that there is also a sort of pride inherent in claiming the term.  I say "pride" because the extended family Hart describes were poor.  What Norris's report overlooks, however, is that Hart's family was not lazy.   In particular, Hart describes her great uncle, Reese Billings, who lived in Independence, Virginia.
He died within the last 10 years, never having had indoor plumbing, never having had electrical wiring in his house, never having had a telephone line to his house.  The water for the kitchen came from the stream through a PVC pipe, then dumped into a sink and then there was an egress PVC pipe that took it back to the stream downhill. And that was the only running water in the house.
So what Hart describes is rural poverty, but it is not what I and people like Matt Wray consider the sine qua non of white trash:  dirtiness and laziness.  Indeed, as Hart acknowledges, the fact her ancestors picked tobacco ultimately helped pay for her education at UC Berkeley.

Norris notes that the term "white trash" is pejorative--harsh and a slur--but it can also be used as a shield.  I think this is where the "pride" associated with white comes in.  The story continues, referring to Hart:
For those in the Deep South, she says, the term has been embraced by a significant part of poor people who feel misunderstood. "They feel misunderstood because of the heavy legacy of slavery and segregation and poverty," she says. "And I think part of their feeling misunderstood is to take on or embrace that term, which is self-denigrating but it also says, 'We've been hurt, too.' "
Hart further observes:
I'm able to admit it [her "white trash" family/background] because I've stepped out of it. ... It's where I'm from — but it's not where I'm at.
In other words, Hart is a white class migrant.  As such, she gets to take some moral high ground in what she has accomplished, her move up the socioeconomic ladder.

Kudos to Norris for including this piece in the Race Card Project and to Hart and others who have written to the project for being courageous enough to claim who they are, where they've come from.

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