“White Trash” Continued

Because I actually think its important.

abstract image with silhouettes of all different people
Photo by ficio74 is released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0 via PxHere

A brief preface.

I think some people interpreted my post (the crazily entitled “Maybe Calling People “White Trash” is Unnecessary?“) as some kind of admonition to be nice to MTG and/or not to be critical of Trump voters.  That was not the point, as I thought was quite clear.  Carville’s quote about MTG was a launching-off point.

Also, there was some disagreement in the comment thread as to the generally accepted definition of the term “white trash”, especially as to the degree to which it has classist connotations (i.e., aimed at poor people).  While I certainly can’t control what individuals think a word means, I would note that sources ranging from Dictionary.com to Merriam-Webster to Urban Dictionary to Wikipedia all define the word the way I was using it:  a derogatory term/slur aimed at poor whites. 

A last thought:  I am not saying that there aren’t people who make bad choices and create and perpetuate poor living conditions for themselves and their families.  But this is human reality, not a white one, and really, to me, a wholly different discussion.

Dehumanizing language ought to be a red flag as a general principle, or at least, it is to me.  Objectively speaking, classifying a particular set of persons in a society as “trash” is dehumanizing. This strikes me as an obviously true statement that ought not be controversial. To be honest, it strikes me as a slam-dunk case that should inspire, at a minimum, a pause to consider if the classification is warranted and what general effects such language has. This was the basic thesis of my post on the usage of the term “white trash.”

Indeed, it was a fairly simple post that had the following foundation:

So, let me note that I do not like the phrase “white trash.” It is a racialized notion that is decidedly classist. I also don’t like referring to human beings as “trash”–especially when the characteristics that are ascribed to the notion are usually cultural signifiers (e.g., a typical “white trash” person is an uneducated person with a southern accent who lives in a trailer).*

The term reeks of hierarchy and feels very much like a racial slur.

Who knew the controversy that lurked in that notion?

I think, too, that if a person considers themselves even vaguely “liberal,” an advocate for democracy, and/or a respecter of basic human dignity that the designator “trash” ought to be enough to likewise cause a second or third thought as to the wisdom of the application of the term.

That, too, brings some controvery, it would seem.

Consider, to pick but one example, the way in which prisons in the United States are filled to the brim because we have decided that some significant segment of the population deserves to be treated like refuse.  I know that that has only a tangential relationship to the term “white trash” but it is a worthwhile consideration as to the potential consequences of certain mindsets.

I will say, more on point, that if people who share a certain set of characteristics are, in fact, white trash who deserve their circumstances, it makes for a great excuse not to fund services for such folks since, after all, they brought ot on themselves! It is also follows from such logic that the well-off fully deserve their position in life. It is all justice, a sort of economic Calvinism.

But let us also interrogate not just the “trash” part but the “white” modifier. First, the notion of white trash suggests that the clear norm for white is non-trashiness, hence the need to identify those who fail to meet the standard.  It clearly exists because “white” is the default in American society and it is a good and powerful default.  My grandparents moved out of south Dallas to north Dallas in the 1970s because Blacks were moving into the neighborhood.  A Black influx was considered bad. A Black neighborhood, to this day, is typically associated with a “bad” part of town. This is never true of simply a white neighborhood (which may just be called “the neighborhood” and certainly not “the ‘hood”).  White people moving in is not a problem. Now, white trash moving in would be.  But consider the various power dynamics and general significances of the various modifiers.*

Further, the notion of white trash specifically suggests that for a white person to have made bad choices, and to be living poorly, is a sign of having failed their whiteness, and their rightful place in society. It is clearly a racialized term.**

And by the way, part of the reason it can be bandied about, joked about, even self-applied in some cases is because of the relative power of being white in the first place. 

So, I don’t think it is condescending, elitist, or overly intellectual to suggest, as a general rule, that we should not use dehumanizing language about people we don’t like (or, really, at all) and that it should not be acceptable to cast blanket aspersions over a specific sub-group of the population in a way that is clearly insulting and degrading.

That this is considered controversial or trivial is, to my mind, unfortunate (to engage in some understatement).

And while a lot of people may not want to hear it, some of the comment thread in that post does remind me of arguments I have heard over my lifetime in defense of racist and sexist language. (In terms of “they” deserve it, or “they” use that language, too, and so forth. It seems to me that the fact that these discussions boil down to a “them” and “they” should likewise create room to pause and think).

And while I know a lot of readers think that this topic is just one of tone policing or Ivory Tower pontificating, I actually think these kinds of discussions are quite important.  As readers know, I take democracy and representative government seriously.  While I recognize its flaws, being a proponent of democracy means actually believing that humans are, at some fundamental level, equal and deserving of some degree of being treated as such.  I honestly find the categorization of people, especially in a blithe, vague fashion, as “trash” to be a violation of those values.  And, to be honest, I am a bit surprised and more than a little disappointed that this is not obvious (or that the overall discussion is otherwise trivialized).

I could, no doubt go on and drill down on any number of points because, again, rather than being some trivial matter, it is actually quite serious.  Not only is democracy itself serious, but it also seems pretty obvious to me that the history of derogatory categorization of fellow citizens isn’t a pretty one (both in ways very dramatic and others relatively mundane yet still significant).

A postscript.

Let me addend some biographical notes since a lot of people in the comment thread think that I don’t know what I am talking about due to my educational, professional, and economic status.  

A huge chunk of my family came from a mining town outside of Birmingham, AL, many of whom migrated to Texas in the 1950s in search of better jobs.  The other side came from a smattering of locations in Texas and Louisiana.  It was a decidedly working-class group.  My parents were the first in both of my extended families to go to college and so my upbringing was middle-to-upper-middle class.

For what it is worth, two of my sons live in a trailer (so I have some regular contact with a trailer park), my great-grandmother and great-aunt lived in a trailer in the hills outside of Birmingham, AL when they died (in the late 90s/early 2000s, respectively). I have lived in enough places to know what the general reaction of many people is when the phrase “live in a trailer” is deployed. I literally live next to a farm. Note I am not claiming that I am a farmer, but it is a bit amusing, and a little offputting, for commenters to cast me as some deeply urban elite who lives in sprawlings metropolitan area and could have no idea about these matters.

Further, I live in Alabama and work in a town that is semi-rural with a population of roughly 15,000.  The odds that I have more than a passing knowledge of the various ways poorer, non-urban people live are pretty high.

*I sold my house in Troy, AL in 2002 to move to the outskirts of Montgomery. My neighbor worriedly asked me who had bought the house. There was no doubt she was worried about the wrong kind of person moving in, i.e., a Black person. To this day I wish I had said, “A nice Black lesbian couple” but I was not fast enough on my feet (indeed, was taken aback that the question was asked in the newly minted 21st Century).

**To this general point I would recommend this piece from The New Republic: Why Are White Racists Always Called “White Trash”? and the following from Lucas Lynch, How the Term “White Trash” Reinforces White Supremacy.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. mattbernius says:

    Really well articulated Steven. In particular this section:

    Further, the notion of white trash specifically suggests that for a white person to have made bad choices, and to be living poorly, is a sign of having failed their whiteness, and their rightful place in society. It is clearly a racialized term.

  2. James Joyner says:

    While Hillbilly Elegy got more traction, as it was more of a breezy read, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was a much more useful book. The parallels between our history of racial repression and class are more than passing.

    A short review at the Wisconsin History Dept website:

    In her groundbreaking bestselling history of the class system in America, Nancy Isenberg, #4 on the 2016 Politico 50 list, takes on our comforting myths about equality, uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present, always embarrassing—if occasionally entertaining—poor white trash.

    “When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win,” says Isenberg of the political climate surrounding Sarah Palin. And we recognize how right she is today. Yet the voters that put Trump in the White House have been a permanent part of our American fabric, argues Isenberg.

    The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement to today’s hillbillies. They were alternately known as “waste people,” “offals,” “rubbish,” “lazy lubbers,” and “crackers.” By the 1850s, the downtrodden included so-called “clay eaters” and “sandhillers,” known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.

    Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ’s Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. Marginalized as a class, white trash have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.

    We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation’s history. With Isenberg’s landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.

    Carlos Lozada‘s WaPo review:

    If slavery is America’s original sin, class may be its hidden one.

    It is part of our national creed that the opportunity to achieve and improve ourselves is not predetermined at birth; that upward mobility, while hard, is possible. We are not the British, after all, trapped in some “Downton Abbey” hell of self-aware stratification — we rebelled against all that, right?

    Nancy Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, has authored a gritty and sprawling assault on this aspect of American mythmaking. Ours is very much a class-based society, she argues, and had been long before Occupy Wall Street or Bernie Sanders, long before we were a country at all. In “White Trash” Isenberg takes a very particular look at class in the United States, examining the white rural outcasts whom politicians from Andrew Jackson to Donald Trump have sought to rally, but who otherwise have remained vilified, shunned, targeted and kept apart, both physically — in poorhouses and trailer parks, through eugenic science and discriminatory public policy — and in the nation’s cultural imagination, where they have inspired mockery, kitsch and unceasing grimaces.

    “The white poor have been with us in various guises, as the names they have been given across the centuries attest,” Isenberg writes. “Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White n—–s. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.”

    Isenberg looks upon old American traditions and scoffs, reinterpreting history through the prism of class divisions among the country’s white population, one more caste system in the land of the free. Colonial America, for instance, was “a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets.” England’s most destitute city dwellers were sent here — including children, shipped to the colonies in a practice known as “spiriting” — creating a class of white laborers that served as “disposable property,” Isenberg recounts. “Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larcenies or other property crimes.” Not to Isenberg’s taste are the kindly tales of Puritans and Plymouth Rock, of John Smith and Pocahontas at Jamestown.

    The nation’s founders, already judged for their hypocrisy on slavery, fare little better here on class. During the revolution, George Washington stated that only “the lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers, while Thomas Jefferson considered importing German immigrants to the colonies, hoping to improve the work ethic — and the breeding stock — of farmers and laborers. “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other animals,” the Virginian planter noted, adding, “why not in that of man?”

    Terms such as “cracker” and “squatter” began as Americanisms that brought pejorative English notions of idleness and vagrancy to this side of the Atlantic, where they served as a shorthand for landless migrants. Land undergirds the enduring class hierarchy, Isenberg stresses; then, as today, property ownership determines the social pecking order. “Hereditary titles may have gradually disappeared,” she explains, “but large land grants and land titles remained central to the American system of privilege.”

    By the 1830s and 1840s, the “squatter” had become “fully a symbol of partisan politics, celebrated as the iconic common man who came to epitomize Jacksonian democracy,” Isenberg writes. Taking and clearing land through violence and extra-legal tactics, Jackson emerges as “the political heir of the cracker and squatter.” New and benign versions would reappear in presidential politics, whether with Jimmy Carter (who once quoted a supporter calling him “white trash made good”), Bill Clinton (a self-described Elvis-loving “Bubba,” whose White House dalliances led to a “white trash outing on the grand national stage”) or Sarah Palin, whom Isenberg depicts as “one-half hockey mom and one-half hot militia babe.”

    It should hardly surprise that “White Trash” focuses on white people, and Isenberg lingers on how, even among whites, perceived differences in skin color signaled a class split. Nineteenth-century cultural commentators, she writes, often derided the “unnatural complexions” of the white lower classes, with their flesh the color of “yellow parchment” and their copious offspring bearing a “cadaverous, bloodless look.” And from skin hue, it was a short jump to supposed congenital and cognitive disparities. “More than tallow-colored skin, it was the permanent mark of intellectual stagnation, the ‘inert’ minds, the ‘fumbling’ speech,” Isenberg writes. After the Civil War, “hardworking blacks were suddenly the redeemed ones,” while poor whites remained “undeveloped, evolutionarily stagnant creatures.”

    Throughout this book, such references to race are fleeting and awkward, appearing in parentheticals or occasional asides. At a time when so much of the national debate over inequality centers on racial divides, Isenberg maintains that “class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.” Still, it’s hard to skirt over race when dissecting class in America. At times, the author justifies her choice by implying a sort of equivalence of hardship, as when she emphasizes that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs “targeted both urban ghettos and impoverished white areas of Appalachia” (the italics are Isenberg’s) or when she argues, somewhat improbably, that in the 1920s poor whites “found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system.”

    Isenberg even reinterprets the Civil War as a class struggle alongside a racial one: Northerners looked down on poor Southern whites as proving that reliance on slavery weakened free white workers; Confederates countered that the North debased itself by relying on white labor for menial tasks. “It is no exaggeration to say that in the grand scheme of things,” Isenberg contends, “Union and Confederate leaders saw the war as a clash of class systems wherein the superior civilization would reign triumphant.” (Tip: Whenever a sentence begins with “It is no exaggeration to say that . . .” you can safely assume that the rest of the sentence contains an exaggeration.)

    “White Trash” features a fascinating exploration of the cultural portrayals of its subject. Sitcoms from the 1960s such as “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” show how the underclass has long produced more amusement than concern or respect. The Ewell family in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) may be American literature’s purest distillation of white trash, Isenberg writes, emblematic of how “ ‘redneck’ had come to be synonymous with an almost insane bigotry.” The 1972 film “Deliverance”, based on James Dickey’s novel and featuring rape and murder in backwoods Georgia, offers a devastating vision of rustic Southern life. And despite a sort of “redneck chic” phase in the 1980s and 1990s, Isenberg laments the continued “gawking at rural Georgian white trashdom” in TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and similar shows.

    “We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality,” Isenberg concludes. “Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power.”

    The irony of the Trump presidential campaign — and I confess, the compulsion to read Trumpian implications into any new book has become irresistible — is that the candidate personifies that very pseudo-aristocracy of wealth that has long shunned the white working class, yet he draws his greatest support from it. And that Trump amassed his fortune as a real estate developer, when land and property for so long have marked the red lines between rich and poor, well, that’s just icing.

    In an echo of arguments by Thomas Frank and others, Isenberg worries that today we once again are seeing “a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest.” Voters are persuaded through fear-filled messages and a false sense of identity, but a certain kind of communicator helps, too. Isenberg tells the 1840 story “The Arkansas Traveler,” in which a politician campaigning for office stops in the backcountry and asks a squatter for refreshment and support. The squatter “had to be wooed for his vote,” Isenberg writes. “He had no patience for a candidate who refused to speak his language.” So the man dismounts his horse, takes the squatter’s fiddle and shows he can play his kind of music. “Once the politician returned to the mansion, however, nothing had changed in the life of the squatter.”

    Trump, if nothing else, has shown he knows how to play that fiddle.

  3. steve says:

    Largely agree. I dont think I have used the term white trash in 50 years. It didnt make much sense in some ways. However, I have used the term trailer park trash figuring that since I had lived in the “projects” in our area growing up for most of my teen years and briefly in a trailer park I had some idea what I was talking about. Most of the people around us, in the projects or in the park, were actually decent people. Most worked. Most cared about their families. I liked them. That said, there were some who seemed determined to live down to the worst stereotypes. I remember watching Idiocracy for the first time and thinking “Damn, those were our neighbors down the street, the ones everyone hated.” They picked fights with the rest of us kids and generally tried to make our lives miserable. Anyway, I always thought it was more about attitude than how much money they had and it could be true of any race, not just white people.

    Will have to think about this. Maybe I shouldn’t use the word trash. Maybe I call them the “assholes I used to call trash.”


  4. Gustopher says:

    And while a lot of people may not want to hear it, some of the comment thread in that post does remind me of arguments I have heard over my lifetime in defense of racist and sexist language. (In terms of “they” deserve it, or “they” use that language, too, and so forth. It seems to me that the fact that these discussions boil down to a “them” and “they” should likewise create room to pause and think).

    This here is one of the things that I don’t like about using singular-they to refer to non-binary people. It’s inherently othering.

    Language changes, and this is what the they-folk have largely settled on, so I’ll drag myself along and use it, but it nags at me more than the oddness of the new meaning.

    (singular-they has been used for unidentified people for ages, but using it for an identified person was vanishingly rare until recently).

    And more than just the us/them othering, “they” has also been used ominously, as a placeholder for some shadowy, ill-defined other that wants to control your lives.

    – That’s what they want you to think.

    – They say you shouldn’t eat for an hour after swimming.

    (I thought I had better examples, and I’m sure if I were to pull out my copy of Them: Adventures With Extremists by Ron Jonson, I would have better ones. Can we just pretend I did that?)

    Them is the lizard people. And the lizard people are pretty much always the Jews. If you were to talk shit about a non-binary person, it would sound vaguely antisemitic.

    I’ll use singular-they despite all of that, because that’s what the they-folk want, and it is respectful to address people a they want, but it’s a little not good at the same time. I wish the they-folks would settle for one of those fancy experimental pronouns people drag out every once in a while, like zir or whatever, but one that is less grating.

    And then there are the morons who say with complete sincerity that their pronoun is “it”. These people will not be respected that way, as “it” goes beyond othering straight into dehumanizing.

    In a world where we have Nazis in the streets (we’re still allowed to call Proud Boys Nazis, right?) and a major part of the Republican base, and all sorts of laws criminalizing gender non-conformity being proposed, and dehumanizing rhetoric being used to define them, these morons want to be called “it”.

  5. Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    Nineteenth-century cultural commentators, she writes, often derided the “unnatural complexions” of the white lower classes, with their flesh the color of “yellow parchment” and their copious offspring bearing a “cadaverous, bloodless look.” And from skin hue, it was a short jump to supposed congenital and cognitive disparities. “More than tallow-colored skin, it was the permanent mark of intellectual stagnation, the ‘inert’ minds, the ‘fumbling’ speech,”

    When I was in college in the early ’80s, I did a go-and-serve to the poorest part of the Appalachia. We were housed at a small mission house up in the hollers. The house’s yard was a congregation point to the local kids, all white and all of many generations in the hollers. This description is a very polite way of articulating my much more guttural internal reaction.

    As part of our stay, we visited one young family where the 20-something mom and dad had moved down the mountain – to a trailer I might add – where they had access to town jobs. Their young son, literally a first cousin to the kids in the holler, was as normal to me as my own younger siblings. Aside from the possible lesson that upward mobility is possible, the lesson really took home is that the stress and malnutrition of poverty have very real physical impacts on the children that endure it and the adults they are prone to become.

  6. Gustopher says:

    And by the way, part of the reason it can be bandied about, joked about, even self-applied in some cases is because of the relative power of being white in the first place.

    Consider also that your original example was Marjorie Taylor Green, a person who has a metric shitload of power. The power of race, the power of wealth and the power of being a Representative — and not just any Representative, but a key member of the Republican coalition.

    And whiteness is one of the weapons she uses, she and her Proud Boy friends. A whiteness tied in with Christian Nationalism and QAnon. Our modern right-wing extremists are less racially pure than in the past (you will find Filipino Proud Boys, etc) but they are still tied into their history of white supremacy.

    I don’t like the term “white trash” in general, but applied to her, it attacks a part of her identity that she is weaponizing against others. To the extent that the term is ever acceptable, it belongs on her. It marginalizes her whiteness.

    I’m ok with it being used against white nationalists. All of the troubling aspects of it — the suggestion that they are a terrible example of their race, the othering, the denigration — are things that should be applied to white nationalists.

    Your kids in the trailer park, not so much. Unless, of course, they are white nationalists.

  7. @Gustopher: I would suggest, though, that applying the term to MTG obscures not only what her real background is (which gives her an excuse, to some at least, that she is the way she is because she was poor and educated, and neither are true) plus it implicates otherwise innocent poor people who live in trailers.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:


    This little trout sees the bait, and swims on.

  9. taiko says:

    Professor, I understand and respect your opinion on the term, but I use it and I use it without any guilt. My father was in the navy and being half Japanese, I grew up being called all the typical racist Asian names–slopehead, zipper head, gook, chink, slant-eye, you name it I’ve heard it. One of my first memories in America is being chased down the street by a bunch of white kids calling me racist names. Unless you have experienced growing up like this, you have no idea what it’s like and what effect it has on you. Not a clue, and I dismiss anybody who claims otherwise as someone not to be taken seriously. (Note : I’m not directing this at you or saying you said this, just in general). And notice I say “grow up” experiencing this, not a year or two. It never ends. My first day at college I got into it with a few frat boys who thought calling me chink and chinaman would be funny. I learned at a young age that returning insults and calling racists honkies, keeblers or crackers had no effect, it didn’t bother them. But call them white trash, and oh boy, that triggered them. it seemed to hurt them and make them feel devalued; the same way they would make me feel when they used their racist insults on me. So I use it because, in my experience it’s the only thing that really sets the racists off. And I don’t care if it’s racist, hurts their feelings or pisses them off. check that, I care how it affects them as much as they care how calling me racist names affects me. Now, I want to be clear that I only deploy it against those that have proven their racist ways in public, or to me, not as a general statement of those that live in trailers or are poor. I’ve learned in over 50 years of living as a minority that there are people where logic, kindness, rational discussion and empathy don’t work. I used to think that way, that I could convert racists by being the adult, but you know I have never converted a racist by being kind, rational or empathetic. They’re wasted DNA in my opinion now. My patience is at an end. So yes, I use it against racists and feel no guilt. If that makes me a hypocrite, elitist and a racist as well, I can live with that. fuck em.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It’s imperfect, I’ll admit.

    But it hits the right tones — the lighter skin tones that she weaponizes — and I’m not willing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Find another two-to-three word descriptor that describes her accurately, and undermines the white supremacy that her appeal is linked to. What else so succinctly says “being white isn’t good enough?”

  11. Scott says:

    I didn’t participate in the white trash thread the other day mainly because I’m not sure I had anything to contribute to that.

    However, I also have a visceral reaction to all kinds of peoples and backgrounds that are different from my own upbringing which is solidly white middle-upper middle class surrounded by the professional classes and a family emphasis on education and upper mobility.

    I am also a practicing Christian. One of the hardest practices I constantly work at is finding the humanity in all peoples whether they are different in color, economic status, cultural interests, politics, etc. It is hard work to engage with a person and look beyond the initial reaction to their looks and behavior and try and see and understand the essential humanity in that person. I fail often.

  12. drj says:


    But call them white trash, and oh boy, that triggered them. it seemed to hurt them and make them feel devalued

    Since “white trash” implies that all non-whites are trashy by definition (you never see the expression “black trash,” “Mexican trash,” etc., because in those cases the racial qualifier isn’t even needed), you basically told them that they are no better than you, that they are at your (inferior) level.

    While that must have been triggering for them, it also means that you continue to reinforce the notion that whites are at the top of the racial hierarchy and – like you – that’s not where they are at.

    Sometimes you gotta fight fire with fire, I guess, but I can also imagine that in other circumstances the use of the expression “white trash” should definitely be discouraged.

  13. drj says:


    and undermines the white supremacy

    As per my previous comment, I think that “white trash” rather reinforces white supremacy.

  14. John430 says:

    @drj: This thread hits a few reminders with me. While stationed at Gunter AFB in Montgomery, AL, I was told by an instructor there that “N…rs
    come in ALL colors. White, black, brown, yellow, and red.

  15. Kylopod says:


    If you were to talk shit about a non-binary person, it would sound vaguely antisemitic.

    That’s why context is important.

    Even putting aside the nonbinary issue, they has always had a multiplicity of meanings. The whole conspiracy-bait “That’s what they want you think” is just one of a variety of ways in which the pronoun is used to gesture vaguely against some unnamed mass of people, and not all of those ways have the same conspiratorial (let alone anti-Semitic) overtones. For example, I’ve frequently heard “They said it couldn’t be done.” That’s also a lazy cliche. But it doesn’t carry the same connotations of there being some shadowy cabal secretly pulling the strings.

  16. taiko says:


    You are absolutely right in everything you say, but when you’re 14 and being faced with a few knuckleheads who think it’ll prove their manhood to go racist on the token Asian in school, let’s just say those thoughts don’t cross your mind. There are two thoughts, flee or fight. And when you’re the new kid in the school, and a minority on top of that, if you don’t stand your ground, you’re gonna be bullied the rest of your time there. I learned this the hard way. And being a military brat, I had to go through this every 2 to 3 years when my dad would get transferred. And not to sound arrogant, but most of the racists I’ve encountered would be too ignorant to understand that nuance. All they know is a yellow person just forgot their place and disrespected their “superior” ass. And again, I only use that term in the singular against someone who has just been racist against me or proven it in public. I don’t use it to describe any group of people except proven racists. I’ve known great people who are poor and/or live in trailers, and absolute racist bags of shit who are educated and wealthy so your type of domicile, education level or income category don’t matter to me. I don’t typically like to fight fire with fire adn I understand my way doesn’t convert or win any hearts and minds. My patience is simply at an end and I don’t care to try to convert, mollify, coddle or understand the racist POV. I now mock.

  17. Gustopher says:

    @drj: The white supremacy is already there. It runs through our culture as pervasively as Christianity, sexism or microplastics.

    Pointing out that white supremacists are hardly the best example of the race they champion reinforces the notion of race (itself a construct of white supremacy), but it also is a quick bit of othering that hits emotionally as well as logically. It’s morally the equivalent of using sexy women in advertising, for whatever definition of sexy works for the audience.

    Big boobed babe fondling a rifle? People, somehow, respond to that. My brothers love that shit. (I think those images have steered me away from that particular shape of woman, rather than towards the guns, so I have responded as well).

    When the Michigan militia white nationalists that wanted to kidnap the governor had their pictures everywhere, and people pointed out that they were not particularly fine looking specimens of the white race, the human race or even primates, there was white supremacy baked into that.

    It’s dumb. Race itself is barely real. There’s more genetic diversity within some races than between the races. White Supremacy is like Poodle Supremacy among dogs. Or crab-shaped-animal supremacy, although given the number of times things have evolved into crab shapes, that one might have something going for it.

    (Race is exactly as real as carcinization — it tells you there is an ecological niche where various skin shades are beneficial, but doesn’t say much about the actual individuals)

    And anyone who looks at MTG’s feet… you will be pondering whether she is inbred. (Why did I look up why she is called Marjorie Three Toes? why?) And again, white supremacy is part of that as it is so tied into beauty standards. Unless her feet are the first step in human evolution to a crab shape.

    With all of that, do I feel awkward using something that references and reinforces white supremacist ideas to denigrate white supremacists? Slightly, but only slightly.

    It’s like quoting Bible verses about love thy neighbor and helping the unfortunate to the people who use Christianity as a weapon. It won’t change their minds, and it reinforces the notion that Christianity is linked to morality, but for those who already believe in that silly sky god thing, it points out that there are much better ways of going about their Christian thing.

    Which is a long winded way of saying you’re not wrong, but I don’t think your correct point should be given as much weight as any effort to separate the most vocal white supremacists from the white people who might respond favorably to them if not for social pressure.

    Or how about this: Violence is wrong, but should you punch a Nazi? While I want to flippantly answer “just one?” the more correct answer is “maybe not, but sometimes yes”.

    Anyone who does not understand “Marjorie Three Toes” should not look. Also, she clearly has at least four toe-like things per foot-like thing.

  18. @taiko: I am very sorry about the way you were treated.

    I will note that you are reinforcing the notion that the term in question is a slur intended to harm.

  19. @Michael Reynolds: I thought you didn’t believe in virtue signaling 😉

  20. @drj: I concur–it very much does.

    @Gustopher: Yes, but the issue is not how the term makes MTG look bad, but the way in which it reinforces an overall view of what “white” is. You aren’t making inroads against MTG calling her “white trash” nor are you damaging white supremacy, you are reinforcing the notion that white is superior.

    I would argue that the way to combat white supremacist language is not to play that game at all.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    TBH, and this all I am going to say about this subject, being called white trash never bothered me. Being called trailer trash never bothered me. Being called porch monkey never bothered me. I wore all those labels with narry a care. You know why?

    I was white. No matter what, that could never be taken away from me. And that was all that really mattered.

    Even when cops pulled me over for DWB, all it took was one look at my Caucasian features and blond kinky hair and they said, “I’m sorry sir, my bad.”

  22. Gustopher says:


    I learned at a young age that returning insults and calling racists honkies, keeblers or crackers had no effect, it didn’t bother them. But call them white trash, and oh boy, that triggered them.

    My whiteness means that I have more power in society, and that most of those insults don’t matter, because they reinforce the whiteness and thus the power. I expect that is the same for most white people.

    There are people who will try to define racism as racial-bigotry plus power, and I think that’s a crappy definition (or at least not the common definition), but something else should have that meaning, because racist epithets against white people have very little effect.

    “White trash” however goes after that protective layer of whiteness — that’s why it has a sting. I do wonder whether that’s part of Dr. Taylor’s objection, deep below the surface, covered in layers of logic and reasoning.

    (I’ll stand by my claim that white supremacy is as ingrained in American culture as microplastics, and say that I don’t think either of us could come up with a definitive answer.)

    But that’s all a digression to what I really wanted to do, which was to link to this article.


    Some very performatively aggrieved white people are Upset about things like “sour cream citizens”, “lightbulbs,” and my new favorite, “vanilla villains.”

    There’s also a bunch that I would feel uncomfortable quoting as they are a play on really racist terms for black people, and that’s definitely not my place. I don’t begrudge a bunch of brown folks blowing off steam though.

    (I would feel differently if I was working for a black owned company with mostly black coworkers and they were keeping such a list, though, as it’s all about the power.)

    Why do I really want to link to an article that has a list of racial slurs against white people though? Because about 10% of them are kind of great. Amazingly creative.

    And because a key part of this discussion that hasn’t been centered in it is power.

    Objectively, this list is bad. But it’s bad and meaningless, so it’s not that bad. Or not that impactful.

    And objectively, “white trash” is racial. But it’s used against those with power. And the most effective because it cuts through some of that power.

    Also, “vanilla villains” is just great. The alliteration, the swapping of position for the n and the l sounds. It’s a tiny bit of ineffective racist poetry.

  23. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I tried to drag him in with my comment on singular-they too!

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    I was white. No matter what, that could never be taken away from me. And that was all that really mattered.


  25. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I would argue that the way to combat white supremacist language

    I have less issue with white supremacist language than I do with white supremacists.

    White supremacist language is short-to-medium-term permanent. Certainly for the duration of my lifetime, it’s here to stay. I don’t like it, but it’s there.

    White supremacists should be mocked, denigrated, and shunned to separate them from society as much as possible. To reduce their power and their effectiveness. To make them uncool.

    Whether the use of the white trash stereotype is helpful or not, eh, we disagree.

    Incels aren’t particularly popular, and a lot of people back away and rethink their ideas when they start showing up to agree with them. They are nearly politically neutered.

    I think we need to demonize the white supremacists and the stealth white supremacists of the alt-right as a whole.

  26. @Gustopher: My point is, however, that the main thing we need to change is the culture and one of the ways culture changes is through language, hence my view that we should avoid that which reinforces the culture of white supremacy, which I think the term “white trash” does (among other problems with the term I have noted).

  27. @OzarkHillbilly: Yup, this is well put and very much part of my point.

  28. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Bingo indeed. Our Hillbilly friend nails it.

    And sparks this thought from me:

    @Steven L. Taylor: You view this much more abstractly than me.

    There is a gaping hole in my protective white armor — I’m queer. I’m demonized by the far right, and the medium right and basically the political arm of half the country.

    Bigotry against queer folks isn’t going to be eliminated. It’s there forever. It can be pushed back to manageable levels, to reduce the threat, and that requires making normies who might be a little bigoted on their own not want to side with the major bigots.

    I tend to think of racism and white supremacy the same way.

    Being bi/pan and completely lacking in swish, people assume I am straight more often than not. Straight people think I am straight unless I say something. I have gotten to see both sides, and as a rule of thumb I can say that most straight people don’t really care if queer folk live or die so long as they don’t have to see the deaths on tv. It’s all “I support LGBT, but…” The serious bigots have to be kept less appealing than whatever comes after that.

    ETA: And honestly, I don’t care how the major bigots are kept less appealing. Curing the society as a whole is just tilting at windmills.

  29. @Gustopher: We disagree on the efficacy of your suggested approach, but that’s fine.

    And I have no illusions about eliminating these problems, but they can get incrementally better.

  30. Andy says:

    Excellent post.


    I don’t like the term “white trash” in general, but applied to her, it attacks a part of her identity that she is weaponizing against others.


    “White trash” however goes after that protective layer of whiteness — that’s why it has a sting.

    To me, the problem with this argument is that the message you think it sends is only going to be received by people who respect your opinion and agree with you.

    To everyone else, the usage of that kind of insult (and any other racialized insult) will tell people nothing about MTG, but a lot about you which will engender certain assumptions about you in their minds as a result.

    In the same way, consider this hypothetical – Random person A and random person B are two people I don’t know. Random person A calls random person B a “ni***r.” What does that tell me? Well, it doesn’t tell me anything about random person B except maybe that there might be a higher-than-average likelihood that they are a black person. In contrast, I learn a lot about random person A, especially if there is additional context to the deliberate use of the insult, because the use of that word as an insult sends a pretty strong signal about what that person believes and is really like.

    Similarly, a random person who hears or reads you calling MTG “white trash” is going to tell them a lot more about you than MTG.

    Finally, I don’t think the insult actually attacks part of her identity or stings her in any way.

    In the first place, I’m sure MTG does not care much what you think, and you calling her this will simply be a signal to her that you are the enemy and your opinion is therefore worthless to her and her supporters.

    Furthermore, she is likely to use it as evidence to try to show her allies and others that people on the left like you are hypocrites on race and are also condescending elitists – so it directly plays into her messaging. (note that I’m not making that argument about you, I’m simply describing what MTG and her allies would say about you).

    So rather than stinging her, she can use it to her advantage to reinforce one of her core messages. And fundraise off of it. “Politicians” like MTG love to be attacked by political enemies and they use it to build a following and make money – and she’s made a shit-ton of money by using attacks and actions against her. It’s the same on the other side – there’s a reason that AOC is the top generator of small-donor dollars for Democrats in the House – she’s the most frequent target of Republican attacks which she skillfully turns into messaging and money.

    So even from a practical standpoint, name-calling is very likely counterproductive except for mobilizing and high-fiving people who already agree with you.

    The other thing to consider is Donald Trump. We had four years of a constant stream of both accurate and unfair attacks, invective and insults aimed against him during his term and before and he still ran a competitive election in 2020. His cult-like following is buttressed by those attacks and similar attacks on his supporters who understand that there are a lot of people out to get Donald Trump and marginalize his supporters.

  31. @Andy: Thanks and I agree with the analysis in your comment.