Taking Out the Trash

What does 'White Trash' mean in the 21st Century?

A very dear lady friend of mine, T., she lives over toward Fountain City. It's a fairly prosaic neighborhood, hers, lots of standard-looking middle class houses, some of them newer and some of them less so, and most of them attended by one or two reasonably well-kept automobiles and a nicely manicured lawn.

And then there's her neighbors' home, the haphazardly appointed little cracker box across the street, in all its glorious decrepitude. On a street dotted with burghers, theirs is an order of hash-browns, Waffle House-style: scattered, covered, chunked and smothered with all manner of junk, trash, and singularly unattractive—not to say sin-ugly—decorative flourishes. There's even a color-faded lawn jockey statue next to the front step.

T. notes there are usually no less than three old cars up on blocks in the yard, a couple of soiled couches, and several garbage cans that seem to have been placed there for no other purpose than to collect spent beer bottles—domestic brands only, of course. "They sit on the couches in the front yard and drink beer," says T. "I guess they're thinking about fixing the cars."

She allows, however, that they're "pretty nice people."

Folks like T.'s friends across the way represent a unique socio-economic stratum, one marked perhaps more by its cultural and attitudinal components than by its fiscal ones. Sociologist types call them "proles" or "low-caste"; some people simply call them rednecks; author Harry Crews calls them "Grits," and proudly counts himself among their number.

But the most commonly accepted nomenclature is probably White Trash, or better yet, Poor White Trash. "As if the term White Trash by itself was not definitive and specific enough," snorts John Rice Irwin, owner and director of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris. Much to the knowledgeable Mr. Irwin's chagrin, this reporter designated him an Eminently Qualified Observer in his attempts to shed light on the phenomenon.

But while the cultural identifiers of so-called White Trash are well-catalogued—trailer homes and incongruous lawn statues and the omnipresent short-long "mullet" hair-dos and American muscle cars festooned with gratuitous bumper stickers and fuzzy dice, to name a few—consolidating those diverse identifiers into a single, encompassing definition is not so easily accomplished. It's a contentious issue; a tangled milieu; a matter of pride; a subject that could earn those who seek answers a good old-fashioned ass-kicking.

Said British critic Richard Hoggart: "There are no simple people. The ordinary is complex too."

None of my admittedly less than exhaustive efforts to find the origin of the term White Trash were very successful. One of my colleagues, however, remembers a reference to "Carolina White Trash (all they eat is rabbit hash)" in a biography of Andrew Jackson, dating the phrase at least to the 18th century. Arguably, Jackson himself was the state's preeminent representative of the species.

"[The term] probably became more known in literature than in actual usage," suggests Irwin. "If you talk to a group of old timers, it probably wouldn't be in their vocabularies. Many years ago, in the South, you had poor tenant farmers, or 'renters,' people who rented a little shack on a corner of somebody's farm. They were pretty much equivalent to Poor White Trash now."

And while the term now seems largely bereft of malign ethnic connotations, Irwin says it was undoubtedly rooted in racist paradigms. "It was as if to say that blacks and a certain class of whites were equal in their alleged degradation," he says.

Most people have some idea of what White Trash is—or perhaps more accurately, who White Trash are. But few can put it very succinctly. I asked a psychologist friend of mine, another unwillingly appointed expert, and he put it thus: "White Trash are people who tend to be very childish, undereducated, and maybe not too bright, either. They probably immerse themselves in a life pattern of violence and drug abuse. They have little self-respect, and they feel threatened by things outside of their experience."

Interesting, if a little cumbersome. My colleague Jack Neely, a pretty keen cultural observer himself, defines PWTs more narrowly as "those distinctly indigenous people whom I do not like. Maybe a good term for them would be the 'proudly insular,' or the 'aggressively stupid.' They disapprove of anything slightly out of the ordinary, whether it's homosexuals or bicyclists."

In the words of writer R.H. Tawney, "The word 'class' is fraught with unpleasant associations, so that to linger upon it is apt to be interpreted as the symptom of a perverted mind and a jaundiced spirit."

But I guess most of us are perverted in mind, or else jaundiced in spirit, or maybe both, because most of us aren't loath to hold forth about our neighbors and their alleged social standing relative to our own. I asked some friends and not a few Metro Pulse readers about what constitutes White Trash, and many of the answers I got were predictably vitriolic. One anonymous fellow sent me a bilious run-on epistle that was indicative of much of the response.

"White Trash? Fishing (especially with bait); hunting (especially squirrel or possum [sic]; dogs tied up in the yard; NASCAR; tobacco in all forms; beer by the case; wine in boxes; wrestling; blue mascara; exposed midriff t-shirts with fat bellies; fine dining at Shoneys; pregnant at 15 or daughter that is; in jail; just getting out of jail; knows someone currently in jail; or has a child or relative in jail; child support garnishments; fighting; mullets; missing teeth; mostly vote Republican."

I have to confess that I meet at least a couple of those criteria myself. I won't say which ones.

It's no revelation that some areas of Knoxville (and East Tennessee) are more notorious than others in terms of the perceived density of the White Trash population. Names will be omitted to protect the innocent—and the guilty. Suffice to say that certain neighborhoods in both the Northern and Southern sectors of the city are pigeonholed as White Trash strongholds. A certain outpost of a prominent national chain grocery store is infamous for the bizarre, low-caste sea of unkempt humanity known to wash over its grubby aisles. An ongoing flea market in one of our sister cities is likewise renowned.

And a couple of well-known chain department stores with outlets hereabouts are inevitably mentioned in the same breath as "White Trash," or even "redneck." I imagine you can guess which ones.

But some of the people I talked to were even more specific, exhaustive in their cataloguing of White Trash behavioral patterns. A young woman named Angie, a bookstore employee, told me that her male White Trash customers were identifiable usually by their "Dale Earnhardt (Gone But Not Forgotten)" T-shirt-and-hat ensembles, and dirty jeans.

"They usually approach me with 'Do you have a NASCAR section?'" she relates. "They find the children's book My Body very amusing. And the most popular book among White Trash men is How to Make Love to a Woman. And you probably think I'm kidding."

The women, on the other hand, generally adorn themselves in Jordache apparel, says Angie—often midriffs, three sizes too small. They're prone to browsing the Harlequin section, she says, and "they give you evil looks for taking their man's money."

Angie plans a return to office work in the near future.

Another correspondent observes that public restrooms in certain adjoining counties are particularly susceptible to vandalism. It's not uncommon to find faucets ripped from their moorings, he says, a practice begun in jailhouses in order to "encourage" renovations, or perhaps changes in restrictive policies.

And in certain areas, he says, police often trawl for "blacklisted" plates, those of drivers with revoked licenses. For this reason, he says, it's common practice for motorists in those areas to "borrow" neighbors' tags.

Other PWT phenomena: A regional grocery chain allegedly closed its local stores in response to an ongoing rash of PWT injury lawsuits. Our correspondent also claims that those who fun afoul of PWTs (judges, DAs, fussy neighbors and such like) are often dissuaded from their offending pursuits via a dose of anti-freeze in a pet's water dish, or maybe a dollop of acid in their car radiators.

"And auto shop is anywhere, usually in K-Mart or Wal-Mart parking lots," he adds. "Don't ever try to stop a PWT working on his oil or fixing his car with baling wire. He might slice and dice you."

He says his friend Len has discouraged would-be repo men by putting corn snakes in the trunk of his still unpaid-for automobile. Works like a charm, Len tells him, and for some reason, I don't doubt it's so.

On the recommendation of a fellow staff member, I read a book by a former University of Pennsylvania English professor named Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Class System. He's a clever fellow, Fussell, and he eschews the standard five-class paradigm (Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, Lower Middle, and Lower) in favor of a nine-tier system of his own design. It includes Top out-of-sight (so named because many "members" live in homes hidden from the passing eye), Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, High Proletarian, Mid-proletarian, and Low Proletarian.

And while he never makes any specific reference to "White Trash", he points out that "style and taste and awareness are as important as money" in determining social standing.

"Economically, no doubt, there are only two classes, the rich and the poor," said writer George Orwell. "But socially, there is a whole hierarchy of classes..."

Fussell identifies the "prole", or PWT classes by an astounding litany of keenly-observed cultural characteristics, from the unmitigated proliferation of polyester and other synthetic fibers in prole clothing to the garish idiosyncrasies of prole automobile decorations ("Proles love to decorate their cars," Fussell relates. "Not just with mock-leopard upholstery and things like dice and baby shoes dangling from front and rear windows, but with bumper stickers [Honk If You Love Jesus], and of course little plastic Saint Christophers and the like on the dashboard.")

Proles in the modern era are more prone to wear headgear than their higher-caste brethren, especially baseball hats and other so-called visor caps. "Regardless of the precise style of the prole cap, it seems crucial that it be ugly," Fussell says. "To achieve even greater ugliness, the prole will sometimes wear his cap back to front."

Fussell even goes so far as to suggest that certain cities and even entire geographic regions are more prole-dense than others. These places can be statistically identified by a number of demographic criteria, he claims. One such criterion is the apportionment of bowling facilities. A 1981 almanac listing by researchers Richard Boyer and David Savageau rated the cities of Billings, Mont.; Owensboro, Ky.; Peoria, Ill.; and Dubuque, Iowa among the most bowling-rich in the country. Observes Fussell, "We can't fail to note what regrettable places these are."

Bowling aside, Fussell is relatively fair-minded in cataloguing the fatuities of all the social classes. And that's a good thing, too, since some of the people I canvassed were not only proud of their humble heritages, but unashamed in their embracing of the White Trash nomenclature.

One correspondent listed for me in some depth the characteristics of both "negative" and "positive" white trash. The former reject more enlightened notions of education, change,and tolerance, she said, and are apparently more susceptible to unhappy phenomena such as incest and domestic abuse.

Positive Poor White Trash, or PPWT, on the other hand, are folks who "write books like The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Look Homeward Angel," cook good Southern food, and are known to make good music from time to time, after the fashion of self-proclaimed White Trash Princess and singer Lucinda Williams. "These are people who actually bother to clean themselves and their home," says the reader, "and they have enough sense to know that the only hope they have for their kids is an education."

Likewise, a young female Metro Pulse reader by the name of Belle Brown writes, rather poignantly, that she's witnessed the degradation of her culture from a thing of simple, salt-of-the-earth pride to something that's now seemingly the sole province of the proudly uncouth, of the petty and the shameless, of the talk-show vulgarians. "A few years ago the term [white trash] was dandy," she says. Now you don't qualify unless you're a trailer-park-dwelling, tobacco-chewing, cursing, uneducated, screaming fool.

"Our breed of White Trash is proud of the term. We are a waning culture. Our mamas might have worked, but they wore aprons at night and baked for PTA. Our daddies worked until dark...We went to church. Girls wore hair bows and mary janes. Boys were shy, and looked down when they spoke to you. We are still proud of the school picture that boasts the loss of our front teeth..."

Belle cites East Tennessee's original White Trash Princess, Dolly Parton, who once told an interviewer in reference to her own singular PWT fashion sense that, "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap."

Irwin notes that much of the pigeonholing involved in the use of a term such as White Trash harkens to simplistic and often damaging rural stereotypes, stereotypes that are more often than not rooted in misconceptions distinctly Southern in their derivations.

"With the South in particular, people are stereotypically—and erroneously—classified as poor and ignorant, like Snuffy Smith or Jed Clampett," Irwin says. "People outside the region assume there is a true commonality of the people hereabouts, and that commonality often just does not exist."

His own family having settled the Union County area in the late 1700s, Irwin goes to some lengths in elaborating on the lives and careers of several indigenous intellectuals, statesmen, and cultural icons who grew up no more than a short drive's distance from the main office chair in his Norris museum, including politicians Cordell Hull and Andrew Jackson, writer James Agee, the grandfather of Abraham Lincoln, and no less than two world-renowned opera singers.

"Whatever field you look at, this area has produced great people," he says. "And I'm not so sure that some of the fathers and grandfathers of these great citizens might not have met somebody's definition of White Trash. Just because people are poor and uneducated or culturally isolated doesn't mean they aren't intelligent and capable."

At least one gentleman, another Metro Pulse reader, expressed out-and-out outrage at the notion that someone might write an article on the subject of White Trash, carping that "White Trash is a racist statement."

The writer went on to make several strident claims about the supposed accomplishments of White Trash forebears "[who] actually had the kaoonas [sic] to stand up and fight for the things in which they believed...," people who purportedly lived in "trailers and shanties" rather than seeking the cushy solace of subsidized housing, folks who employed tattered blankets and other pitiful household flotsam in shoring up holes in walls and other wretched inadequacies of their proud little PWT hovels...

He seemed a little uptight, this gentleman; some of his remarks were unfortunate, ethnically and racially speaking. I'm still not sure what kaoonas are. I suspect he should probably get out more.

But all cranks aside, Fussell makes an interesting observation in the second chapter of his fine book, a bit of received wisdom that seems to metaphorically expose all the self-absorption, malignant vanity and outright absurdity of our preoccupation with social standing, particularly as it pertains to the distinctly human urge to elevate our own perceived status at the expense of those we hold beneath us.

He imagines the classes as a series of theaters running side-by-side down a long street, each with a marquee and a series of playbills on its face. Each theater is hosting a play about self-respect, but there are no promotions linking one theater to the next.

Concludes Fussell, "there's no one playing in any of these theaters...who isn't scared to death that he's going to stumble, muff his lines, appear in the wrong costume, or otherwise bomb." He advises that if anyone should find an American who seems wholly secure in his class-status, stuff and exhibit him, because "he's a rare specimen." And he's probably PWT.

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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