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Leadership and Activism

White Trash

A boy from New Orleans shows up a week and a half after Hurricane Katrina. Being one of only a handful of white kids at our school, he is a little edgy and approaches another white student cautiously.

“I’ve never been at a school with so many Hispanics,” he whispers.

“It’s Latino. Only the government uses Hispanic.”


“Yeah, and if I were you, I would tell everyone that you’re half-Mexican. It’s what I did. There’s a lot of really light Latinos out there, so people will believe you.”

“But I’m not.”

“Nobody knows that. Do you live with just your mom?”

He shakes his head affirmatively.

“Then say that your dad is Mexican. They’ll just thing that your a guero instead of a gringo. You don’t want people to think you’re white trash.”

“They use that term out here, too?” he asks with a look of shock.

His new guide shakes his head. “And if you live in the trailers people call you trailer trash. I been called that, too.”

“I thought that was a Louisiana thing,” the kid confesses.

“No, man, they use it here, too. It’s worse out there,” he points north, to the “good side” of town. “Someone called us white trash at church when they didn’t think we heard.”

“I’m good, though. I . . . you know, it’s just a word. It don’t matter to me,” he says turning his face away to the playground and trying to make sense out of this new world he’s inhabiting.

*     *     *

I understand why it’s offensive to use the “n word” (a word so powerful that it recieves the magical Lord Voldemort treatment). What I don’t understand is why it’s cultural acceptable for people in the upper and middle class to marginalize the white working poor with a term like trash. And yet, I’ve heard this term in my own family, in the inner-city non-profit where I used to work and among fellow teachers.

Perhaps it’s a statement about race and socioeconomic class. Minorities can be victims of discrimination, but whites, in this land of the American Dream, have no excuse for living in trailer parks or sketchy apartments and struggling to maintain a living. Perhaps it’s a cultural statement about the way we must behave and speak and dress in order to be considered normal. Something that seems too blue collar is an easy target from the derision of those on both the left (who mock some of the bold displays of patriotism) and right (who mock what they perceive as laziness and broken families).  Perhaps the middle class feels embarrassed by the perceived ignorance of the white working class. Or perhaps our culture sees them as trash; the byproduct of an American Dream that simply didn’t work well for some people.

It’s trendy in education to speak of race and social justice. We have a day off for Martin Luther King Jr. and de-emphasize his writings on poverty and the rigged housing system that kept the working class from buying homes. We teach Tolerance, but only through a vague lens of phenotype (with the cliche brown-black-white posters of smiling children).

I don’t deny the need to deal with racial injustice. It’s real and it’s powerful and it deserves all the attention it gets. However, when it is still culturally acceptable to marginalize, stereotype and vilify the white working class, it suggests that educators should be at the forefront of a linguistic movement that treats people with a tone of dignity and respect. If we say we believe in the human potential and we say we believe that all children are valuable, how can we possibly sit idly while a segment of our society is referred to as “trash?”

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


5 thoughts on “White Trash

  1. Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, President Johnson’s War on Poverty included the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act (1964) and the Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education Acts (1965). The first Act was supposed to reduce the negative effects of racial and other discrimination. The others were to eliminate/reduce the pernicious effects of poverty. As to all, “education” was to be the primary curative.

    By providing education opportunities to the poor, they would be enabled to shed their stupidity and dig themselves out of the hole they are (put) in and would then merit wealth and power. This supports the Meritocracy Myth, through which a belief in a just world assures the poor are and will remain poor because such are their just deserts. If they “take advantage” of the educational opportunities offered by working hard and becoming worthy, they could improve their plight.

    A number of individuals escaped their plights, “beating the odds” by working hard and getting a ‘good education’. Pointed out as exemplars when one attempts to coax or cajole the unfortunates into chasing the carrot, one might hear, “If President Obama and Justice Sotomayor* did it, you can too!”

    Maybe I am nuts, but I see the aftermath of “Bacon’s Rebellion” when I consider that Rev. King was assassinated while working to eliminate poverty across the color-lines…

    Posted by Brent Snavely | January 5, 2012, 9:45 am
    • Love the reference to Bacon’s Rebellion. I remember being in high school and that incident wasn’t even in the textbook. However, I was reading “A People’s History of the United States” and I saw just how politicized the seemingly neutral textbook actually was.

      Race to the Top is all about making education even more corporate, with teachers playing the role of economic development experts paid by “merit.” (“How do you measure it?” is often asked rather than “Why are we measuring it?”) And the notion of Common Core being about college and career readiness further perpetuates the myth that we can bring up the middle class with a War on Ignorance.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | January 5, 2012, 10:39 am
      • Wow John, I love your piece and adore the above comment. I remember when my son recommended “A People’s History of the United States” after reading it in high school. As I read it, both my mind was blown and my anger spiked….the book changed my perspective forever.
        I completely agree with you about RTTT, CCSS, and NCLB as impoverishing our curriculum, devaluing the culture surrounding every student, and valuing for profit publishers, programs, and standardized assessments.
        I recently read yet another article about Finland’s education system. I already know that their poverty level is significantly lower than ours, their teachers have Masters degrees, their lunch program values healthy, nutritious lunches for all children, all children have health care, and their teacher unions are strong. What I did not know was that the bedrock of their educational system is that all children are granted an equally rich education. Obviously, this is in sharp contrast to our foundation of competition (for grades, Race to the Top, being the #1 school system in the world, etc.). In Finland, there are no private schools with tuitions because that would not be equitable to have only those children who can afford the tuition able to attend the school. I found this remarkable.
        Again, thanks for the excellent post.

        Posted by Francesca Blueher | January 5, 2012, 4:34 pm
  2. I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying. It is very sad that in today’s day and age, and documented history that has occurred in past and present day, we as humans still act and talk like this! I try to live by cliches and teach people such as you are what you say you are, and believe what you are… Bottom line is we have not come very far from learning from history… Likewise, if you don’t have anything good or positive to say, don’t say anything at all… Unfortunately, more of the world goes uneducated and intolerant to difference s and appreciate all the good there is in the world so there is almost this inescapable and vicious cycle of hate, of prejudice and bigotry that remains stapled and branded into the human mInd and psyche .

    Posted by Bill | January 5, 2012, 10:41 am
  3. Reblogged this on engaged intellectuals and commented:
    Love this post! Using the term white trash is as racist and classist as you can get. When I hear people use the term…and I regularly do…I ask, “what do you mean?” and when the response is, “oh, you know…” I push them. No, I don’t know what that means. Tell me what it means…

    When we force people to be explicit about the code words and phrases they use to position themselves as better than others, we force them to face the racist and classist inside them. And when we ask simple questions that get at the meanings of those code words and phrases, we mark ourselves as people who disagree with the sentiments…and that is important work since they wouldn’t have said it in front of us if they didn’t think we had the same perspective as them to begin with.

    Out with classism and the systemic dehumanizing of people with language! A person is not trash…what could be more harmful than calling someone this?

    Posted by stephanie jones | January 18, 2012, 11:39 pm

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