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?”