January 25, 2006

On White Trash

In response to my last post, law girl commented,

I'm sorry, but I will never understand why anyone thinks "white trash" is an appropriate term to describe any group of people. I'm especially surprised that you, a blogger who appears to be very thoughtful and considerate, would use that term. Thanks for letting me comment.

First, you are welcome to comment. I appreciate it when my readers take the time to let me know what they are thinking, and I very much enjoy the thoughts inspired by comments to my blog that I otherwise wouldn't have had.

Second, law girl, you most certainly have a point. Many people find "white trash" to be a disparaging term, and, no doubt many people find its use to be inappropriate. The Rant/flame war on Wikipedia regarding the white trash article, is still very much alive (last post 1/21/06) and helped me understand just how loaded this term is.

Like some of my other posts, my flippant use of a term that offends displays a less than attractive aspect of my true self – I often say and use language in a thoughtless manner. Afterwards, I marvel at my foot in my mouth and wonder how it got there.

But, for better or for worse, I also rarely beat myself up for my use of terms that upset people. I try to be kind, polite, and respectful of others in my day-to-day dealings with the world. I am aware, however, that I am not as successful in my efforts as many kinder, more polite people (whom I admire).

For example, I swear quite often. In public. In my writing. Sometimes in front of children (although I do try not to do so, but sometimes I slip). Why? I'm not sure. I like the power of swear words. I think they convey things that ordinary words can't. Also, I don't want to be locked in a box of politesse at all times. Swearing, for me, is a subtle form of rebellion and affirmation of autonomy in a life lived primarily within the prescribed lines.

I also know that even without swearing, if I express my opinions, I will offend some people. Every time I open my mouth, I am making a choice between saying nothing, and risking offending. I do strive to offend as few as possible most of the time. Occasionally, though, I just give in to my honest thoughts and bare them to the world. Sometimes people laugh. Sometimes people are appalled. And sometimes, no one even notices.

Often, these inadvertent appalling moments occur because I also pride myself on being very honest and forthright. But some have accused me of being brutally honest. At other times, I offend people when I find something funny. Humor is difficult. One man's pain is often another man's laughter.

One lesson that I have learned from E is to embrace the humor in life and laugh at it. Our ability to laugh at the absurdity of life is one of the greatest things about being human. But sometimes, people find laughter at something to which they are sensitive to be hurtful. I certainly have experienced pain when others laughed at something I found hurtful. But I've also been envious, because sometimes, it is only when you can laugh at something that used to hurt you that you know you are healed from the pain.

In this case, I thought I was making a funny comment when I used the term "white trash." Most likely, part of the reason I found it humorous and funny is because I am suffering from that most wonderful of habits whereby those that would be disparaged by a term embrace it as their own. Whether I like it or not, white trash is a commonly used term and many people imagine a certain stereotype when they hear it. Several members of my immediate and extended family (myself included) have and/or do exhibit some of the behaviors that most people imagine when they use the term. Several members of my neighborhood also exhibit behavior that falls into this stereotype. I must admit, however, I was blissfully unaware of the racism inherent in the term, as are my relatives who use it to describe themselves. For us, it is a term to describe a way of life, at worst a classist slur, but one to which any ethnicity can be subject.

I *like* that I live in my neighborhood, and I *like* that there's a working class and occasionally not-so-working class in my neighborhood that reminds me of my family. They are good people. But, on occasion, members of my neighborhood do walk near the edges of my understanding of "white trash" in a way that I find hilariously funny. For example, when a young boy steals (assumed, but makes sense from what I heard the cops say) a blue trans-am, crashes into a white truck with a bumper sticker that says, "gun control means using both hands" and plows across the lawn into someone's home, to me, that's funny.

When writing in my blog, sometimes the power of a stereotypical image is too descriptive and funny to resist. Perhaps if I were a more talented writer I would not fall prey to such an easy cliche. But, I fear the humor may also have been lost if I had made an effort to speak more politely. It didn't occur to me that it might be considered ill-bred or offensive to use the term because it is one that I have embraced on occasion to describe myself, as have many of my family, friends, and I suspect (although I haven't taken a poll) so have many in my neighborhood.

But, law girl does have a point. I most certainly would and do avoid the use of derogative terms that describe groups to which I do not feel that I belong. I avoid those terms for the sake of politeness, to avoid hurting the feelings of the members of those groups, and I carefully structure my language to avoid giving the appearance that I endorse racism, bigotry, and the other negative labels that are applied to those who callously use certain derogatory terms that bring stereotypical images to mind.

So where does this leave me on the white trash issue?

Actually, I'm not certain. My gut instinct was to suggest that perhaps when a group embraces a negative term and makes it their own, there can be some empowerment in that action. Perhaps I'm empowered by my use of the term (without it's modifier "poor" with the "white trash" used to describe the behaviors, not limit the race of those being discussed). But, Wikipedia on Nigga led me to question this idea. I know that I think the use of derogative terms in professional, academic, research, and other serious writing is improper and should be avoided. But, for some reason, I think that when I opt to use a term that historically has been used to negatively describe my ancestors in order to make a joke, it's not offensive, it's healthy.

I want to believe that it's good that I can laugh at the term. Perhaps the humor in this particular situation lies largely in the fact that no one in my suburban, liberal, tech-heavy and multi-cultural neighborhood actual fits into the "white trash" stereotype as a whole (who does?), and yet many of us exhibit some of the behaviors associated with this term. Perhaps the humor for me is in the ignorance of the stereotype when confronted with the complexity of life. I'm not sure. I just find it funny.

Regardless of whether I show my ignorance by making the comment and laughing, however, I am a fan of free speech. I may choose not to use disparaging terms that describe groups to which I don't belong, but I don't want to live in a world where other people can't do so. There will always be the gray area between what I think is polite and what you think is polite, what I think is proper and what you think is proper, etc. The trick is living in a society, civilly, alongside one another, forgiving one another for our idiocy, and ideally, eventually educating each other on why we use the words we do.

In sum, in response to Law Girl's comment, I read some very thought-provoking stuff. (I certainly had never considered whether there was any inherent anti-black racism in the term "white trash".) So, I'm glad I used the term this time. It was educational. I'm not certain whether I'll use it in the future. I know plenty of people who don't find its use offensive, most of whom, like me, have family that fit the stereotype. Even if I decide to continue using it for humor's sake, I'll definitely think about it in a much more complex manner than before. So, thank you, Law Girl.

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