White Trash

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White trash is an American English pejorative term referring to poor white people in the United States, suggesting lower social class and degraded living standards. The term suggests outcasts from respectable society living on the fringes of the social order who are seen as dangerous because they may be criminal, unpredictable, and without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral.

The term is usually a slur, but may also be used self-referentially by whites to jokingly describe their origins. In the humorous book ‘The White Trash Mom Handbook: Embrace Your Inner Trailerpark, Forget Perfection, Resist Assimilation into the PTA, Stay Sane, and Keep Your Sense of Humor’ by Michelle Lamar and Molly Wendland (2008) is one such example. In common usage ‘white trash’ overlaps in meaning with cracker (regarding Georgia and Florida), hillbilly (regarding Appalachia), Okie (regarding Oklahoma origins), and redneck.

The term white trash first came into common use in the 1830s as a pejorative used by house slaves against poor whites. In 1833 Fanny Kemble, an English actress visiting Georgia, noted in her journal: ‘The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as ‘poor white trash.” In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the chapter ‘Poor White Trash’ in her book ‘A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’

Stowe tells the reader that slavery not only produces ‘degraded, miserable slaves,’ but also poor whites who are even more degraded and miserable. The plantation system forced those whites to struggle for subsistence. Beyond economic factors, Stowe traces this class to the shortage of schools and churches in their community, and says that both blacks and whites in the area look down on these ‘poor white trash.’ By 1855 the term had passed into common usage by upper class whites, and was common usage among all Southerners, regardless of race, throughout the rest of the 19th century.

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