Is white trash finally taboo?
Last week, a dean at Yale University was placed on leave for using the term in a Yelp review.
Critiquing a Japanese restaurant, June Chu wrote, “If you are white trash, this is the perfect night out for you! This establishment is definitely not authentic … and perfect for those low class folks who believe this is a real night out.”
Chu, who identified herself as Chinese American, has apologized for being “insensitive.”
A phrase uttered by rich and poor, liberal and conservative, white trash is the “last racist thing you can say and get away with,” the filmmaker John Waters once said.
Maybe not anymore.
Chu’s punishment may be proof that, although not as toxic as the n-word, white trash is potent enough to wound.
“I’ve heard people call me 'white trash' since I was young — always other white people, and it’s so hurtful,” said Nancy Horton, 63, a retired security guard, who lives on $300 a week in a trailer park on Route 322 in Honey Brook, Chester County. “My family grew up in mobile homes, and people just associate it as being where all the drug people with bad clothes are.
“ 'Oh, you’re just white trash,’ they say. ‘You don’t live up to my expectations.’ ”
Expectations is at the core of the denigration.
People who are called white trash “are poor folks who seek the benefit of whiteness but don’t have the means to live it in a substantive way,” said Eddie Glaude, chairman of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University.
In other words, if you’re white, you’re supposed to make it in this world.
“We understand barriers to black advancement in America,” said Matt Wray, Temple University sociologist and author of Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness. “We don’t understand barriers to white advancement.”
That’s why even liberals believe that they can use the term with impunity: Poor whites have only themselves to blame for not making it.
“White trash," Wray said, gets dropped into polite conversation all the time by highly educated people as if it were not a term of abuse.
The phrase conveys a sense of superiority in evidence during the election, when Trump voters were dismissed by elites as white trash, said Temple sociologist Judith Levine.
A famously leaked memo from Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign staff referred to Trump followers by that very term.
Unlike slurs about Irish or Jewish people, “white trash” seems to be saying more about class than ethnicity.
That’s why people don’t rally to oppose the phrase, said Wray: “There is no hillbilly anti-defamation league.”
To be sure, some embrace the pejorative, proudly calling themselves white trash – or the related “redneck” — thus owning the term and defusing its sting. That’s happened with the n-word as well as queer, Glaude said.
“I wore it like a badge of honor when someone called me white trash,” said Chris Terilla, 43, a recovering heroin addict from Kensington, who works for a snack food manufacturer. “I’ve been white trash in my life – [the] emotionally and financially hurting people.”
In Kensington, you can hear people call others white trash all the time, said Karen Pushaw, a staff member of St. Francis Inn Soup Kitchen under the El. Kensington residents, she said, refer to the neighborhood as a kind of Appalachia in the city.
While whites throw around the term often enough, “usually up here, I hear it used more by black people,” Pushaw said.
There’s precedent for that, Wray said.
The term originated in the 1820s in the Baltimore-Washington area, where it was uttered by free blacks as an aspersion against poor whites, he said.
By the 1930s, he added, white trash was a useful phrase for American eugenicists, who promulgated an ideology of white supremacy.
The thinking was: Blacks and Asians are inferior, so why are there stupid, lazy, alcoholic white people, Wray said. These “imbeciles,” as they were called, were defective and needed to be eliminated.
American doctors sterilized as many as 100,000 people considered white trash in the early 20th century, Wray said. A leading proponent of sterilization was H.H. Goddard, a Haverford College graduate who taught in West Chester, then moved to Vineland, N.J., where he ran the New Jersey Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys. He coined the word moron.
During the Nuremburg trials, to hold the Nazis accountable for World War II atrocities, defenders of the Germans said their ideas for creating a master race derived from the U.S. sterilization programs and American aversion to so-called white trash, Wray said.
“The term carries with it a disgust,” said Yitzhak Nates, a Narberth rabbi. “It’s so ripe with a raw and unjustified judgment that it makes me want to cry.”
Bill Rumig, 64, who lives at Valley View Trailer Park in Honey Brook, said he’s too old to weep over harmful words.
But that doesn’t mean he’s immune to their sting.
After falling on hard times six years ago, Rumig moved to a mobile home. It shocked a longtime friend who’d known Rumig only as a homeowner in town. The friend stopped speaking to him.
“He had old money and couldn’t be associated with a trailer-park person,” said Rumig, a widower three times over who said he has held 38 jobs in his life. “He thought I must be white trash.”
Rumig paused to re-consider the term.
“Everybody has a right to be a person,” he said. “Not trash.”