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White trash is an American English pejorative term referring to poor whites in the South, suggesting lower social class and degraded living standards. It is most frequently used, especially by blacks[1], as a slur, but may also be used self-referentially by whites of higher socio-economic status to jokingly describe limitations they sense in their culture.[2]. It may also be used as a within-group expression among disadvantaged white Americans to express solidarity. At various points since the and 19th century, the term was frequently prefixed by poor to form the unit "poor white trash." "White trash" should be differentiated from the similar term "redneck", as each has a unique historical etymology and context in modern usage; "redneck" applied originally to farmers and by extension is used to denigrate Southern conservatives..[3]

In common usage it is similar in meaning to cracker (especially in Georgia), hillbilly (especially in Appalachia) and redneck.[4]



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.'"[5][6]

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".[7]

The term suggests outcasts from respectable society living on the fringes of the social order who were seen as dangerous because they were criminal, unpredictable, and without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral.[8]

Popular culture

Ernest Matthew Mickler's White Trash Cooking (1986) enjoyed an unanticipated rise to popularity. The cookbook, which is based on the cooking of rural white Southerners, features recipes with names such as Goldie's Yo Yo Pudding, Resurrection Cake, Vickies Stickies, and Tutti's Fruited Porkettes.[9]

In literature

  • Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland's play Po' White Trash, published in 1900, exposes complicated cultural tensions in the post-Reconstruction South, at the heart of which is the racial status of poor whites.[10]
  • In Sherwood Anderson's 1920 novel Poor White, a Southerner who thinks of himself as "poor white trash" makes his way as an inventor in a small Midwestern town.
  • In Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, and the 1939 movie by the same name, the term is used several times, always pejoratively, by both the black and the white characters. Neighbor Emmie Slattery is described by Mammy as "poor white trash" when Ellen O'Hara goes to midwife her illegitimate baby.
  • Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) explores images of 'white trash' women. Jackson (2000) argues that Hurston's meditation on abjection, waste, and the construction of class and gender identities among poor whites reflects the eugenics discourses of the 1920s.[11]
  • In William Faulkner's 1953 novel Requiem for a Nun, Ratcliffe is described as "father of an equally long and pure line of white trash tenant farmers".
  • In Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the dangerous Ewell family is referred to as "white trash."
  • In Maya Angelou's 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she mentioned that the "powhitetrash" kids would come from down the hills and cause trouble at her grandmother's store in Stamps, Arkansas.

See also


  1. ^ William Julius Wilson in Ernest Cashmore and James Jennings, eds. Racism: essential readings (2001) p. 188
  2. ^ As in the humorous book, by Michelle Lamar and Molly Wendland, The White Trash Mom Handbook: Embrace Your Inner Trailerpark, Forget Perfection, Resist Assimilation into the PTA, Stay Sane, and Keep Your Sense of Humor (2008)
  3. ^ William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008) p. 612-13
  4. ^ Wray (2006) page x.
  5. ^ Fannie Kemble, Journal (1835) p. 81
  6. ^ Wray suggests that the term may have originated in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area during the 1830s when poor Irish and black unskilled workers were competing for the same jobs. Matt Wray, Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006) pp 42-44
  7. ^ Wray (2006) pp 57-58
  8. ^ Matt Wray, Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006) p. 2
  9. ^ John T. Edge, "White Trash Cooking, Twenty Years Later," Southern Quarterly 2007 44(2): 88-94; Smith (2004)
  10. ^ Jessica Hester, "Progressivism, Suffragists and Constructions of Race: Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland's 'Po' White Trash'," Women's Writing 2008 15(1): 55-68
  11. ^ Chuck Jackson, "Waste and Whiteness: Zora Neale Hurston and the Politics of Eugenics," African American Review 2000 34(4): 639-660


  • Berger, Maurice (2000). White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness. ISBN 0-374-52715-6.
  • Goad, Jim (1998). The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies Hicks and White Trash Became Americas Scapegoats. ISBN 0-684-83864-8.
  • Hartigan, John Jr (2005). Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-3597-2
  • Mickler, Ernest Matthew (1986). White Trash Cooking (Spiral-bound). Ten Speed Press. ISBN 0-89815-189-9
  • Smith, Dina. "Cultural Studies' Misfit: White Trash Studies," Mississippi Quarterly 2004 57(3): 369-387, traces the emergence of 'white trash studies' as a scholarly field by placing representative 20th-century popular images of 'white trash' in their Southern economic and cultural contexts.
  • Sullivan, Nell (2003). Academic Constructions of 'White Trash' , in: Adair, Vivyan Campbell, and Sandra L. Dahlberg, eds. (2003) Reclaiming Class. Women, Poverty, and the Promise of Higher Education in America. Temple University Press. ISBN 1-59213-021-6
  • Webb, James (2004). "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America". Broadway. ISBN 0-7679-1689-1
  • Wray, Matt and Annalee Newitz, eds. (1997). White Trash: Race and Class in America. ISBN 0-415-91692-5.
  • Wray, Matt. Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006)
    • Pitcher, Ben (2007). The Problem with White Trash - Review of M. Wray (2007) Not Quite White, Duke University Press. ISBN 0822338734. darkmatter journal

External links

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