I worked with these liberal elites for 28 years at CBS News, and they were always throwing around the term ‘white trash,’ by which they meant poor southerners who didn’t go to Harvard. I’m not sure why that makes them trash. —Bernard Goldberg
I look around the living room this morning and have to shake my head. There’s a litter box next to the couch. Children’s discarded school uniforms are scattered across the floor. I assume the mates for those shoes are around here somewhere. The couch is supposed to seat six, but at the moment Kat and the dog are all that actually fit. My desk is cluttered with everything from a broken weather vane to children’s books to a leatherman resting on top of a Beatles CD on top of a Madonna CD. Yeah, we still have CDs. As I contemplate the mess we call home I can’t help but wonder, “Are we white trash?”
I came across this article by Holly Genovese on AuntieBellum and was struck not only by how much her words hit home with me, but with several other people I know who had seen the same article. Ms. Genovese comes from a small town in Pennsylvania that apparently has a less-than-desirable reputation. Despite all her education and academic success, it was her hometown’s reputation that dogged her professional incline. She says:
It is one thing to have your hometown judged by your peers, but it is quite another to realize that qualities you possess, habits born of a lifetime that you don’t even realize you have, make you read as unqualified or unfit for your chosen profession.
Damn. I know exactly how that feels and many of the people I know and love have similar experiences. This isn’t cool.
Growing Up Human
I was born in rural Kansas. At the time of my birth, my father pastored a very small church part-time while working flight line assembly at Boeing, Wichita during the week. He didn’t make much money. At times there was barely enough food. Still, we got by. My childhood was happy, filled with the usual ups and downs that come with growing up in the 60s and 70s. I didn’t think of our family as poor because everyone else around us was at a similar socio-economic level if not worse.
Then, I went to college. I was the first person on my father’s side of the family to actually graduate with a degree. I considered moving out of state and pursuing an advanced degree but many of the adults I respected at the time, from my parents to one of the state’s U.S. Senators, questioned whether such a move would actually pay off in the long run. Not that they doubted my talent or ability one bit, mind you. They were thinking in terms of whether the advanced degree might actually make me unemployable in Oklahoma. Had I stayed in Oklahoma, they might have been correct.
There is a danger to staying in one place too long, especially when one is poor. Not only do we become too comfortable with our surroundings, we don’t realize just how far removed we are from the rest of the society. I won’t deny that there’s a social gap between those from rural areas and those raised in the city, but is that enough to make any of us “white trash?”
No Place Called Home
Ms. Genovese recounts her experience and I found it far too relatable:
The more formal education I acquired, the larger the gap between my family and I became. My parents are incredibly proud of me and have never been anything other than supportive. But everyone from cousins to former employers have insinuated that I am arrogant because I left my small town for the city and enrolled in a Ph.D program. Why couldn’t I get a real job in the Harley Factory? What could you even do with a history Ph.D anyway? And most common of all, was I ever coming home? Slowly I realized the answer to that question had to be no.
A week after we moved from Oklahoma I knew there would be no moving back. Ever. I saw the change in facial expressions when someone would say, “You’ve got an unusual accent. Where are you from?” and I would answer, “Oklahoma.” No one was impressed. Some struggled to not laugh out loud. Sometimes I would try shaking things up a bit and say I was from Kansas, but that response wasn’t any better. Both states are considered “white trash” among those in more academic and professional urban circles.
Moving down to Atlanta wasn’t any better. One advertising executive was rather blunt. “You’re a long way from home, son,” he said with a southern drawl that came draped in a Confederate war flag. “Do the rest of your people speak English or do they live on a reservation?” The insinuation was obvious. While New Yorkers might consider Georgians white trash, Oklahoma was even further down the white trash scale. What did we do to deserve such treatment?
Class Shaming By Any Other Name
Again, we relate to Ms. Genovese:
I will never fully belong in the world of academia, and frankly, I don’t want to. But I also no longer fully belong at home. And I can’t complain (nor do I want to). … I am the dream, the local kid who did good. But nobody tells you what it’s like, the incredible loneliness that accompanies that kind of class jumping that many people dream of.
The pictures at the top of this article were taken at my 30-year high school reunion, which is now a few years past. Those young women were my classmates. They’re all bright, intelligent, and beautiful as anyone else. Okay, so when the DJ plays YMCA, they can’t resist hitting the dance floor. I’ve seen the same thing happen in a fancy New York ballroom. Most all my classmates (at least, the ones for whom I can still account) are hardworking people deeply involved in their communities. They may not all have advanced degrees, but they know what works for where they work.
I dare any Harvard graduate to change a truck tire without getting their tweed jacket rumpled or bottle-feed a new orphan calf without getting their loafers covered in bovine excrement. We may not have any Fortune 500 CEOs among us, but that doesn’t make our social class any less important.
I would like to blame social media for giving rise to the dearth of shaming that takes place, but we all know it was there long before the Internet. “White trash” was a term thrown around even when I was a kid. Such behavior wasn’t right then and it damn sure isn’t acceptable now. This same disregard for the value of every human that gives rise to class shaming is also responsible for the rampant racism, size shaming, gender shaming, sexism, and ageism that puts us all at odds with one another. Whether the term we’re using is “white trash” or “slut” or “fag,” the effect is the same. Each term of derision serves only to divide us, to separate one from another, to weaken our society by pitting one against another.
None of us are perfect. Sure, some of my high school classmates foolishly voted for one of the worst governors in the history of the word. At the same time, I know at least three Ivy League grads who gave their money to Bernie Madoff. Where you grew up and where you went to college does not make one any more likely to do stupid shit that we later regret. Some of us like Big 12 football. Some of us like yacht racing. One group may not understand the other, but that doesn’t make either group better.
We are never going to all agree on anything. Differences of opinion are important for us to learn and to grow. If our country is to genuinely move forward we must realize that our biggest threat comes not from external terrorists, but from those who would tear us apart from the inside, calling one group stupid, or white trash, or ignorant, or any other divisive term. We need to stop.
And by the way, when OU takes the field against Houston that first Saturday in September, I will be singing Boomer Sooner at the top of my lungs, almost certainly off-key and not giving a single fuck. If you think that makes me white trash, just deal with it.