Do you know who Levi Johnston is? When I heard the name recently, I had no idea who he was. Turns out he’s the baby-daddy of Alaska Governor Sara Palin’s grandson. As you may recall, shortly after Palin was announced as Senator John McCain’s running mate, she disclosed
that her 17-year old unmarried daughter, Bristol, was pregnant. The teenagers ended their engagement shortly after the birth of their son.
Some news reports state that Governor Palin is blocking contact between the young parents because she does not want her grandchild around “white trash”. Many have used this term pejoratively to describe Johnston. He even mentioned on the CBS Early Show that the biggest misperception about is family is that they are “white trash”.
What is white trash? Who is white trash? Sociologist Max Weber referred to whites who did not own enslaved Africans as “poor white trash”. The Wikipedia definition of white trash is “an American English pejorative term referring to … economically or culturally disadvantaged Caucasians. It may also be used self-referentially by white north Americans with higher socio-economic status to jokingly describe limitations they sense in their culture…” How does this definition fit with what you know of the term? White trash is a term related to race, class, and culture.
White trash, differentiates poor white people from other white people – the "real" white people – the ones who are not poor. The term white trash presumes that they are a different race or ”breed” of people. It’s interesting that whites who don’t fit our stereotype of whiteness—being financially wealthy—have to be separated out and named differently. As with most such stereotypes, this one is meant to be a short-hand description of how a certain group of people behave: White trash live in certain places and behave in particular ways.
The highly popular television show Roseanne aired from 1988-1997 and starred comedian Roseanne Barr. The focus of the show was a white working class family. Take a look at the “White Trash Christmas” episode of the show. In that episode, Roseanne and Dan (her TV husband) say that they are setting themselves apart from other white trash families because they have two daughters in college; in other words, white trash people don’t go to college. In that episode, the family’s Christmas decorations are outrageous and tacky: the wreath they place on their door has beer cans, the lights are garishly bright, and the figurines depict lewd behavior.
Essentially, in thinking about white trash, we are forced to think about whiteness. White trash people are not quite white. What is white, then? Who is white? How is whiteness, as a race, socially constructed? As much as we talk about race in the U.S., little is discussed about what constitutes whiteness. This much is clear about whiteness. It’s somewhat invisible in that it’s the norm and everything else is different. Being Black, Hispanic, Asian…being “other” is different from that “whiteness” norm. And so are white trash. They are so different from that norm that they have to have their own name.
As I looked at and thought about the stereotypes of white trash, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between characteristics ascribed to white trash and those ascribed to minorities. And many stereotypes about African Americans and Latinos conflate race and class; in other words many of the stereotypes about African Americans, for example, not only generalize about a race, but stereotype that race as poor. “Black trash” or even “Latino trash” would be redundant based on these stereotypes, so we never hear those terms. Think of a stereotype of African Americans. (I’m avoiding naming too many stereotypes of any group, but I’m sure you can summon some images.)
Does it even make sense to think of that stereotype while also thinking of middle class African Americans? Or upper class African Americans? How well do the two fit together in your mind? And just as some perceive poor African Americans as existing within a culture of poverty, so our ideas about “white trash” are informed by stereotypes about a particular culture. The culture of poverty thesis states that the poor are not just like you and me, but…well, poor. This idea is that the poor have a different culture, different values and norms that serve to keep them poor.
Why might someone like Levi Johnston be called white trash? Why might his family be called this name? (His sister also responded to what both obviously perceive as a slur.) As you think about teen pregnancy, single parenthood, what images come to mind? Are those images related to any particular race or class? How much of what has unfolded with this young couple is what we expect of whites? What can we learn about whiteness by thinking about who or what is described as white trash?