This I Believe

Mary - White Heath, Illinois
Entered on August 25, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: prejudice

As a writer, and a teacher, I suppose it is inevitable that I think words are important. With words we express, and sometimes formulate, our ideas.

Therefore, it’s maybe not surprising that I risked a friendship over my neighbor’s use of words that disturbed me: “White Trash.”

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard those commonplace words. In fact, several years ago, a relative of mine regaled me with her description of a party she had had—a “White Trash Party.” She hired a caterer named, at least for that afternoon, Billy-Bob, and asked him to prepare weenies and beans, molded jello whip, fruit cocktail, and appetizers made with tiny squares of white bread and mayonnaise. Her friends enjoyed the party so much that she wanted to start her own catering business with the White Trash theme.

It often takes me a long time to figure out why I like or dislike something, and though I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term, I’ve often let it pass. Until last week, when I snapped at my friend, and offered instead of a thoughtful discussion…well, I don’t remember what I offered, but certainly not thoughtful discussion. And worse, I’m afraid that my accusations of disrespect she didn’t intend may have hardened her against further discussion.

At least this time my outburst prompted my own reflection on the words. I’ve come up with two reasons why I don’t like this term. One is grammatical, one personal.

As a grammar teacher, I’m often poking around in sentences, deconstructing them to glean meaning, and when I look at the term, “White Trash,” I find that we’re either qualifying “White,” or we’re qualifying “Trash.” If “White” is the descriptor, then we’re maybe saying, “You know what color most trash is, but these people are White trash.” If “trash” is the descriptor, aren’t we saying, “Well, you know, White people are okay, but these? They’re White trash.” Either meaning seems to me ugly and racist, no matter who’s saying it about whom.

To explain the other reason, I’d have to share something most people don’t know about me. Growing up, my family was considered the trashy family on the block. You know, weed filled, unmowed lawn and broken-down house; too many kids in raggedy clothes; too many pets; always a hand-me-down, run-down car; roaches. Growing up I knew that we had to be careful who we let inside, but as a child I didn’t realize that people didn’t need to go inside to guess. Without sharing too many details or making excuses, let me say that my parents maybe had it a little hard, maybe had different goals and dreams (reading is more important than doing the dishes or mowing the lawn—actually, I’ll agree with that, sometimes), maybe just didn’t know how to keep house. Surely nobody’s perfect, but I believe that people are not trash.

Oh, come on. Where’s your sense of humor? A White Trash party is funny! Is nothing sacred?

Yes. Words are.