“White Trash” and Other Terms that Need to Be Trashed Right Now
Speak up the next time someone says something egregious!
Recently, at a dinner party with smart, liberally-minded women, I heard one woman say white trash in passing. The term rattled me, and just as I was about to object, the subject changed.
In truth, I was a coward. I didn’t want to rock the boat, but sometimes we have to.
If white is needed as a modifier for trash, it implies those who are trash also are black. I doubt that the woman who used the term thought she was being racist, but if you agree with the logic of my earlier statement, she was. I should also mention that all of the women at the dinner were white, and I again wonder if she would have used the same language were a woman of color present.
Intellectually, we all know this, but in practice, we sometimes ignore our implicit biases, even if we are aware of them, or we are not thinking at all about the implications of language and the effects they can have on others.
As evocative as the term white trash is, I suggest getting rid of it altogether. If you want to say someone is trashy, go with that. You don’t need to modify it with a racial term. By the same token, trailer trash is classist and offensive. Get rid of that too.
Here are some other turns of phrase that need to be relegated to the trash bin, as it were:
Off the Reservation
I once worked in an office where off the reservation was uttered several times a week and, despite pleas made to the person who kept using the phrase, he didn’t stop saying it. The offensive nature of the language stems from the Indian Removal Act of 1830. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Newspaper databases reveal that starting in the mid-19th century, the phrase began appearing in literal contexts, in which Indians who were found ‘off the reservation’ faced dire consequences, especially during times of war.”
If this term is in your personal lexicon, you might want to consider replacing it with the following:
· Off the rails
· Off the grid
· Into the stratosphere
Like white trash, wife beater calls to mind a specific image. For me, it’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire drunkenly shouting, “Stella! Stella for star!” I imagine I am not alone. In a New York Times opinion piece, Moises Velasquez-Manoff writes, “We don’t call our pants ‘child molesters’ or our hats ‘cat mutilators.’ We immediately recognize such descriptions as violent and abhorrent. And yet, we somehow overlook the same when we call our shirts wife beaters.”
So, let’s just call them muscle shirts or sleeveless T-shirts and not talk about beating anyone’s wife.
The natives are restless
As I was watching a scene in The Lost City of Z where indigenous Amazonians showered white explorers with arrows, I found myself thinking, “The natives are not happy.” Then, I thought, “WTF are you thinking?!” Natives not being happy is an iteration of the natives are restless, a trope attributed to several sources, including Dr. Moreau and earlier references in 1920 novel and a 1900 article in National Geographic. At any rate, the phrase reeks of colonialism and white superiority. And yet, numerous authors continue to use both phrases in contemporary writing. Don’t make that mistake.
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania without a black person to be seen for miles and miles. However, my father, a clothing salesman at the time, had many black friends. On one of his buying trips to Pittsburgh, we small kids stayed with a friend of his who lived in the Hill District, a mostly black neighborhood. I was about 10 years old at the time and playing hide-and-seek with some of my new black friends, deciding who would be “it.”
As with my white friends back at home, I began with “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a n****r by the toe.” And, boom! Did I get the talking to of my life. I had no idea. Ever since then, my children’s rhyme said, “Catch a tiger by the toe.” I have not used the N-word ever again. Ever. And that’s my advice to white people: Don’t. You can read the thousands of popular and academic articles on the topic, arguing for and against. But, really, white people, just don’t. There’s no need.
Dodged a bullet
While there is nothing racist, classist, or sexist about this term and, according to Merriam Webster, its origins are unknown, the term in recent years has become a literal reality for far too many. According to Pew Research, “In 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the CDC.” Not to mention, we have been at war for the last 18 years. So, the chances of any of us knowing someone — or knowing someone who knows someone — who dodged a bullet are becoming far too, and tragically, frequent. Let’s say something like “missed a meltdown” or “avoided a crisis” and keep bullets at safe shooting ranges.
This is one of those terms that can be both insulting and loving. Etymologists trace it to the “Old English bicce ‘female dog,’ probably from the Old Norse bikkjuna ‘female of the dog’ …”
I’m torn on the term as I have heard it both as pejorative and praise, particularly in the gay/binary community. However, if one wants to think of a me as a bitch as an homage to female dogs, count me in.
We want our language to be lively — peppered with allusions, metaphors, similes — but we sometimes fail to think about the meanings of our words. I remember being in a diversity training 25 years ago that cautioned us from using any words stemming from the Latinate niger, meaning the color black, such as “denigrate” or the offensive N-word. While the latter is more obvious, I doubt that most people who haven’t studied Latin know the origins of “denigrate.” I am torn about such distinctions but do strongly believe we can choose our words wisely.
The bottom line (and I’m pretty sure the accounting term “bottom line” won’t offend anyone) is that all of us should develop a keen awareness of the things we say and, hopefully, caution others on what they say. The next time I’m at a dinner party and hear someone say something egregious as white trash, I’m going to speak up, maybe even bitch a bit.