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What is White Trash?

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Note: This article is definitely NOT politically correct. You may be offended, you may disagree, and you may even laugh, but probably not all at once. In any case, try to read this as it was meant, -- as a satire, interspersed with a lot of sarcasm. The author is not a racist, satanist, redneck, or a member of any 4-H club.  Note that this document is slanted and stereotypical, and is only meant as examples not uncommon to people that could be referred to as white trash by others in their own communities.

As an epithet, white trash, or the more extended poor white trash first came into common use in the 1830’s. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies white trash in its earliest usage as an American pejorative used by the slaves of gentlemen against poor whites who worked in the field. The real distinction is that while a black man might be slave, to be a house slave was better than any menial job, even if that job was held by a white person.
The nature of the term white trash is studied in connection to racism and politics to the people to whom it has been applied. The definition above is colloquial in the sense of how the term is used in contemporary American English. In full historical context, the term is much more difficult to define, and any definition must be considered with respect to the context in which the period it was applied. For example, the racial meaning of "white" has changed. 150 years ago, immigrants from Mediterranean Europe would not have been considered "white". At present, the U.S. census would consider these same people, such as Italians and Italian Americans to be "white".
White trash in the computer world it is a pejorative term for Intel-based microcomputers, used by NeXT users at UK law firm Linklaters & Paines to contrast these machines with their black NeXT boxes. (1996-09-04)
Related terms include: Trailer park trash, Redneck, Hick and Hillbilly.
Related material may be found in racism and mullet

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White Trash/Context

This term had enormous popularity during the 19th and 20th century because of the much narrower definition of "whiteness". During the beginning years of the Republic, a white person could more correctly be defined as a white land holder, usually of Anglo-Saxon heritage and always protestant (WASP). Over the years this ethnic and social identifier was referred to as WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). It was not always factual in practice but, the identifier was true in stereotype. Because of this narrow definition of what it was to be white, the large majority of the country was in some sense considered non-white.

"Non-whites as a class exploded along with immigration, and a formalized interest in studying immigrant poverty as a genetic disease that could be approached in terms akin to animal husbandry was preferred by the "white" upper class. Manner of non-whiteness were categorized and systematized into the flourishing field of eugenics. Much of this research was focused in the early study of criminal science, or forensics."
Ethnographic research, especially with regards to the physical traits of an ethnic group, became closely tied to the study of the immigrant crime problem. And so the early biometrics of forensics was used to describe the form and appearance of the criminal animal. Cranial measurements, fingerprints, height and weight and skin color all became associated in huge indexed arrays to these names of the non-whites: Irishman, Pole, German, Jew, and Negro. Mug shots are a living remnant of this obsession with cataloguing as it peaked in the Victorian era.
The science of ethnography came into the language. On one hand, a science of stereotypes was evolving throughout the nineteenth century, and on the other a culture of categorization was proliferating amongst the competing groups. Colloquial insults took on national and archetypal significance.
White trash was a unique case within this larger culture of systemic racism. Everyone was non-white by virtue of the fact that they were poor, because by definition to be white was to be economically, socially and biologically superior. It came into especially strong favor during the years of the American Reconstruction shortly following the American Civil War. During these years a great deal of political effort was behind the idea of land redistribution, because it was theorized by northern law makers that the power of the southern aristocracy lay primarily in their control of the land. President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, strongly opposed these changes, and the "carpetbaggers" who came down from the north to implement Congress’ redistribution plan. It was at this time that the classic division between poor whites and poor blacks was exploited by land owners.
And white trash then became the broad popular lexicon. It became a group identity used widely in discussing race politics for the next 150 years. Within this structure there were Whites, Blacks, White Trash and other non-whites. Over the years it became a concern of choosing sides. Many immigrant groups who had originally been identified as non-white before the Civil War (the Irish are a prime example), quickly began to assimilate in the face of the growing post-war Anti-Black focus. As the ranks of the rich white upper class grew with addition of successful minority "white" groups, so too the ranks of those "whites" who still hadn't succeeded.

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It is difficult to define what "white trash" basically means. It is not the definition that is central, but all of the ill-definable jibber jabber which surrounds that "canonical definition" that become important. The context is always growing within the culture.

But cultural definitions are not static. And so, at the moment, it is thought that white trash means something like this: In the beginning, White Trash was a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes. But in fact, that definition had already been set down in the 1300's for another, much earlier word which is not often considered:

    1. Villain 1. This term villain was originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.

    2. At the outset Villain meant a villager. A citizen of a small town. Nigger literally is a variation on Negro. All it means, literally, is that something is black. White trash, like kike or polack or greaseball, is essentially an empty phrase. As reclamationists have noted, we can fill those cultural words with any content that we want. The definitions have no empirical basis, they have no foundation in the repeatable scientific world of fact. They are instead short-lived, and become more a portrait of a person's heart, and of the culture that they live in.

    3. Anther word that can be used for White Trash is Hillbilly. This term originally came as a pejorative term for people who lived in isolation in the Appalachian Mountains of North America. If one wanted to be less demeaning they would use the term would be "hill folk". The use of this definition was probably correct between the western expansions and the 1940’s. The arrival of the interstate highway system and television brought Appalachian communities into mainstream US culture in the 1950’s, 1960’s, but many communities with relatively traditional lifestyles remain throughout the region.
      The hillbilly lifestyle was gently reflected in the 1960’s American sitcom the Beverley Hillbillies.
      Today, the term hillbilly means an individual characterized by being generally unrefined.


      1. Random House Dictionary Of The English Language, Sec. Ed. , Random House 1987

      2. The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, Tony Thorn, Pantheon Books, NY 1990.

      3. Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Oxford University Press, John Ayto, 1998.

      4. Slang and Its Analogues, J.S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, Krause Reprint Corporation, NY 1965

      5. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

      6. http://www.folkdoc.doc


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