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The Problem with White Trash

by Ben Pitcher
12 Mar 2007 • Comments (7) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review

ISBN: 0822338734 This is a review of Matt Wray (2006) Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, Duke University Press.

Coming to prominence over the last decade, the critical study of whiteness has proven a welcome addition to the interdisciplinary study of race and racism. Aimed at identifying and decentring the hitherto unnamed axis of racial normativity, the field of whiteness studies has helped to construct interpretations of race that highlight its equal significance to both the racialized and racializing. While, as Matt Wray rightly argues, scholars of whiteness have been adept at dealing with questions of white power and privilege, they have been less successful when tackling ideas of whiteness defined not by supremacy, but relative disadvantage. It is in his desire to explore such non-dominant conceptions of white identity that Wray has written this historical sociology of ‘poor white trash’.

Giving some coherent historical substance to his earlier work on the subject,[1] Not Quite White sketches the changing fortunes, representations and interpretations of poor whites in the United States from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. While novel in its subject matter, this account is not unfamiliar to students of the history of racism, for the fate of poor whites parallels in many ways that of ‘traditionally’ racialized groups. Wray argues how a racialized language of poverty facilitated early distinctions between Southern planter elites and landless white freemen. He shows how this discourse was nationalized in the antebellum period as both proslavery secessionists and antislavery abolitionists deployed understandings of poor whites as a race apart. Wray goes on to argue that, with the increasing scientificity of race thinking, the definition of poor whites became a key factor in a power struggle between middle-class reformers – eugenicists and health campaigners – with competing claims to knowledge and power.

As Wray has acknowledged elsewhere, ideas of race in the United States have tended to be employed in the absence of a more developed political language of social class (Wray and Newitz, 1997: 8), and it is of course the conjunction of race and class that makes this such a fascinating and slippery subject. Not Quite White is right to equivocate on the conceptual status of poor white trash, and recognizes the folly of reducing our understanding to a single interpretative framework. For much of the book, Wray maintains his emphasis on the bourgeois conceptualization of poor whites, and is accordingly able to deal with the conflicted nature of white trash as an ideology of both race and class. As a function of the boundary maintenance of dominant groups, ‘white trash’ does not represent any actually existing group, yet remains a socially meaningful discourse with significant material outcomes for those it claims to describe.

Wray gets into difficulties when he attempts to push beyond this presentation of white trash as ideology, and recuperate aspects of white trash identity as a meaningful description of poor whites. While never fully spelled out, Wray repeatedly intimates that a subaltern conception of poor white identity remains buried within the ‘stigmatype’ (his coinage) of white trash. There is the qualified suggestion, for example, that the eighteenth century representation of ‘lubbers’ and ‘crackers’ as lazy and immoral constitutes a symbolic indictment of British colonialism (33, 36). Wray’s reading of hegemonic discourses posits an affinity between descriptions of ‘lubbers’ and native American Indians in their apparent reversal of traditional European gender roles (29). As a group who ‘refused to uphold the color line’ (82), poor white trash become the transgressive heroes of Not Quite White: at one point Wray even suggests that they may have fostered an idea of defiant independence serving ‘as a model for American revolutionaries seeking to throw off the oppressive yoke of British rule’ (39).

There is, I am suggesting, something a little excessive about this revisionist history of poor white trash. Wray’s problem is that in recognizing the ‘deeply ambiguous, liminal status’ (43) of poor white identity, and the ‘subversive potential’ of white trash ‘to upset stable categories’ (176), he appears at times to bracket off or forget altogether the social advantages of whiteness. While Wray is right to read a nascent politics into deviant acts ‘that sustained marginal communities’ (154), he also seems to suggest that a progressive version of white trash identity can prevail beyond or in spite of its racialization. It does not seem to be problematic to Wray that, by recuperating historical versions of white trash as protopolitical, he is at the same time promoting a positive class-specific notion of white ethnicity. By defining white as a social rather than racial category (139), he chooses to play down the fact that we cannot take race out of whiteness, and glosses over its privileged location in the taxonomies of race.

It is a truism that history writing is always for and about the present, and nowhere is this more so than in respect of work on race and racism. In his – albeit qualified – recuperation of white trash, Wray contributes to a developing trend both within and without the academy that gives some legitimacy to the idea of a white working class ethnicity. Rather than attempt to salvage white trash as a proxy form of progressive class critique, it is surely better to resist the concept altogether. A politics of whiteness – however marginal and subaltern its class credentials – will always be marked by racial privilege, and can never be the agent of a progressive politics of identity. When Wray insists in a concluding note that ‘intellectual work worthy of the name can guarantee no politics’ (178), it is possible that he has belatedly recognized this fact, and attempted to contain his thematization of white ethnicity within the fictitious bounds of academic disinterestedness. Yet as Wray himself so convincingly demonstrates in his discussion of eugenicists and health reformers in earlier chapters, intellectual work is often blind to its full political implications. Not Quite White is sadly no exception to this.

A version of this review was published in 2009 in the journal Cultural Studies 23(3):446-9.


1. Wray, M. and Newitz, A. (1997) (eds) White Trash: Race and Class in America. London: Routledge. [↑]

Ben Pitcher writes about race, politics and popular culture. He teaches sociology at the University of Westminster, UK.
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7 Responses »

  1. Would be interesting to see some comparative work on ‘white trash’ there and ‘CHAV’ culture here. Seems to me both are conceptions articulated by the middle classes – in a last ditch attempt at salvaging freedom of expression in what they they see as repressed polically correct dinner table conversations – so while everything else is taboo – turning on one’s own racial self is the final escape/release – or cause for maintaining distinction. Or perhaps this was always the case before ‘race’ was invented as a catogory. Sorry there is a slightly biased comment anti-class comment – but white trash is more class fuelled concept than ‘race’ ..

    Yes, agree with the author that Whitness, is a double edged sword, can shed light on the priviledge of white groups but can also bring more attention to an otherwise privelidged group- barring class differences. The British National Party in the UK is the loudest proponent now of whiteness and ‘indigenous’ rights. So agree this can’t be a marker of progressive politics on ‘race’ however the ‘race’ and ‘class’ nexus themselves are important – and ‘race’ by itself doesn’t exist as a unitary social catogory so I wonder where we go with the double edged sword..

    Not sure where i stand yet – except welcome more white researchers to study whiteness with sensitivity and reflexivity needed for the topic.

  2. Pink, you are of course right to point to the ways in which the middle-class conceptualization of poor whites is a way of defending class privilege. As Ghassan Hage argues so convincingly in White Nation, this form of cultural scapegoating takes place within a proprietorial economy of multicultural belonging. It is a discomfort with precisely this bourgeois cosmopolitanism that underpins Matt Wray’s work on white trash. This is an important critique to be making.

    My problem with Wray is that he takes this too far: his romanticization of the white working class is at times indistinct from a far-right discourse of rights-for-whites. Wray’s valorization of white trash can erroneously insert the white working class into a conceptual framework that collapses class into race. Informed by an anti-racist politics that reads subaltern practices as racially subversive, Not Quite White tries too hard to exempt America’s poor whites from American racism. Wray’s position is effectively an inversion of bourgeois cosmopolitanism, in that it mistakenly attempts to exempt a class fraction of whites from the social and political obligations of racial privilege.

    The real concern I have here is that this kind of manoeuvre is becoming an increasingly common way of thinking about whiteness. Take, for example, two popular histories published recently in Britain. Michael Collins’s The Likes of Us and Billy Bragg’s The Progressive Patriot which both read at times like special pleading. These books are like Wray’s in two respects: first, they’re written on the defensive, against the sneering superior chav-hating rhetoric of the (white) middle classes; second, their authors exhibit a strong sense of self-identification with their subject. In their urgency to erect a defence against the former, there is a tendency for the latter to slip over into a rather conservative romanticization and ethnicization of the white working class.* This is very difficult territory to negotiate, and I’m not suggesting we avoid work on this relationship between race and class, but I think we should be vigilant against the ways in which – as I’ve argued elsewhere in darkmatter – it can feed into the discourses of the far-right.

    *Like myself, Wray, Collins and Bragg have quite substantial chips on their shoulders, which goes some way to explaining these lapses. The same cannot be said for the authors of The New East End, which really is just reactionary rubbish

  3. Ben

    You may be right – texts lend themselves to reactionary implications though I suspect the authors – whether they are Wray or Dench/Gavron did not intend for this. Which makes me wonder on a different point – to what extent are writers like Wray or Dench et al responsible for the take up of their books – and what happens. Not too disimilar from the debacle surronding Monical Ali – are both guilty of the same trick ? Freedom of expression – where does it take us.

    I am not sure where i stand on the romantisation of the white working classes – althogh agree that the discourse is one of the far right’s favourites at the moment, and has been so successful, it seeps in as popular language in the media ( e..g. their use of indigenous rights in the context of the UK as though it were on par with indiginous rights of minorities in North America). I would’ve thought that poor whites in the states can’t be exempt from racism in America as we all know in day to day life that poor Afro-Caribeans in the London’s east London can’t be exempt from racism – as often the repressed groups turns onto another repressed group for maintaining distinction – all geared somewhere to addressing social/racial priviedge where white sits at the top. This also explains why poor Bangladeshis in East London who are racist against Somalians and I am sure everyone is racist against Eastern Europeans so the cycle constinues. nature’s way of telling us to keep up with te Jones – I am not trying to trivlilise your or Wray’s arguments but just putting in context of the everyday so that the discussion doesn’t saty academic.

    I’ve not read Brag but have head ’special pleading’ mentioned sveral times in several contexts – books, elsewhere etc . Seems the only people who claim white workign classes do special pleading are the middle classes themselves. Dunno what’s going on there – the most victriotic of critics of the poor white syndromes are the white middle classes. People often write from the defensive because they feel something – who knows what you call it, not a level playing field, and it’s understanding the emotions of ‘race’ and ‘class’ poltiics that will get you to understand wheer Brag and others might be coming from. In fact come to think of it – if you look at the styles and features of working class texts – they are defensive, emotion, as well as using the conventional styles of reason, analysis and persuation.

    Going off on a tangent – partly /bc feeling dislocated sitting in Asia discussign white ethnicity but there you go, that’s globalisation for you. Reminds me of JUST how priviledged white racial identity is – if anyone is still confused about this.

    Still I think there is something to be said for looking at working class literature – and looking at white working class situations- unless we do this ,we tend to unname whiteness as many have powerfully argued. There is something distinct about working class literature and writing that’s worth celebrating – as so much writing is written by other social groups, but where the ‘race’ nexus fits here i am less sure.

  4. Dear Pink,

    Thanks for your comments. I do of course agree with your emphasis on understanding the privileges of whiteness. It is in the spirit of striving to understand this better that I set out the following friendly disagreements:

    On your first point, I think we need to look beyond intentionality here. Nobody can be in any doubt as to the controversial nature of race politics, and particularly the area you call the race-class nexus. As such, I think there is absolutely a responsibility incumbent on those making interventions in this area to be alert to their ‘reactionary implications’. (Indeed, if we think about state interventions – and I’m thinking in particular of pronouncements from the Home Office on Muslims over the last few years – we can even see how discourses of race are sometimes deliberately constructed with an eye and ear to their potential ‘misconstrual’, i.e., by the right-wing press).

    Re your second point: I don’t think the model of racism you employ here is a particularly useful one. This isn’t so say that the kinds of inter-group conflict you describe do not exist; rather, that they cannot – as you acknowledge with your ‘indigenous rights’ example – be understood as bearing precisely the same weights and meanings in all cases and contexts. By this I simply mean that to understand what racism means demands a more complex conceptual framework than an idea of group conflict in relative abstraction from its wider social and political history. For example, any meaningful understanding of discrimination against poor whites in the UK or US must also be attentive to the sense in which their whiteness is and has always been articulated to a privileged conception of national belonging. It is hard to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ when the Joneses have a centuries-long history of juridical and de facto racial supremacy! To develop a coherent understanding of race is hardly ever straightforward, but it is not, I would contest, necessarily ‘academic’.

    I fundamentally disagree on your final points; perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my earlier comments. I don’t have a problem with ‘working class texts’, but rather an unfortunate tendency for these particular histories to construct an imaginary identity between ‘working-classness’ and whiteness. Why should a history of urban working class experience such as Collins’s be written in racially exclusive terms? Why does Bragg – whose anti-racist credentials are otherwise not in doubt – insist that we be attentive to the rights of an ‘indigenous majority’? The problem with these texts is that they rely on an impoverished political imaginary that cannot fully recognize the inherently multicultural character of the working class in Britain today. I think you’re in danger of falling into this trap when you express an interest in exploring working class literature in an attempt to understand ‘white working class situations’, for I would argue that those ‘situations’, so conceived, would themselves represent an unhelpful racialization of working-class experience. The relationship between the universalism of class and the particularism of race is far more complicated than dominant conceptions of ‘the white working class’ are wont to allow. I would – at the risk of further misunderstanding – indeed argue that ‘the white working class’ does not, in fact, exist.

  5. Ben

    Starting from my last point – here are some thoughts, perhaps incoherent at the moment but don’t mind sharing. Perhaps we don’t disagree but I am picking up on the some aspects of bashing working classes that I sometimes see – not necessarily by you – but whenever one talks about ‘class’ it’s such a dirty word in dinner parties unless one is a self confessed ‘comrade’. I get a bit tired but happily scream that ‘white working classes’ don’t exist when a right wing sympathiser is in the midst – understanding audience and intentionality is important I agree.

    Yes, I might argue the same , the ‘white working classes’ whoever they may be – perhaps don’t exist – if ‘race’ is an invented identity, then all ethnicities must be to some extent socially constructed. So perhaps ‘white’ and ‘black’ don’t exist and are only brought into existence in a negative sense – to articulate ‘the other’ or in the case of the ‘white working classes’ articulate oneself as the ‘other’.

    I don’t like the discourse of ‘indiginous’ rights in mostly white majority countries – I think it takes rights discourse out of context and uses it for reactioanary garbage so not agreeing with Bragg here but still would go back to my original point – authors , people, artists, aren’t always aware of what their arguments are – again I don’t doubt for a moment that Geoff Dench is anti-racist but somehow that book did happen… Dench is also very smart I hear, but somehow that book did happen.

    Don’t mean to be dismisstive when saying something is academic – I was getting us to debate in plain English so that we might avoid excluding audiences who might not be familiar with sociology or academia – I sincerely believe that for academics to discuss real world politics of ‘race’ and ‘class’ it’s got to be understood by the majority of people who’re affected by this policy discourse, small point but language is important. That’s one of the gems about Suart Hall – unless you knew who the man was you couldn’t tell when he address himself to a youth club in London that he was indeed the iconic thinker that he is ..

    On intentionality – agree with you entirely, was testing where you and others would come out on implications – i.e. Rushdie, Monica Ali ramifications. Would you put these in the same boat as the Dench et all camp? I was interested in seeing where defenders of post-colonial writing fall on this.

    But why do you disgree that there might be something distinct about working class writing ? Leaving aside ‘race’ plenty of people would argue there is something to it. Nothing is solid or universal I agree and ‘class’, ‘gender’ ‘ethnicity’ ’sexuality’ all inter-mingle – but I stil believe there is someting about working class texts that perhaps Bragg is trying to get at – but fails as you say because he can’t quite understand where his discourse of indiginous majority rights take him. I am not altogether that read up on workign class texts – but I imagine they tend to speak from emotions, experience, not the distance provided by researchers ‘in the field’ or outside the field, and often guts, instinct, stories, moments, etc- inform the analysis as much as ‘objective’ data. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why oral testimonies are so important – perhaps oral histories themselves started to be in vogue because the informants could not ‘write’ their experiences but could ’speak’ out.

    On group tensions – agree – the power dynamics, history of abuse, discriminatin is not the same so one group cannot have the same power to offend as another.

  6. Dear Pink,

    I’ve a few brief comments on your last points.

    Firstly, yes, I would put Monica Ali in precisely the same boat as Dench et al. in terms of responsibility-beyond-intentionality. What’s interesting here is that some unintentional acts are more intended than others. Of course, damn polysemy means that not all possible readings can be envisaged, but some might be …anticipated? This might be particularly so in the case of ‘post-colonial writing’, given the sense in which the cultural context in which it is read is arguably broader and more demanding than other kinds of literature (i.e., the sense in which it is read as a comment on or barometer of race relations, multiculturalism, relationship to colonial past, and so on). I suppose it would be interesting to try to gauge how much the anticipation of its extra-mural resonances (nothing necessarily to do with what is on the page) come to inflect the kind of writing that is composed – and sold – as post-colonial.

    Second (and to recapitulate), I don’t have a problem with ‘working-class writing’. My issue was with the articulation of working-classness and whiteness in Collins and Bragg. …Though now you come to mention it, I do reckon the concept is a bit suspect. ‘Working-class fiction’ is a bit like ‘post-colonial fiction’ in the extent to which it is a category constructed by (and to an extent for) a literary mainstream that is raced and classed in all the usual ways. After all, the novel was and remains, with some tiny exceptions, the bourgeois form par excellence.

    For the same reasons I’m a bit dubious about some the ethnographic presuppositions of your second-to-last paragraph. Whether you’re thinking about class or race, the subalterns are always attributed the poetry and emotion. Full to the brim with it, they’ve got affect coming out of their ears. I really don’t buy these clichés (though I do think – like any self-respecting Bragg fan – that you’re better off with pop music than the novel if you’re looking for a proletarian art form).

  7. Hi Ben

    Thanks for the discussion. enjoyed it.

    Don’t know what proletarian art form is – but pop music sounds good, and Bragg was better at that than..

    Not saying sulbalterns are everywhere and anywhere attributed with poetry and emotion but that there is something quite powerful and poignent about auto-bios and writing from experience which the seasoned researcher can easily miss..

    Intentions and consequences I guess have absorbed a lot of creativity in ethics. It’s good to know you’d put these writers in the same camp- for me they are the same – on the one hand we can’t have a go at Dench but not Monica Ali – there are some that would exempt Ali , nto sure why, some kind of post-colonial PC guilt trip or perhaps plain old fashoined class bias in the case of Bangladeshis. I like to think of ourselves as confident in critiquing who we want in a ‘post-colonial’ era – including letting Greer blast another writer if she wishes and not being accused of whatever it was Rushdie accused her of on ..

    In fact if you take texts like New East Enders and Monica Ali together, they illlutrate how the politics of mis-representation works , it doesn’t just stay on the pages as ‘fiction’ but can be picked up by one misguided author who uses another mig-guided novelist to tell ‘home’ truths about the East End.

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