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, 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.