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Poor White or White Trash?

The smell of cigarettes reminds me of home. The first time I thought that particular thought, it was followed immediately by, “Wow, how white trashy of me.” Which was then followed up with, “What’s the real difference between white trash and poor white people?”

When I was very young, my dad played in a slow pitch softball league. My mother would take my brother and I to the ball park, where a lot of people did smoke and drink, and where I gleefully swung on a tire swing until falling violently ill. There was a singular soda machine outside a building that housed a bathroom and concession stand. Once I figured out that cold cans of soda emerged from the mouth of the machine for the low, low cost of $1.00, I had to have one. I asked my mother for a soda, and she sighed and said, “We don’t have the money.”

That was the moment I first became aware of money, and quickly understood that money is an important measuring tool. Families with a lot of money bought their kids the 64 pack of crayons, name-brand sneakers, and school folders with colorful unicorns on them. Families who had less money bought 10-for-a-dollar cheap paper folders, dull, primary colored crayons, and Shopko clearance rack jeans with asymmetric butt pockets and button flies instead of zippers.

Families with money had big fishing boats and spent entire weeks of the summer at lake houses, or in Greece, or at the very least, not working. Families with less money paid their kids fifty cents to mow the lawn and spent weekends at home canning pickles and repairing garage roof leaks. Despite my family falling into the “families with less money” category, I was never unhappy, or even radically aware that I was missing out on week-long lake house vacations and the opportunity to binge drink under-aged.

There was one item I knew my mother would always, always buy for me: books. We bought books at garage sales, Barnes and Noble, Goodwill, antique shops, wherever we could find them. In middle school, I checked out a book every day from the library and finished it that night. I was ravenous for stories, reading in the bathtub, as I ate breakfast, on the bus, and in bed each night. Books were a sort of haven for me, a portal to new places I couldn’t see, people I’d never met, and ideas so different from the ideas that surrounded me in my daily life that I became radicalized. Which is to say, educated. Which meant to my far-right conservative uncle: liberal (gasp!).

Growing up, I was under the impression that we didn’t need a lot of money, and that we didn’t want it even if we could have it. My father used to say we ought to quit giving each other gifts at Christmas and give all the money to people who really need it. Now, as an adult who dreads finding the perfect gift for everyone on my list each year, I couldn’t agree more. Poor white people are people who don’t have a lot, but who don’t need a lot because self-sufficiency is paramount. “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” has never been more applicable than to this particular group of people, who work hard, do the “right thing,” and don’t understand what those annoying feminists are always droning on about, or why we haven’t yet entered a post-racial world. If they do not see it, it must not exist.

White trash people are poor people who don’t give a damn. They might not shower enough, chain smoke, binge drink Natty Light, and simply don’t care that there are oil stains in the carpet or that the paint is peeling off the bedroom wall. White trash people experience joy in its simplest, most obtrusive manner. They don’t care that the things they find funny might be crude or offensive. In fact, they enjoy the crude and offensive that much more because it might offend somebody. They see the world in black and white, refusing to believe in nuance and wholeheartedly embracing generalizations.

White trash people are offensive, but easily offended. Allow me to demonstrate with a possibly-real scenario,

“Gosh Ms. Madison, your teeth sure are looking snaggly today,” said Timmy, the local newspaper boy, and son of the town baker. From that moment on, Ms. Madison never spoke to Timmy again until he came crawling to her deathbed 40 years later, begging for forgiveness and petrified that the wrath of the heavenly father would rain down upon him once the old hag died.

Alternatively, Ms. Madison might draw up her nose at Ms. Crawford during the Sunday morning church service because the later was wearing a scandalous, low cut turtle neck, that rested 5 entire inches above her clavicle. The two women might not speak for weeks, and when they happened to run their shopping carts into one another in the corn nuts and soda pop aisle of the local five and dime, they would serve each other back-handed compliments:

“Oh Betsy, you have always enjoyed off-brand cheese puffs. I suppose name brand is out of your price range?”

“Ohoho Debbie, you have always had the wildest sense of humor! Remember that time Sheriff Johnson caught you shitting in the street and arrested you? What a gag!”

“Ahaha, yes well, humor is the spice of life, Betsy! At least for some of us. Others keep it spicy by getting horny in the hay sack with married men! We’re all different!”

“Oh yes, so sooooo different, Debbie!” nervously glancing to the left, to right, then to the ground as if wishing the floor might evaporate, “Well, I must be getting home to Ernie and the kids, they’ll be anxious to dig their grubby hands into these cheese puffs!”

Ms. Crawford surveys the scene serenely. “But of course, run home to your boyfriend and that posse of nincompoop children. Bye Betsy!”

Both women back away from each other nodding their heads violently and smiling so widely their mouths begin to quiver. They astutely avoid each other, Ms. Madison waiting until Ms. Crawford is finished picking Oscar Meyer cheesy bologna from the deli before venturing by to fetch her own package of gruesome pink face meat.

Debbie and Betsy are white trash. They are not, however, real, and I hope you were able to pick up on this. If not, we can’t be friends.

White trash people are not inherently bad. I don’t believe anyone is born inherently bad, and for that single reason I have a socially unacceptable degree of empathy for criminals. But look: maybe the whitest and trashiest among us don’t want to be living in a rotting trailer court tending to their diabetic mother and working overnight shifts at CVS. Maybe they don’t know anything else or see another choice. The pain of their existence is so overwhelming and raw that they blame their circumstances on other people—the government, immigrants, Y2k, et cetera. They are broken. They are angry. They embrace this anger and brokenness because it is the only thing that makes them feel better, but this feeling doesn’t last very long, so it grows deeper and uglier until one day they wake up with a face contorted and brittle with rage. Their anger, when harmful to others, is intensely wrong. Most of the time, their anger hurts no one as badly as it hurts themselves.

I came from a place where many people proudly label themselves white trash. Having left that environment, I remain deeply grateful that my parents bought me books, taught me to work exceptionally hard, pushed me to earn straight A’s and go to college. Ideas did not frighten them. They gave me the best they had to offer, shielded me from the worst, and sent me into the world with a brain full of ideas and a heart full to brimming with empathy for the people who cast aside knowledge in favor of ignorance—for the people who didn’t know the gravity of what they gave up when they embraced the black and white version of life. Especially, for the people who remain there still, convinced that there are only two sides to any story, convinced that their version is right.

Tweet me some kindness: @sarahmac_attack.


Sarah Rose

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