introduction
White Trash as Social Difference
Groups, Boundaries, and Inequalities
Let us hope that we never grow so sanctimonious that we cannot
listen to the mean things people say. They are our data.
—everett c. hughes and helen macgill hughes
(1952: 132), quoted in Lewis 1983: 1
Can there be any people who confound sacredness with uncleanness?
—mary douglas (1966/1984: 159)
Whitetrash isacuriousphrase.Atfirst,itsmeaningsandreasonsforbeing
seem easyenough to understand: it’s an insult, or the punch line to a joke,
or maybe just a way to name those people down the road with the wash-
ing machine and the broken-down truck in the front yard. It conjures
images of poor, ignorant, racist whites: trailer parks and wife beaters, too
many kids and not enough government cheese. It’s hard to care about
such people. It’s even harder to take them seriously. Maybe that’s why, for
so many, white trash rolls off the tongue with such condescending ease.
This book is an attempt to move beyond simplicities and condescen-
sion and to take white trash seriously, to come to grips with it as name,
label, stigma, and stereotype. Far from having clear meanings and pur-
poses, white trash is, like nigger, a very troublesome word.1 For much of
its long history, white trash has been used by Americans of all colors to
humiliate and shame, to insult and dishonor, to demean and stigmatize.
Yet beneath that general usage lies a long-concealed history of shifting
representations and meanings in American lexical culture. This book ar-
gues that understanding the story of whitetrash and other terms of abuse
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