As many people know, Sarah Palin and her family were said to have been recently involved in what the New York Times called a “brawl” at a party in their home state of Alaska. Sure, such an incident seems ripe for political jokes and satire. After all, Sarah Palin was a candidate for Vice President of the United States, and the media seems to have reported with glee about her blunders on and off the campaign trail.
However, during social media’s response to the news coverage of this event, why is it acceptable for her to be labelled “white trash”? In addition, during the news coverage of this event, why is it acceptable to have thinly-veiled references to the label “white trash,” even by the New York Times? (If they quote someone making a comparison to The Jerry Springer Show, does that make it ok?)
As soon as the news story hit social media, I noticed phrases and words like “white trash,” “trailer trash,” and “trash” get bandied about by some progressives as if those terms had no history, as if they were innocent words that did not have roots in a history that involuntarily sterilized thousands of poor white people and criminalized white poverty. Is it ok to use this term because Sarah Palin is wealthy? Will somehow the burden of history associated with this term be cast aside due to her wealth? Or is it ok to call her “white trash” because you don’t agree with her politics and you want an opportunity to mock her?
I’m not here to defend Sarah Palin. I don’t support her conservative politics, and I certainly didn’t think she was a good political candidate. I just believe that we need to be much more careful about the stereotypes we continue to perpetuate through the language we use. I’m sure many of the people who breezily called Sarah Palin “white trash” in Twitter, Facebook, or a comment on a news article care deeply about poverty and social justice; however, I don’t think they’re connecting the dots. We have such a pervasive stereotype about poor whites in this country that we don’t even think consciously about it.
The heart of the “white trash” stereotype includes an assumption of genetic inferiority, stupidity, laziness, and filth. The “racist redneck” stereotype reinforces this same emphasis on stupidity, ignorance, as well as extreme conservative reactionary politics, connected to the assumption of ignorance and backwardness, as if “these uncivilized people” don’t know any better. Maybe it’s amusing to apply that stereotype to someone like Palin who does have conservative beliefs but also a lot of power as a way to bring her down a notch. However, doing so just reinforces a pervasive belief system about people in poverty as inferior and undeserving of government support. Calling Sarah Palin “white trash” in the end contributes to the anti-poor platform she supported. The use of this stereotype does not advance social justice whatsoever; it does just the opposite.
As I am trying to demonstrate with this blog (and my book project), stereotypes like that of poor whites as “white trash” or “redneck” are damaging; they are divisive, and they serve the interests only of those in power and the status quo. They keep different racial groups and economic classes separate, without an opportunity to form coalitions around common interests.
Yes, it is certainly possible to use terms like “white trash” and “redneck” in ways that empower poor whites; however, the case of calling Sarah Palin “white trash” is not one of them. In order to use these terms in a way that empowers poor whites, there must be resistance to the idea that they are inferior; their humanity must be front and center rather than cast aside. A writer like Dorothy Allison accomplishes just that. She explicitly uses the term “white trash” to force us to question the status quo, to question negative, pervasive beliefs about poor whites. In her book Skin, she writes: “To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary” (36).