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This poor white family from Alabama was presented in 1913 as "celebrities" because they had escaped the debilitating effects of hookworm disease, which, along with pellagra was endemic among Southern "white trash" due to poor sanitation and the phenomenon of "clay eating" (geophagia).

White trash is a derogatory American English racial slur referring to poor white people, especially in the rural southern United States. The label signifies lower social class inside the white population and especially a degraded standard of living. The term has been adopted for people living on the fringes of the social order, who are seen as dangerous because they may be criminal, unpredictable, and without respect for political, legal, or moral authority.[1] The term is usually a racial slur,[2] but may also be used self-referentially by working class whites to jokingly describe their origins or lifestyle.[3][4][5][6]

In common usage, "white trash" overlaps in meaning with "crackers", used of people in the backcountry of the Southern states; "hillbilly", regarding poor people from Appalachia; "Okie" regarding those with origins in Oklahoma; and "redneck", regarding rural origins; especially in the South.[7] The primary difference is that "redneck", "cracker", "Okie", and "hillbilly" emphasize that a person is poor and uneducated and comes from the backwoods with little awareness of and interaction with the modern world, while "white trash" – and the modern term "trailer trash" – emphasizes the person's moral failings.[8]



As a derogatory term, "white trash" and "poor white trash" were preceded by "waste people", which was used in England to describe the underclass of their American colonies; they initially conceived of America as a "wasteland", and a place to dump their unwanted excess population.[9] "Waste people" gave way to "squatters" and "crackers", used to describe the settlers who populated the western frontier of the United States and the backcountry of some southern states, but who did not have title to the land they settled on.[10] "Cracker" was especially used in the south.

The first use of "white trash" in print occurred in 1821.[11] It came into common use in the 1830s as a pejorative used by house slaves against poor whites. In 1833, Fanny Kemble, an English actress visiting Georgia, noted in her journal: "The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as 'poor white trash'".[12][13]

The term achieved widespread popularity in the 1850s,[11] and by 1855, it had passed into common usage by upper-class whites, and was common usage among all Southerners, regardless of race, throughout the rest of the 19th century.[14]

In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the chapter "Poor White Trash" in her book A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe wrote that slavery not only produces "degraded, miserable slaves", but also poor whites who are even more degraded and miserable. The plantation system forced those whites to struggle for subsistence. Beyond economic factors, Stowe traces this class to the shortage of schools and churches in their community, and says that both blacks and whites in the area look down on these "poor white trash".[15] In Stowe's second novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), she describes the poor white inhabitants of that swamp, which formed much of the the border between Virginia and North Carolina, as an ignorant, degenerate and immoral class of people prone to criminality.[16] Hinton Rowan Helper's extremely influential 1857 book The Impending Crisis of the South – which sold 140,000 copies and was considered to be the most important book of the 19th century by many people – describes the region's poor Caucasians as a class oppressed by the affects of slavery, a people of lesser physical stature who would be driven to extinction by the South's "cesspool of degradation and ignorance."[16]


In the popular imagination of the mid-19th century, "poor white trash" were a breed of people who suffered from numerous physical and social defects. They were dirty, ragged and emaciated, had feeble children with distended abdomens who looked aged beyond their physical years. Their skin had a yellowish tinge to it and was waxy looking. They were listless and slothful, and addicted to alcohol.[17]

Northerners proclaimed that the existence of white trash was the result of the system of slavery in the South, while Southerners worried that these clearly inferior whites would upset the "natural" class system which held that all whites were superior to all other races, especially blacks. People of both regions expressed concern that if the number of white trash people increased significantly, they would threaten the Jeffersonian ideal of a population of educated white freemen as the basis of a robust American democracy.[17]

White popular cultureEdit

Scholars in the late 19th to the early 21st century, explored generations of families whom the authors considered disreputable, such as The Jukes family and The Kallikak Family (both were pseudonyms for real families).[18]

Ernest Matthew Mickler's White Trash Cooking (1986) enjoyed an unanticipated rise to popularity. The cookbook, which is based on the cooking of rural white Southerners, features recipes with names such as Goldie's Yo Yo Pudding, Resurrection Cake, Vickies Stickies, and Tutti's Fruited Porkettes.[19][20] As Sherrie A. Inness notes, "white trash authors used humor to express what was happening to them in a society that wished to forget about the poor, especially those who were white". She points out that under the humor was a serious lesson about living in poverty.[21]

By the 1980s, fiction was being published by Southern authors who identified as having redneck or white trash origins, such as Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, and Tim McLaurin.[22] Autobiographies sometimes mention white trash origins. Gay rights activist Amber L. Hollibaugh wrote, "I grew up a mixed-race, white-trash girl in a country that considered me dangerous, corrupt, fascinating, exotic. I responded to the challenge by becoming that alarming, hazardous, sexually disruptive woman."[23]

Black popular cultureEdit

Use of "white trash" epithets has been extensively reported in African American culture.[24][25][26] Black authors have noted that blacks, when taunted by whites as "niggers", taunted back, calling them "white trash".[25] Some black parents taught their children that poor whites were "white trash".[27] The epithet appears in black folklore.[28] As an example, slaves (when out of earshot of whites) would refer to harsh slave owners as a "low down" man, "lower than poor white trash", "a brute, really".[29]

In popular cultureEdit


  • 1900Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland's play Po' White Trash, exposes complicated cultural tensions in the post-Reconstruction South, related to the social and racial status of poor whites.[30]
  • 1907?O Henry's short story "Shoes" refers to the male protagonist "Pink Dawson" – which the narrator consistently confuses with "Dink Pawson" – as "Poor white trash".[31]
  • 1948Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee explores images of "white trash" women. In 2000, Chuck Jackson argued in the African American Review that Hurston's meditation on abjection, waste, and the construction of class and gender identities among poor whites reflects the eugenics discourses of the 1920s.[32]
  • 1986Ernest Matthew Mickler's self-deprecating cookbook White Trash Cooking, contains recipes from the American South East.[33]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Wray (2006), p. 2
  2. ^ Hartigan, John, Jr. (2003) "Who are these white people?: 'Rednecks,' 'Hillbillies,' and 'White Trash' as marked racial subjects" in Doane, Ashley W. and Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo eds. (2003). White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism. Psychology Press. pp. 95–111. 
  3. ^ Lamar, Michelle & Wendland, Molly (2008). The White Trash Mom Handbook: Embrace Your Inner Trailerpark, Forget Perfection, Resist Assimilation into the PTA, Stay Sane, and Keep Your Sense of Humor. 
  4. ^ Mickler, Ernest (1986). White Trash Cooking. 
  5. ^ Morris, Kendra (2006). White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for down-Home Entertaining. 
  6. ^ Marbry, Bill (2011). Talkin' White Trash. 
  7. ^ Wray (2006), p. x
  8. ^ Wray (2006), pp. 79, 102
  9. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp.xxvi-xxvii, 17-42
  10. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp.105-132
  11. ^ a b Isenberg (2016), p.135
  12. ^ Kemble, Fannie (1835) Journal. p. 81
  13. ^ Wray suggests that the term may have originated in the Baltimore-Washington area during the 1840s, when Irish and blacks were competing for the same jobs. Wray (2006),42-p.44. The quote from Kemble is reprinted in page 41 of the book.
  14. ^ Newitz, Annalee & Wray, Matthew (July 1, 1997). "What is White Trash?". In Hill, Mike. Whiteness: a Critical Reader (PDF). NYU Press. p. 170. Retrieved January 11, 2013. 
  15. ^ Wray (2006), pp. 57-58
  16. ^ a b Isenberg (2016), p.137
  17. ^ a b Isenberg (2016), p.136
  18. ^ Rafter, Nicole Hahn (1988) White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919
  19. ^ Edge, John T. (2007) "White Trash Cooking, Twenty Years Later", Southern Quarterly. 44(2): pp. 88-94; Smith (2004)
  20. ^ Mickler, Ernest Matthew (2011)White Trash Cooking (new ed. 2011)
  21. ^ Inness, Sherrie A. (2006) Secret Ingredients: Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table. p. 147
  22. ^ Bledsoe, Erik (2000) "The Rise of Southern Redneck and White Trash Writers", Southern Cultures 6#1 pp. 68-90
  23. ^ Hollibaugh, Amber L. (2000). My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. Duke University Press. pp. 12, 209. 
  24. ^ Wilson, William Juliusin Cashmore, Ernest and Jennings, James eds. (2001) Racism: Essential Readings p.188
  25. ^ a b Kolin, Philip C. (2007) Contemporary African American Women Playwrights. p.29
  26. ^ Roediger, David R. (1999) Take Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to be White pp.13, 123
  27. ^ Obiakor, Festus E. and Ford, Bridgie Alexis (2002) Creating Successful Learning Environments for African-American Learners With Exceptionalities p.198
  28. ^ Prahlad, Anand (2006) The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore. volume 2, p.966
  29. ^ Nolen, Claude H. (2005) African American Southerners in Slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction. p.81
  30. ^ Hester, Jessica (2008). "Progressivism, Suffragists and Constructions of Race: Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland's 'Po' White Trash'". Women's Writing. 15 (1): 55–68. doi:10.1080/09699080701871443. 
  31. ^ Henry, O (1907). "Shoes". The best short stories of O. Henry. Random House. p. 146. ISBN 0-679-601228. Archived from the original on 1997-01-01. 
  32. ^ Jackson, Chuck (2000). "Waste and Whiteness: Zora Neale Hurston and the Politics of Eugenics". African American Review. 34 (4): 639–660. doi:10.2307/2901423. 
  33. ^ Oxford


  • Berger, Maurice (2000). White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness. ISBN 0-374-52715-6
  • Goad, Jim (1998). The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies Hicks and White Trash Became Americas Scapegoats. ISBN 0-684-83864-8
    • explores the history of the pejorative term "White trash", as well as detailing the history and class issues related to the impoverished European diaspora in North America.
  • Hartigan, John, Jr. (2005) Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-3597-2
  • Hartigan, John, Jr. (2003) "Who are these white people?: 'Rednecks,' 'Hillbillies,' and 'White Trash' as marked racial subjects" in Doane, Ashley W. and Bonilla-Silva, Edouardo eds. (2003). White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism. Psychology Press. pp. 95–111. 
  • Isenberg, Nancy (2016) White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-312967-7
  • Rasmussen, Dana (2011). Things White Trash People Like: The Stereotypes of America's Poor White Trash. BiblioBazaar. 
  • Smith, Dina (2004) "Cultural Studies' Misfit: White Trash Studies", Mississippi Quarterly. 57(3): pp. 369–387
    • traces the emergence of 'white trash studies' as a scholarly field by placing representative 20th-century popular images of 'white trash' in their Southern economic and cultural contexts.
  • Sullivan, Nell (2003) "Academic Constructions of 'White Trash'" in Adair, Vivyan Campbell, and Sandra L. Dahlberg, eds. (2003) Reclaiming Class. Women, Poverty, and the Promise of Higher Education in America. pp 53-66. Temple University Press. ISBN 1-59213-021-6
  • Taylor, Kirstine (March 2015) "Untimely Subjects: White Trash and the Making of Racial Innocence in the Postwar South" American Quarterly 67. pp.55–79
  • Wray, Matt and Newitz, Annalee eds. (1997). White Trash: Race and Class in America. ISBN 0-415-91692-5
  • Wray, Matt (2006) Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness

External linksEdit