Cultural Studies' Misfit: White Trash Studies

By Smith, Dina | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultural Studies' Misfit: White Trash Studies

Smith, Dina, The Mississippi Quarterly

IN DOROTHY ALLISON'S Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), the first-person narrator, a young girl called "Bone," describes 1950s rural poverty and what it means to be white trash. Bone lives in relatively stark conditions amid the culture of fifties affluence. But what terrifies Bone is not the lack of material possessions so much as the social disgust leveled her way by a proper middle-class community. She begins to understand such coding as a means of "keeping her down" in the trash, a "trash" constructed by her community and the larger culture:

   Aunt Alma had given me a big paperback edition of Gone with the
   Wind, with tinted pictures from the movie, and told me I'd love
   it. I had at first, but one evening I looked up from Vivien Leigh's
   pink cheeks to see Mama coming from work with her hair darkened from
   sweat and her uniform stained. A sharp flash went through me. Emma
   Slattery, I thought. That's who I'd be, that's who we were. Not
   Scarlett with her baking-powder cheeks. I was part of the trash from
   down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and
   stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame
   and death. I shook with fear and indignation. (1)

As this passage makes clear, no one in Bone's immediate family looks like Scarlett O'Hara. Denied such easy identification, Bone finds herself unsutured from this popular narrative and its romantic images of Southern womanhood, a narrative deeply nostalgic for an antebellum plantation past. Instead of Scarlett, Bone imagines herself as Emma Slattery, part of the white trash spectacle. Allison's novel reminds us of the growing specularization of "white trash" in today's popular culture, which, as Bone narrates, is mediated by an intense nostalgia for an imagined Southern past in which class distinctions were as easily read, or as clearly coded, as two-dimensional film stills. This essay will examine the growing spectacle that is "white trash studies" in U.S. academic and popular discourses, and will argue that much of this recent work is a nostalgic derealization of the lived-lives of many Southern poor-white/working-class populations. To construct a consumable "white trash" identity is a form of techno-ideological obsolescence, to use Evan Watkins's phrase. (2) It is to obscure how obsolete Southern working-class populations are presently produced and to sustain the positional dominance of others. Linking some iconographic contemporary white trash images to their economic and cultural contexts, this essay will then press the borders of the white trash frame, illustrating how the consumer of today's white trash identity becomes the consumer of illusion.

We might begin to think of the recent white trash phenomenon (from a scholarly collection to the Anna Nicole Show on the E! Network) as a sign of late capital economic shifts, in which older designations such as "white trash" get recuperated and deployed in radically different ways. Notions of class shift along with the economy. Fordist "white trash" referred to unemployed (depressed) labor or unskilled labor, oftentimes designating the initiate city factory worker who had recently left his/her tenancy. Or as with Erskine Caldwell's Jeeter Lester, "white trash" was the defiant relic farmer who refused to leave his land in the wake of large-scale incorporation. White trash, then, was out of place, because it refused to obey a changing Fordism's imperative of regulated change; it was defiantly immobile or illegally mobile. This older conception of white trash often anchored the term to a racialized economic and occupational class status--the white trash sharecropper, the white trash migrant worker, the white trash miner, the white trash mill worker, all of whom are stuck in place. At once white and trash, a metonym for blackness, the term historically designated a border position between white privilege and black disenfranchisement.

For instance, in Harper's Lee's iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, this older trash lives on the border, occupying the black family's once isolated subject position or home. …

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