Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"You Nothing but Trash": White Trash Shame in Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"You Nothing but Trash": White Trash Shame in Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina

Article excerpt

"Americans love to hate the poor" and, in particular, to hate poor white trash, observe Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz in their analysis of the white trash phenomenon in America (1). A "classist slur" and a "racial epithet that marks out certain whites as a breed apart, a dysgenic race unto themselves" white trash is "the most visible and clearly marked form of whiteness" (2, 4). The fact that the term "trash" means "social waste and detritus" (4) points to the social degradation and shame implicit in this derogatory class designation. Referring to whites who live in poverty--classically in rural poverty--the term also invokes long-standing stereotypes of poor whites as "incestuous and sexually promiscuous, violent, alcoholic, lazy, and stupid" (2). That there is a "relationship between social formations and structures of feeling" (Fox 14) and that the feeling of shame and the experience of being socially shamed are crucial to the development of a white trash identity are revealed in Dorothy Allison's many public remarks on her white trash upbringing in Greenville, South Carolina, and in her semi-autobiographical novel, Bastard Out of Carolina. If American culture is often described as competitive and success-oriented, it is also a shame-phobic society in which those who are stigmatized as different or those who fail to meet social standards of success are made to feel inferior, deficient, or both. Living in a "shame-based" society in which there is "shame about shame and so it remains under strict taboo" (Kaufman, Shame 32), Allison takes decided risks in describing her shameful white trash origins and her experiences of physical and sexual abuse, including the risk of being re-shamed in a mass-media, talk-show culture that often ruthlessly exposes and shamelessly sensationalizes the stories of victim-survivors.

Allison, who remarks that "shame was the constant theme" of her childhood ("Skin" 229), describes her upbringing as a prolonged immersion in shame. "What may be the central fact of my life" writes Allison, "is that I was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family.... That fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it" ("Question" 15). "Born trash in a land where the people all believe themselves natural aristocrats" Allison's family, the Gibsons, had "a history of death and murder, grief and denial, rage and ugliness" (Two 32). The Gibson women--"bearers of babies, burdens, and contempt" (Two 32-33)--were marked as racially and sexually inferior. "We were all wide-hipped and predestined. Wide-faced meant stupid. Wide hands marked workhorses with dull hair and tired eyes, thumbing through magazines full of women so different from us they could have been another species" (Two 33). Although Allison was proud of the stubborn determination of the "hard and ugly" Gibson women, she was also "horrified" by them and "did not want to grow up to be them" (Two 37, 38). What Allison found absent or caricatured in romantic depictions of poverty and the noble and heroic poor was the "reality of self-hatred and violence" among poor whites. "The poverty I knew was dreary, deadening, shameful.... "Her people, the Gibsons, were the "bad" poor people: "men who drank and couldn't keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from working too many hours and bearing too many children; and children with runny noses, watery eyes, and the wrong attitudes.... We were not noble, not grateful, not even hopeful. We knew ourselves despised. My family was ashamed of being poor, of feeling hopeless. What was there to work for, to save money for, to fight for or struggle against? We had generations before us to teach us that nothing ever changed, and that those who did try to escape failed" ("Question" 17-18). …

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