Poor White Trash: Understanding My Identity Became A Call To Social Justice Activism
What are the markers of a person’s identity, and how does one define their culture? Historically, Anthropologists have studied cultures through lenses of gender, economics, social hierarchy, and the social construct of race. They have done so in ways that are reckless, disrespectful, entitled, condescending, and presumptuous. These practices and others have led many to criticize how we examine cultural identities from the outside in. The nuances of cultural and personal identity are so complex and overlapping that studying culture from an outsider’s perspective will almost always result in some form of “othering.” It is challenging to study the characteristics of a culture without comparing it to our own. White researchers have historically done so under the assumption that their own cultural identities should function as the universal standard for whether aspects of cultural identity are inherently “good” or “bad,” while promoting a recorded history that falsely embraced “harmonious pluralism” among American cultures (Penn-Hilden, 163).
Partly because of this, many researchers have begun to embrace the qualitative data found in auto-ethnographic studies. Some researchers criticize the subject’s proximity to the research in auto-ethnographic studies. Many still value quantitative data over the expressions of subjective experience. This autoethnography will function as my own qualitative analysis of my experience as “poor white trash,” or as a white person whom the world sees as cisgender female and part of the lowest socioeconomic classes in society. Renato Rosaldo referred to his autoethnographic work as his “reflection on my participation in the social movements of identity politics,” and my identity politics lie at the intersections of poor, white, and female (Rosaldo, 118). I will analyze my own life through the lens of culture/race/privilege, giving details about my life that help paint the picture of my gender, economics, class status, and “race”. I will then discuss the further hardships that systemic racism and white privilege impose upon my black and brown American counterparts (in gender, socioeconomic status, or both) and why social justice activism is so important, even for poor white folks.
The gendered and classed experiences of a white trash woman
While my use of the term “white trash” might come off as offensive to some of those who share the moniker, I wholeheartedly identify with this label, as I am sure both of my biological parents did (either publicly or privately) at some point in their lives. Matt Wray helps define it:
White trash names a people whose very existence seems to threaten the symbolic and social order. As such, the term can evoke strong emotions of contempt, anger and disgust,” and “a kind of disturbing liminality: a monstrous, transgressive identity of mutually violating boundary terms, a dangerous threshold state of being neither the one nor the other (Wray 2006, 2).
I grew up in a household of generational poverty, a defining characteristic of this ethnoracial and class signifier. I spent part of my childhood under the care of my single mother, part of the time under the care of my maternal grandmother, and part of the time as an adopted step-daughter, with other adoptive siblings, a new family, and a new name. My biological father left my biological sibling and me when I was around six years old. My child’s father was kind enough to leave before she was old enough to remember. Joshua Rothman describes this pattern or circumstances among poor, white, rust-belt American families in his article, “The Lives of Poor White People,” when he writes, “neighbors listen as kitchen-table squabbles escalate and come to blows, and single mothers raise the majority of children” (Rothman 2016, 2). Maternal estrangement is a long-running theme in my family for at least the last four generations. I know very little about my genealogy, except that the world calls me white, a term I have probably hated more as a standalone than as one-half of “white trash.” Domestic violence is another long-running theme in my family, as is drug abuse, single-parenthood, economic instability, and low education levels in my family and “culture”. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. Due to years of my own drug use, physically and sexually violent domestic partnerships, poverty, single parenthood, homelessness, and periodic loss of my limited support network to the criminal justice system, it took me about ten years to earn that 4-year degree.
Both my biological mother and my adoptive father work blue-collar jobs, and always have. Neither went to college; I am not certain whether either of my fathers graduated high school. My biological father abused drugs, alcohol, and my mother. My adoptive father didn’t abuse any substances, but certainly inflicted an abundance of physical abuse on my sister and me (both adoptive children). While my father legally adopted us and changed our names, “step-dads,” whether titled as such legally or functionally, come and go often where I come from. I spent ten years living with my parents and finished high school living and functioning alone in the world. I have always worked at least 2, often 3, and up to 5 part-time jobs at a time. At 23, I became a single parent. Before I turned 24, I became addicted to prescription opiates and benzodiazepines. Rothman continues his description of poor white trash as he writes, “the white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin” (Rothman 2016, 4). Like my mother, my domestic relationships centered mostly around economic advantage, physical protection, or both. Many of my romantic relationships in adulthood continue to be molded by the cycles of trauma and economic depression I experienced as a child.
The month I turned 18, I joined the Army to pay for college. Basic combat training was my first time leaving the small, rural town within the dozen or so towns I grew up in. It was also the first time I really understood how the world saw me: poor, white, female. As a single parent to a now 11-year-old daughter, I have still struggled economically despite finally earning my degree and spending nearly two decades in the Army Reserve. The Women’s Atlas states that the average of U.S. households living in poverty is about ten percent, but the percentage of female-led households (with no male partner present) living in poverty is almost 30 percent (Seager 2018, 30). Part of my identity is still as the world understands me: poor, white, and female. But part of me has changed very much.
Some of these identities we commonly equate with privilege, money, or power. Intersectionality, and in conjunction with the cultural identities of my parents, I am part of a class of highly disadvantaged and forgotten classes of people in the United States. However, even with my lack of generational wealth, lack of family network/support, and complexities within my gender and sexual identities, black and brown women and men with the same life circumstances are at a disproportionately greater disadvantage than I have ever been.
White Women and White Privilege
Robin DiAngelo’s most important lesson in her study White Fragility, for me, was that no matter the hand we are dealt in life, as white Americans, there are many billions of others who are more disadvantaged than we are. My autoethnographic analysis reveals some of the traumas commonly experienced by poor, rural, white Americans. I would be remiss to claim that Black Americans and other minorities are not experiencing the same traumas, often made exponentially worse by systemic oppression. Involvement with the criminal justice system has been part of my life, my father’s life, and many of my partners’ lives. However, I have fared better in court than my black and brown counterparts when charged with the same, or very similar, low-level crimes. Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor writes, “the overrepresentation of African Americans in the ranks of the poor and working-class has made them targets of police, who prey on those with low incomes” (Taylor 2016, 183). I am confident that being a white female has been my ticket to freedom during more than one police interaction. As a young adult with severe PTSD symptoms and without the insight or language to talk about them, I frequently abused alcohol, drove drunk (or attempted to), started fights in public, and was otherwise a public nuisance. I avoided arrest on occasion due to the social privileges afforded to white women. I have even had white arresting police officers help me understand how to more effectively elude future arrests, describing behaviors that would surely endanger a black man or woman during an arrest.
New York and Pennsylvania, two states I have lived in the longest, are both “right to employ” states. Both can deny or terminate employment for any candidate at their own will. Both states freely ask about prior criminal history on job applications, housing applications, applications for welfare benefits, volunteer applications, and college applications. Alexander writes about black ex-convicts in Chicago, “black men post-release are routinely denied public housing and welfare benefits, and they find it increasingly difficult to obtain education” (Alexander 2012, 10). While disclosing this information is required when asked, I have never been denied any opportunity I’ve applied for, based on my criminal record or skin color alone. I have also never been terminated from a job on these grounds, even when court appearances as a young professional directly impacted the responsibilities of my leadership roles.
I have also never had difficulty in finding and keeping work when I wanted to. As I mentioned, I have most often had to work anywhere between 2 and 5 jobs at a time. This includes when I held general manager positions and full-time Army contracts because the cost of childcare as a single parent is my biggest expense, followed by housing costs. I have struggled to stay ahead financially but have never been denied welfare benefits, housing, or job opportunities because of my skin color, or skin color and gender identity combined. Being “white” and “female” has afforded me many job opportunities based solely on my identity politics, which can translate as trustworthiness or familiarity for some people in society.
I have always had the privilege of unquestionable American citizenship, even among the “elite” race of America, who are notorious for “othering” anyone who is not white and wealthy. I have felt othered and despised by white people more than any other race I have interacted with. I was lucky enough to finish high school, (while working full time and maintaining my own housing and finances) and have always spoken English as my primary language. No white person has ever questioned my right to be an American citizen, as even my Puerto Rican daughter, who is English-speaking and fair-skinned, has experienced. My community has always trusted me in leadership positions, despite my extreme poverty, my history of substance abuse, my estrangement from my family, and my criminal record. It is obvious I have not been disadvantaged in the way American systems of racism and white privilege have disadvantaged some others.
Activism and Fluidity in Culture
Through hard work, several near-death experiences with love, drugs, and homelessness, lots of therapy, a little luck, and an abundance of privilege, I have been as successful and as happy as I might’ve hoped I would someday become. I am a college graduate, I am still my child’s only parent, and we share a deep bond that I hope will break the pattern of estrangement among the women in my family. I am five years away from retirement from the Army, and hopefully, around the same time, I will have earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology. I have traveled often, read a lot, learned many lessons, and grown immensely. Today, much of my identity is rooted in social activism and poverty alleviation. I hope to establish two non-profit organizations eventually—one for inmate rehabilitation and resources, and another to educate and prevent further damage to our environment. I currently volunteer with progressive political campaigns, community outreach programs, and will be beginning a volunteer role with the ACLU in a few days. I currently work four jobs and am a full-time grad student, but the volunteer work I do and helping my community and country however I can truly feed my soul. It keeps me fighting for both justice and success.
From my perspective, I have a unique platform from which my voice might be heard, and I have tried to use my platform to further social justice initiatives within my professional and academic spaces, and within my community and my household. I believe that it is crucial for poor white folks to promote social justice initiatives whose benefits are explicitly directed toward our black and brown counterparts. Poor white women experience extreme class injustices, including being left behind in poverty alleviation initiatives. This is partly due to our own racial arrogance and ignorance, as we historically have had a “tendency to identify poverty as a non-white problem” (Bird and McCoy 1967, 1). Regardless, our hardships do not compare to the people who experience these issues compounded by systemic racism daily and continuously. In fact, our hardships are what should help us identify with the suffering associated with systemically racist practices, and strive to create change. In the same way that Frederick Douglas advocated for women’s suffrage during the first wave of feminism, it is the role of each of us to call for equity among every oppressed group of people in America. When we begin to unpack those systems of oppression, it’s easy to see that no one has suffered more, or suffered longer, than people of color in the United States. It’s important for white people, even poor white trash, to understand that racism is not just an attitude but a system of oppressive laws and social norms used to oppress Black Americans the most. According to Alexander, “most people assume that racism, and racial systems generally, are fundamentally a function of attitudes” (Alexander 2012, 6). However, the reality is that if racism is not an oppressive force in your day-to-day existence, you are, in fact, benefitting from a system of white privilege (Alexander 2012, 6).
Promoting equity benefits everyone, whether you’re the first in line or the last. While I recognize the intersectional disadvantages of my isolated, rural, uneducated, violent, and outwardly racist upbringing, I also recognize that my current cultural identity is something more than the sum of those characteristics. The purpose of this autoethnographic research is not only to “call attention to the vulnerabilities that other human beings may endure in silence and in shame,” but to further leverage those vulnerabilities to call poor white folks to social justice advocacy (Jones, 13). My privilege has elevated my voice within the community, the military, and my professions. It is my responsibility to be comfortable discussing those privileges in the social context. Through activism, I hope to elevate black and brown voices until there is equity among all perspectives, regardless of gender, class, or the social construct of race.
Alexander, Michelle. 2012. Chapter 5 In The New Jim Crowe: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
DiAngelo, Robin. 2011. “White Fragility.” Int
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Seager, Joni. 2018. The Women’s Atlas. New York: Penguin Books.
Wray, Matt. 2006. Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness. United Kingdom: Duke University Press.
Rothman, Joshua. 2016. The Lives of Poor White Peopl
Bird, Alan R. and Mccoy, John L. 1967. “Report number AER-124” In White Americans in Rural Poverty. Washington D.C.: Department of Agriculture.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. 2016. From #BlackLiv
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Frankenberg, Ruth. 1993. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: the University of Minnesota Press.
Holman Jones, Stacy, Adams, Tony and Ellis, Carolyn. 20
13. “Introduction: Coming to Know Autoethnography as More than a Method” In Handbook of Autoethnography. Oxfordshire: Routledge.