Photo of a Trash Bin in Washington D.C. by David Lisbona, Flickr CC

Today, the term “white trash” is used colloquially to identify white people who do not conform to the established ideas about what it means to be “white,” usually indicating they are poor, uneducated, unemployed, or backwards. This term emerged as a racial slur for white indentured servants — poor whites from England and other European countries that came to the United States in search of citizenship in exchange for labor. In a recent segment on NPR’s podcast Code Switch, sociologist Matt Wray discusses why “white trash” remains a powerful insult against poor whites and people of color alike.

Wray argues that although the term is meant to disparage poor whites, it simultaneously demeans other races by maintaining that there is something about being white that is superior to other racial groups. This is why the modifier “trash” is used. Code Switch news assistant Leah Donnella sums up Wray’s argument well:

“. . . ‘white’ is the only racial group that needs a modifier for it to become a slur. There’s no ‘black trash’ or ‘Hispanic trash’ or ‘Native American trash,’  presumably, because for most of American history, those people were assumed by those in power to be poor, uneducated and criminal.”

Wray also suggests that the term is used to reinforce the long-standing idea that poor whites are more racist than middle class or white elites. This allows affluent whites to escape criticism as racists, while stereotyping poor whites as representative  of “real” racism. Accordingly, Wray states:

“Whites who use the term are saying, ‘Look, I’m not racist. The person down the road is racist. The one who drops the N-word, or has the Confederate flag flapping off the back of their truck. That’s real racism.’ “

In short, Wray’s research shows how the term “white trash” reinforces ideas of white superiority, today and throughout history.  Since it first emerged in the colonial era, the term symbolized how important the intersection of race and class was — and still is — for personal belonging and worth in the United States.