White trash is an American English pejorative term referring to poor white people in the United States, especially in the rural South, suggesting lower social class and degraded living standards. The term suggests outcasts from respectable society living on the fringes of the social order who are seen as dangerous because they may be criminal, unpredictable, and without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral. The term is usually a slur, but may also be used self-referentially by whites to jokingly describe their origins.
White trash versus cracker, hillbilly, Okie, and redneck
In common usage "white trash" overlaps in meaning with cracker (regarding Georgia and Florida), hillbilly (regarding Appalachia), Okie (regarding Oklahoma origins), and redneck. The main 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 the modern world, while "white trash" emphasizes the person's moral failings.
The term white trash first came into common use in the 1830's 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'".
In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the chapter "Poor White Trash" in her book A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe tells the reader 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".
By 1855 the term 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.
White popular culture
Scholars in the late 19th and early 20th century explored the generations of families the authors considered disreputable, such as the The Jukes family and the The Kallikak Family (both were pseudonyms for real families).
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. As Inness (2006) 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.
By the 1980's there appeared fiction written by Southern authors who themselves claimed a redneck or white trash origins, such as Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, and Tim McLaurin. Autobiographies sometimes mention white trash origins. Gay rights activist Amber L. Hollibaugh says, "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."
Black popular culture
It is used among blacks as an attack against whites. Use of "white trash" epithets has been extensively reported in the African American culture. Black authors have noted that blacks, when taunted by whites as "niggers," taunted back, calling them "white trash," and the black parents taught their children that poor whites were "white trash". The epithet appears in black folklore. In it, slaves (when out of earshot) would refer to harsh overseers as a "low down" man, "lower than poor white trash," "a brute, really."