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How "bad" is white trash considered?

Are people generally hurt by being called this, or is it considered milder then for example nigger? Are someone using this word considered a bigot?

Is it ever used in main stream texts like newspapers or the like?

Mostly see it used in comments or other entries on the World Wide Web, but seldom, if ever, see people criticize the use in comparison to racial slur.

  • If our site isn't prepared to handle a legitimate question like this one, I'm leaving. This a tough question. I think this will take a lot of careful thought to answer, and I like that it's not so simple. – J.R. May 12 '14 at 14:07
  • @J.R. The degree or intensity of a slang depends how a person takes it. I referred some forums and there, some take it lightly whereas others consider it too serious. This question is undoubtedly thought-provoking but then is it purely related to the language and not sentiment, I'm not sure. – Maulik V May 12 '14 at 14:28
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    There is also the point that members of a group will often appropriate derogatory characterizations of their own group as their own; see the African-American use of the word "nigga". It is also common with "redneck" and "white trash" in the American south. For example, the phrase "redneck something up" means to use your creativity and whatever materials that you have around ("duct tape and baling wire" for example) to fix something or solve some sort of problem in an unconventional way. Perhaps one of the ways to make a word lose its power is to embrace it and change its meaning. – BobRodes May 12 '14 at 18:44
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    The term "Third World" derives from the 50's; thought to be analogous with the French "Third Estate." In the Cold War, "First World" was pretty much the US and Europe, with Japan thrown in, "Second World" was the Soviet Bloc countries, and "Third World" was everyone else. The argument exists that the idea has certain implied prejudices associated with it: people using more than their fair share of the world's resources come first, their enemies come second, and those beneath their notice (so long as they don't attempt to align themselves with the second world) come third. – BobRodes May 12 '14 at 18:57
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In common English usage, it is not considered to be as offensive to the recipient. However, based on its history, it should probably be considered more offensive than it is, and both white and black Americans may be offended. It should be avoided if at all possible.

The term "white nigger" came into common use in American English in the 1830s, and the similar term "white trash" came into common use a little later, as a more polite form of essentially the same concept. ("White nigger" had somewhat different meanings and implications in early UK usage that I won't get into).

The idea behind calling someone "white trash" specifically is to describe them as someone who is white, but acts trashy. The clear implication is that what is unusual is not that the person is trashy, but that they're a white person who is trashy--or, in other words, that non-whites are expected to act that way, but white people ought to know better. Acting in a "less than white" way gets you labeled as a "white nigger" or "white trash."

In this sense, it's an inherently racist insult. It was used in the American South in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by upper-class whites to describe lower-class whites, who the upper-class whites saw as equivalent to black people--and those southern elites didn't think much of black people, as you may recall.

So "white trash" is offensive for the same reason it's sometimes considered offensive to describe a black man as "articulate" or to say that someone is pretty smart "for a [fill in the blank]"--because its usage implies the derogatory stereotype it's meant to be an exception to.

That said: not everyone makes this connection, and many white and black Americans use the term as a synonym for cracker, to describe a specific social stereotype of a poor, rural, uneducated, working-class, evangelical Christian white person, often from the American South. In modern usage it is considered offensive to people who identify themselves as working-class and rural, but not to all white people. The less racially charged term "trailer trash" is sometimes used instead.

Depending on the person you are talking to, "white trash" will probably be considered fairly offensive--more so than other cultural referents like "soccer mom" or "valley girl," but not as offensive as the most offensive group slurs, like "nigger," "faggot," or "kike."

It would probably be placed on a par with insults like "Oreo" or "Uncle Tom," terms that are divisive enough that you would never use them in a formal setting and that they might provoke a fight if you used them to someone's face, but that are not considered entirely taboo.

Edit: Because I was asked in the comments, I'm adding a quote showing the use of "white trash" and "white nigger" interchangeably.

From a first-person account of growing up in the Jim Crow south:

What anybody will tell you, though, to prove that he or she is not prejudiced, is that the worst kind of nigger is a white nigger, which is defined to be a white person who has become completely niggrish, who lives even worse than a nigger. White trash might as well be niggras, have all the bad habits, smell just as bad, cook dirty food, live in filthy houses, and thrive on squalor.

I'll add more if I can find them.

  • Do you happen to have a source for the origin? I'm not disputing the correctness of the answer, and I have no reason to doubt your claims about the origin, but at the same time I never made that connection. As a child of the 90s I've only ever heard the term used as an effective synonym for cracker. – Jonathan Garber May 12 '14 at 16:11
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    I've added in a sources using the terms more or less interchangeably in the Jim Crow era. I think the inclusion of the term "white" at all is the best indication that this is not a race-neutral term. "White nigger" did have other uses, though; in the U.S., it was used to refer to abolitionists; in the U.K., to the Irish. – chapka May 12 '14 at 17:21
  • Oh, I certainly wasn't disputing the neutrality of the term. I was more interested in how its origin was more pejorative and abusive than it's considered to be today. The source you added addresses that very clearly. – Jonathan Garber May 12 '14 at 17:54
  • While I think it's valid to say that the term "white trash" originated out of "white nigger", it's arguable that the very fact it evolved as a separate term means it does not actually mean the same thing. I also think regardless of the origins, you gloss over a bit too much how the term has changed over the years, and the fact that (unlike "nigger") it doesn't really mean the same thing it used to to most people anymore. Ironically, "white trash" is nowadays (in the U.S. at least) sometimes used to disparage the racist attitudes of certain groups of people... – Foogod May 12 '14 at 17:56
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Let me note that most "descriptive" terms like this are only offensive or not based on cultural norms and perceptions. Like why is the word "negro" considered insulting and offensive but "black" is not? Especially considering that "negro" means "black". The N-word is considered highly offensive. But again, why? It just is.

I suppose any phrase with the word "trash" in it is likely to be at least somewhat offensive ... but then again, in other contexts it could be taken humorously. Like I once saw an "Ugly Man Contest", where men entered voluntarily to complete for the title of "ugliest man". I'm sure they all laughed about it. If anyone was insulted, I presume he wouldn't enter.

All that said ... My subjective impression is that "white trash" is certainly viewed as an insult and a nasty one. Few would laugh at being called that. But it's not seen as as harsh as the N-word.

I don't challenge Chapka's account of the origin of the phrase. I don't know. But I have never heard a black person say that he was insulted by it. It's white people who are insulted by it. Whatever the origins, the people insulted are the people who it is used to describe.

  • Wow. Jay, I don't know what your nationality is, but you're way off base. "Negro" is unfavorable because (a) it's similar to that other word and (b) it's a label given to the people it describes by their former oppressors, and in some situations is used like the scientists substitute "canine" for "dog". As for the n-word, it has been used for centuries to demean a whole people and reinforce the argument that they are supposedly subhuman -- THAT's why it's offensive. "Black" isn't someone else's label - it's just the everyday truth for some with that complexion. --sincerely, codenoire. – Xavier J May 12 '14 at 23:58
  • @codenoire But that's my point. The N-word is offensive because it is used as an insult, and it is used as an insult because it is offensive. Why is that word offensive but "African-American" is not? Because it just is. "Negro" means "black" in Spanish, so it is no more or less descriptive of skin color than "black". But today "negro" is offensive while "black" is not. And yet there's a group that calls itself, "the United Negro College Fund". At the time they gave themselves that name they apparently didn't consider the word offensive. And today black people routinely call each other ... – Jay May 13 '14 at 13:13
  • ... by the N-word and it's friendly banter, but a white person dare not use it. It's all about who uses the word, when, and how, not the literal meaning or etymology of the word. – Jay May 13 '14 at 13:15
  • I think every other ethnic group except black america has had a good, long, unbroken line to ask themselves, "who are we?" and define it. The word "negro" was good enough at the time because it was still better than "nigger". "Black" was self-defined, while "african-american" is the media's attempt today to be politically correct (i.e. why not just "american"?) – Xavier J May 13 '14 at 17:59
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"White trash" intends to be -- and is -- highly offensive. Calling anybody any sort of trash is highly offensive. However, it is not taboo (yet). Newspapers and broadcasters would be likely to get away with using it (at least in the UK) and would probably have no problem at all if they indicated that they objected to the term.

The N-word is the opposite way around. Historically it was meant to be neutral, but it became associated with negative attitudes of those times that most of us have grown out of, and there are attempts to reclaim the word (albeit with a different spelling, but you won't know the difference on the radio), for instance the band N.W.A.. However, in the UK at least, it is very strongly taboo, and broadcasters are likely to get into serious trouble even for broadcasting a song that contains the word in its more innocent historical context, and broadcasters generally dare not use the word even to discuss the offensiveness of it.

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    While the term has the potential to be highly offensive, I'm not sure that it's always intended that way, nor always taken that way. More than anything, it depends on who is using it, and who is being described. I think it's pretty much considered derogatory, but that's not quite the same as offensive. – J.R. May 12 '14 at 18:38
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I dont think calling someone white trash is any less offensive than calling someone else black trash, japanese trash, chinese trash, mexican trash, or any other kind of trash you can think of. (i've deliberately left out those racial epithets we're all too familiar with)

I think every society has its people who are on the bottom rung of the class system and those people have to struggle for survival. The ways that they have to do it might seem offensive to someone from outside that group. In India, it's the lower-caste folk who make a living cleaning crap out of commodes. But where I live, it's the folks who dig through the trash for cans and bottles so they can make a few bucks to survive with. In either case, sometimes a whole community has to survive this way.

I'm sure all have heard about the mess with the Clippers basketball team's owner, Donald Sterling. If he'd used the word "trash" instead of "blacks", the outcome would have been the same -- it's the fact that he singled out a group at which to turn up his nose.

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