Like many of us, I am in a state of mourning. Of despair. Of worry about my friends and my family and people of color and immigrants. Of my reproductive rights. Of family members who live off of social security and rely on Medicaid, of friends and family of Middle Eastern descent. For the environment. And in this time of despair and disillusionment, people are looking for someone to blame. Rightfully so. And so often-too often-during this campaign the blame for Trump’s rise has fallen on “the white trash,” low-income white voters, those too ignorant to know any better.
In the summer, I wrote an essay for Auntie Bellum Magazine called “Coding White Trash in Academia.” This essay was born out of a frustration with stereotypes about the place I grew up in and my experience in academia, learning and working alongside people born into very different circumstances than I was.
I expected a few people to read it, I was nervous for the response of those at home. Would they be offended? Yes, turned out to be the resounding answer. My mom said, “Holly, we aren’t White Trash, our next door neighbors are.” But the positive response, from academics and writers especially, was overwhelming. When I last checked, about 135,000 people read my essay. There were blog responses, a citation in the Paris Review, tweets, and tons of praise. It was overwhelming.
About a day after my article was published, I got a request for an interview with NPR. I was both thrilled and terribly anxious. I am introverted and shy and the idea that people were actually reading my essay was terrifying. What if my family read it? What if people thought I was a Trump supporter or thought that I was a bad writer? The NPR interview reinforced these fears. But I thought, it would be stupid to turn down this opportunity for publicity and for a “life experience.”
So I did it. I got a little nervous during my interview prep conversation. I mentioned that I hadn’t grown up destitute and my interviewer seemed disappointed and confused. I started to feel like an imposter. Was I not poor enough, Southern enough, rural enough to claim this heritage? Were my feelings misplaced? Was I subconsciously trying to get a sob story or sympathy? Was I a cultural appropriator?
Later that day I got a call for the morning show interview. I was incredibly nervous, sitting on my bed in my childhood bedroom, hoping that my mom and little brother didn’t accidentally interrupt. I was asked a wide range of questions: What class would I consider myself coming from? To the interviewer, I wasn’t poor enough for my experiences to ring true. I had written in my essay about code-switching, about turning off my accent, an unattractive mix of Baltimorese and Pennsylvania Dutch that only exists in South Central Pennsylvania. As I described this, my interviewer said “To be honest, I don’t hear an accent.” I was asked whether I thought low-income white people were treated worse in academia than people of color, to which I answered with a resounding “no.” She asked me to describe an instance of discrimination based on class and when I pointed out that that wasn’t the point of my essay, the point was the nuances and code-switching often implicit in an academic career, she bristled. I hung up from that phone call not only confused, but questioning my identity. I quickly pulled the interview, before calling my boyfriend and crying about how I felt like a fraud.
When people meet me, they might not think “white trash” at first site. But that usually changes when they hear me sing a Florida Georgia Line song or they visit my hometown or when my accent starts coming out after I have had a few too many drinks. But does that matter? I am from a small town in Pennsylvania, not somewhere in the deep South. I wear a chip on my shoulder, a frustration with the classism so implicit in the way many liberals talk about politics, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the unique and systemic and violent oppression of people of color. And I don’t have a southern accent. And because of this, my NPR interviewer didn’t think I qualified as White Trash. That my story wasn’t interesting, wasn’t dramatic enough, wasn’t a traditional rags-to-riches tale or the story of a frustrated racist making her way in academia. I didn’t fit her conception of White Trash and so my story didn’t matter, my experience wasn’t legitimate. And instead of resenting her assumptions, I immediately regretted writing the article. I began to question my own identity because I didn’t fit the markers that this woman, and many others, have based on class.
My essay came out at a time when the white working class was getting a whole lot of attention. Regardless of what the polls were saying, people blamed the rise of Donald Trump on working-class white people from the middle of nowhere who didn’t know what was good for them. These statements are both paternalist and factually inaccurate. The majority of white people voted for Donald Trump, across class lines. This includes 63% percent of white men who voted, many of them wealthy.
My essay also coincided with the publication of quite a few books on working-class whites like J.D. Vance’s Hillybilly Elegy, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hoschild and White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. These books all attempted to complicate the narratives surrounding rural white voters, of their struggles, their ideology, their beliefs. And in so much as these works succeeded, the white working-class voter is still the scapegoat. The Baffler talked to Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash, about this recently. The “white trash” did not elect Donald Trump alone. They do not, and never will, have that kind of power. This is not to absolve any of their racism or sexism or nativism. And it does exist. This was made particularly clear to me when one of my neighbors made the news with her Halloween parade float of Hillary Clinton in a prison cell. But to place the blame for Trump’s rise on the “white trash” is to ignore the racism and sexism and hate found among educated white men and women, some of whom many of us will be sitting across from at Thanksgiving. “White Trash” can be me, an educated, leftist from the North who went to bed crying after Trump won. And it can be a Trump supporter with a Southern accent who didn’t vote. But in large part this election was decided by the educated white men and women, who don’t have accents and didn’t grow up destitute and have never been discriminated against, but who never seem to capture the blame. Letting go of this trope, the trope of the “white trash” voter, is only one small step in the hard work of dismantling the system that got us here.