Crackers, Chavs and White Trash

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A woman on twitter said calling someone cracker isn’t racist.

I said that terms such as chav, honkey, white trash, cracker, lubber, hillbilly, trailer trash are racial terms which serve to uphold the power of invisible middle class whiteness. Yes, they inevitably intersect with class and gender, but they are racial terms. Many people do not realise this, especially when using the term chav. They belong to the same system of racial classifications and governance that oppress other minorities. They focus on the difference, and leave middle-class whiteness untouched and unexamined. Racism is a political tool, cracker is from that toolbox. As Matt Wray states in his accessible blog on the issue: “ But few who use the term today [white trash] —either proudly or as a shaming slur—seem to know about its deep historical entanglements with the politics of sex, race, and class” (Wray, 2013). Is white trash/ cracker/ hillbilly “the last racist thing you can say and get away with”? (Ibid). In 2010 a teacher Jane Turner was convicted of a race crime for calling a pupil “white trash”.

Wray & Newitz argue that calling someone white trash is “both racist and classist”. See: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~mseth2/com417s12/readings/NewitzWrayWhiteTrash.PDF

Given that calling out the use of these terms is itself called racist; it is little wonder that whiteness remains an under-researched area. Yet until we understand what whiteness is and how it operates, its universality and invisible power remain. It needs unpicking and deconstructing to understand its mechanisms. This user could have reported my blog post on whiteness as racist. Who gets to decide?

Whiteness isn’t just about skin colour. It’s not a neat category, nor is any race. There is not a colour chart to see how white you are, and where whiteness ends. This is the ridiculousness of it. The poor whites of the US were deemed to be different from respectable whites, a different race. Wray & Newitz call terms like white trash a “racial epithet that marks out certain whites as a breed apart, a dysgenic race unto themselves” (1997, p.2). They posed a threat to the mythical purity of whiteness, and thus scientific racism unleashed a terrifying and sickening campaign of eugenics against them. To stop them spoiling the race. Poor whites therefore inform a complicated policing of the blurred boundaries that form class and racial identities (Wray & Newitz, 1997:47).

The right wing media use their power to name those poor whites who are hyper-visible; thus it is only non whites who are racialised, leaving privileged middle-class whiteness as the unspoken norm. The label chav highlights the breaching of race decorum, it “renders poor whites in social isolation, as evictees from the social compact…its rhetorical uses distinguish an order of whites” (Hartigan, 2003:105-6).

In the US labels were created to depict European immigrants, ‘conditionally white’, ‘off white’, ‘temporary negroes’ and good workers were paid off through the ‘wages of whiteness’ (Roediger, 2008, p.140-41). Nayak concurs, stating that whiteness was used as a race currency to ‘pay off’ working class employees; these workers were then white citizens, embodying the attached values of being honest, reliable, respectable (Nayak, 2007, p.739). In the UK, there was a study of the ‘Cockney Races’ , the term was accepted as a serious scientific category. The ‘criminal races’ were considered to be separate from the decent white race (BBC, 2007).

A fellow tweeter gave the excellent example of those from Travelling communities. They have white skin, but suffer racism. The word Chav originates from the Romany word for child, charver. Travellers have long experienced racism. To deny that adds to their oppression. They are deemed problematic, what Wray would call ‘not quite white’, and this is how chavs are also considered.

Anoop Nayak states: “As the term chav also has Romany connections and links to gypsies and travelling communities, there is an even stronger connection here. In many ways, both charvers and US trailer trash are ‘not-quite-white’, in the sense that they are seen as thieving, violent, promiscuous and thoroughly unrespectable: the very tropes that historically have been applied to Irish, Asian and Black immigrants in Europe and America” (BBC, 2005).

The tweeter who said calling out ‘cracker’ is racist also said that white European immigrants suffer “xenophobia not racism”. Let’s look up the word xenophobia should we: a fear of foreigners or the Other. Xenophobia is the new racism.

“It is a racism that is not just directed at those with darker skins, from the former colonial territories, but at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted, who are beating at western Europe’s doors, the Europe that helped to displace them in the first place. It is a racism, that is, that cannot be colour-coded, directed as it is at poor whites as well, and is therefore passed off as xenophobia, a “natural” fear of strangers. But in the way it denigrates and reifies people before segregating and/or expelling them, it is a xenophobia that bears all the marks of the old racism. It is racism in substance, but “xeno” in form. It is a racism that is meted out to impoverished strangers even if they are white. It is xeno-racism”.(Sivanden cited in Fekete, 2001).

Arun Kundnani calls xeno-phobia the new popular racism. “It begins to speak the language of ‘kith and kin’ racism, aimed at defending ‘our people’ and ‘our way of life” (Kundnani, 2001, p.50). Kundnani continues that xenophobia is a smokescreen for traditional racism. I would argue that using class also does this.

Hartigan Jr states that white middle class Americans living through the eugenics social hygiene programmes of the early 1900s were thinking in racial terms for the first time, rather than class terms. “This image of poor whites that made eugenics a matter of pressing concern for middle-class whites arguably had its greatest effect by inducing an intense form of increased self-scrutiny that middle-class whites undertook in relation to racial belonging” (2005, p.96). The fear of racial weakness and decay was not identified by merely white skin, as the infamous eugenicist Charles Davenport insisted these faults could be hidden (Ibid, 97).

An interesting side note to this is the 1983 case of Susie Guillory Phipps, a woman who spent her whole life thinking she was white, to be told by the state she was in fact black by state racial classifications (Omi & Winant,1994, p.54). This is an interesting point, Susie has white skin, always believed herself to be white, but is not categorised as white.

Kundnani states: “What marks out the difference between a white Romanian and a white Australian is the concept of kith and kin allegiances…it is the idea of shared heritage and a shared allegiance to a group…” (Kundnani, 2001, p.51).

“The point is that, in the present climate, a combination of colour, cultural and kith and kin racisms can all co-exist, mutually reinforcing each other…” (Ibid, p.53).

My dissertation argued that: “The ghost metaphor is advantageous in explaining the not quite white phenomena. The chav experiences what Tyrer and Sayyid (2012:2) argue that Muslims experience; that is they are both ethnically marked and incompletely racialised. The chavs are labelled as dirty white, not making the grade of whiteness, yet hold no clear race of their own; they are only marked by what they are not. Poor whites are relinquished to the margins, asserted as ‘other’, yet as such, are unclearly labelled. The chav therefore takes on a haunting presence, trapped between whiteness and blackness, they pace the racial boundaries, posing the threat of shifting through the divide”. The chav, the Romanian migrant, the ‘white’ asylum seeker, the Polish worker, the white Muslim, they are problematic to traditional colour-coding racism and means of oppressing.

Goldberg refers to the new racism which neoliberalism thrives upon as born again racism. “Born again racism is a racism without race, racism gone private, racism without the categories to name it a such. It is a racism shorn of the charge, a racism that cannot be named because nothing abounds with which to name it. It is racism purged of historical roots, of its groundlessness, a racism whose history is lost” (Goldberg, 2009, p.23).

To silence the study of whiteness is to reinforce its hegemony and to solidify the state-endorsed new popular racisms.

BBC (2005) http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/northeast/series7/chavas.shtml
Fekete (2001) The Emergence of Xeno-Racism Available at:http://www.irr.org.uk/news/the-emergence-of-xeno-racism/
Frankenberg, R (1993) White Women, Race Matters The Social Construction of Whiteness London: Routledge
Goldberg, T (2009) The Threat of Race Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism, Oxford: Blackwell
Hardt, M & Negri, A (2000) Empire, London: Harvard University Press
Hartigan, J (2005) Odd Tribes Toward A Cultural Analysis Of White People, London: Duke
Hartigan, J (1997) ‘Unpopular Culture: The Case Of White Trash’, Cultural Studies, Vol. 11, 2, pp.316-343, London: Routledge
Hayward, K & Yar, M (2006) ‘The ‘chav’ phenomenon: Consumption, media and the construction of a new underclass’, Crime Media Culture, 2006, pp. 9-28
Hill, M (2004) After Whiteness Unmaking An American Majority, London: NYU Press
Kundnani, (2001) ‘In a foreign land: the new popular racism’, Race & Class, Vol 42 (2), pp.41-60
Omi, M & Winant, H (1994) Racial Formation in the United States From the 1960s to the 1990s, London: Routledge
Sivanandan, A (2006) ‘Race, terror and civil society’, Race & Class, 47, pp.1-7
Tyrer,D & Sayyid, S (2010) ‘Governing ghosts: Race, incorporeality and difference in post-political times, Current Sociology, 60, 2, pp: 1-14
Wray, M (2006) Not Quite White White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, London: Duke University Press
Wray, M & Newitz, A (eds) (1997) White Trash Race and Class in America, London: Routledge
Wray, M & Newitz, A http://www4.ncsu.edu/~mseth2/com417s12/readings/NewitzWrayWhiteTrash.PDF
Wray, M (2013) ‘White Trash The Social Origins of a Stigmatype’ Available at: http://thesocietypages.org/specials/white-trash/

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