Monday, July 2, 2018

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

It took me quite a few days to work through this but I’m finally finished! I’ve been intending to read this for a very long time because I heard that it’s a good companion to Hillbilly Elegy - one is a personal story while the other (this) is an academic work.

Like the subtitle says, this book is about the class of people known as “white trash” or “red necks”, from when people started coming to America in the 1600s, where they were called “waste people” to the 2000s, the era of Honey Boo Boo child. Over the course of these twelve chapters, one message is hammered home, again and again in great detail:

There is, and has always been, a group of white Americans who are looked down upon and are seen as separate from the other ‘whites’.

Just to be clear, this is not a book on marginalised society in America. The focus is on this marginalised and historically looked down upon white people, and other racial groups are only mentioned in related to them; which means that African Americans are only mentioned sometimes and Asian Americans not at all. But this may have been a good choice because the book is a huge read and to try to tell the story of everyone would have made it too much to handle.

This book was very useful in illustrating how futile identity politics can be. I’m not and probably will never be part of this white underclass, but just reading this helped me imagine their frustration when after literally hundreds of years of insults and discrimination, they are told that they have something called “white privilege”. The book illustrates how little of this ‘privilege’ they’ve had when it says that:
"Poor whites were inexpensive and expendable, and found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system. Nothing proves the point better than the fact that both black and white convicts were referred to as “niggers”. "
If anything, this book has shown me that the issues of class and racism in America (and perhaps in other parts of the world) are much more complicated than some think. As tempting as it is to simplify things into “Group A oppressor” and “Group B victim”, history and reality is often much more complex and we must be able to grasp the nuances of issues if we are to solve them.


  1. I have not read this one, but it's one I have had my eye on. I agree that the racism issue in the U.S. is quite complicated, and it will not be easy to resolve. I hope someday we will be able to untangle the mess we Americans have made for ourselves.

    1. I hope that America can work out its problems too!


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