Printer Friendly

Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness.

Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, by Mark Wray. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. 232 pp. $79.95 cloth, $22.95 paper.

THE PROMISE OF A SOCIOHISTORICAL CHRONOLOGY OF THE PROVOCATIVE term "white trash" in Matt Wray's book Not Quite White should be carrot enough for anyone interested in such expressions. From its British American precursors of "lubbers" and "crackers," "white trash" is a label for poor white Americans that stuck. First seen in 1833, it was apparently coined by African American slaves but became nationally known as a disparaging term for poor, rural whites, especially in the South. The documentation of the term's origins and how it survived in the American consciousness is a most intriguing aspect of this study.

Wray catalogues the ways in which poor rural whites were discriminated against by their richer and more powerful (white) countrymen in a paradoxical social commentary that argued white supremacy on the one hand but allowed for white degeneracy on the other. From the early colonists who looked down their noses at the lazy "lubbers" and feared the violent "crackers," "white trash" became the culmination of both. The eugenics movement in the early twentieth century, then, had its targets not only on immigrants and peoples of color, but on "poor 'feebleminded' whites" as well (73). Forced sterilization became a preferred solution to institutionalization and segregation of this stigmatyped (Wray's term) populace whose genetic inferiority was to be eradicated in order to make the country--and other whites--safe from idiocy, crime, and vice (90). And finally, in the midst of the eugenics movement, the hookworm campaign arose to complicate the argument about degenerate whites. This group's rallying cry was that poor whites were not degenerate but victims of disease. The hookworm was responsible for the idleness of this rural population; therefore, "sick poor whites could be treated, cured of disease, and rehabilitated as productive laborers and citizens, granting health and prosperity to their local communities and the South and nation as a whole" (96-97). In other words, there was a hope that these whites could and would take their rightful places (at the top) in the American racial hierarchy.

Wray does a good job of demonstrating the contradictory messages espoused by all sides in the argument about the problematic faction of whites who did not seem to live up to, or care about, the more generally accepted "white" ideals such as a rigorous work ethic, morality, and cleanliness. Wray is at his best when synthesizing historical information into his more general argument; chapters three and four on eugenics and hookworm are most compelling, as Wray examines the disparate strains of medical discourses dictating the fates of these poor whites. His interest in exposing the inconsistent communal and national dialogue about whiteness (by whites) is also quite interesting.

The main issue that arises regarding this text is its range and associated depth. Wray admits in the preface that he is uncomfortable with doing "breadth" of interdisciplinary work as opposed to disciplinary "depth" (xi). Yet it is depth that is lacking in the text. The attempt at interdisciplinarity deserves praise, as it is a fruitful approach to the subject, but it does come at a cost to the depth of the argument. For example, Wray criticizes past theorists for privileging one or another of "the big four" (the categories of race, class, gender, and sexuality), noting that these categories are too interrelated and inextricable to be separated (5). Therefore, he assures us that he will look at "white trash" in a balanced manner and through all four lenses more equally. However, because of the compromise of depth for breadth, the critiques through all lenses fall short of being effective analyses through any.

Clear definitions of and theoretical interactions with the "big four" would have aided in the precision of this study. Without these things the reader is left in rather murky territory. For example, it turns out that by "gender," Wray actually means "sex." He notes that "lubber women worked [;] a fact that placed them at cultural odds with the planter ideal" (33). This observation is not quite one about gender (feminine and masculine) as it is an observation about divisions of labor by sex (female and male). It could be an observation about gender perhaps if there were more exploratory analysis around such questions as: How did female outdoor labor change perceptions and performances of femininity and of masculinity? What kinds of power relations emerged in the dichotomy of female work and male leisure? And what kinds of social and cultural boundaries were established to control female and male behavior?

Likewise, his discussion of sexuality is as general as that of gender. We are told that the "boundaries of sex and sexuality [are] somewhat less fixed than those of gender" in the lubber community, yet we are not given any explication of gender, fixed or otherwise, and the only evidence we have of lubber sexuality are indications that the poor white communities are seen by the wealthy ones as sexually promiscuous and/or lands of sexual opportunity (32-33, 66, 80). To the early colonist William Byrd II and his cronies, for example, Lubberland (the community of poor whites) is "a kind of sexual frontier" (32-33). Such an example is a paradigmatic opportunity to discuss the intersections of sexuality and power relations, especially as derived from "class." But this type of investigation goes unexplored. Between using "gender" to denote sex and the subsequent application of Byrd's own sexual appetite as evidence of the sexuality of the lubbers, two of the four categories remain opaque in definition and slim in analyses.

"Race" and "class" are left to a similarly murky fate, as is the titular category of "whiteness." Perhaps the most difficult concession one must make to the breadth of the work is that whiteness itself remains unexplored in conjunction with the "big four." It is understandable that the author did not wish to give undue prominence to any one of the four categories, but the study seems to leave these signs to signify in whatever ways they will.

That said, Wray's book is interesting, even fascinating at times. He writes in accessible language, and engages effectively with historically important personal, social, legal, medical, and economic documents and information. Not Quite White will be useful as an introduction to the history of poor whites in America and particularly to the history of the American South.


Universiteit Gent

Arizona State University
COPYRIGHT 2010 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wagner, Johanna M.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2010
Previous Article:Vale of Humility: Plain Folk in Contemporary North Carolina Fiction.
Next Article:Lillian B. Horace and the literature of white estrangement: rediscovering an African American intellectual of the Jim Crow era.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters