- Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness
Anyone engaged in research with poor white people has to grapple with the troubling question of white privilege. While one barely needs to scratch the surface of the historical and contemporary racial dynamics of the United States to understand the long-standing linkages between whiteness and power, the poverty and disempowerment of many predominately white communities, both urban and rural, suggest that these linkages are not as simple as they seem.
While this disjunction is a tricky issue for contemporary researchers attempting to balance sensitivity to the existence of institutionalized racial privilege with the social reality of white poverty, a more insidious version of this problem was, ironically, also a major stumbling block in the development of racialized thinking in the early United States. For a long time, whiteness has certainly meant power in practical terms; for racial thinkers, sociologists, moralists, and social reformers, it also symbolized an innate superiority. But if whiteness was placed on the top of the heap in the collective imaginings and socio-economic practices of the middle and upper classes, then poor whites became the pea under the mattress. What could account for their lack of acceptable middle class social and political values? If being poor meant being inferior, then how could white people be poor?
Matt Wray’s Not Quite White makes a contribution to our understanding of both the historical and the contemporary aspects of this issue. By exploring the historical progression of cultural representations and social practices involving poor white communities, Wray also expands the discussion of the contemporary dynamics of white privilege begun by earlier works in whiteness studies. While numerous historical studies have explored the development of racial hierarchies intended to explain social difference, or the ways that poor whites often took advantage of these hierarchies to claw their way into social privilege, most have done so firmly within the context of the urban immigrant populations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, Matt Wray’s Not Quite White adds to the small but growing number of works that critically examine the application of racialized thinking to poor rural whites. This task is important in several regards. Not only does it address an understudied group, non-immigrant rural whites, but it also fleshes out our understanding of the development of racial thinking. Wray’s account exposes the historical process by which class lines became racial lines and by which, in turn, racial representations solidified into social boundaries.
Wray centralizes boundaries in his work. Drawing on the insights of boundary theory, Wray calls for a fuller understanding of “the multithreaded nature of social inequality” (p. 3). Instead of conceiving of boundary creation as a number of separate processes based on discrete concepts like race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, he points to the intermingling of these categories in the fundamentally larger process of social differentiation (p. 5). He argues that categories such as “white” are not interpretable simply in racial or class terms, but require a flexible and holistic approach that is capable of tracing various conceptual threads in the context of a larger weave.
However, one distinction that Wray does hold fast to throughout the book is the division between social and symbolic boundaries. The latter he defines as “part of our mental, collective representations, part of the cognitive schemas that we use to differentiate things that might otherwise appear similar” (p. 9). While, in theory, symbolic boundaries might be examined on the level of individual understandings, Wray’s account stays firmly on the broadly cultural level. Accordingly, he primarily examines the various ways that poor whites have been characterized in popular literature, the news media, and the writing of scholars and scientists.
Despite his broad cultural focus on symbolic boundaries, Wray does not leave these imaginings free-floating. In order to connect mental representation to lived experience, he also considers the ways in which symbolic boundaries [End Page 248] create and are created by “our...