Joy Magazine

From Trash to Treasure

Some midlife thoughts on racism and elitism

I stopped to purchase some Rogue Creamery blue cheese at a local winery here in the valley. At the register, I got chatting with some of the wine tasters. They were two couples who looked about my age — late 40s or so — who were visiting Medford.

I found myself wondering whether they, too, had or were going to have their first colonoscopies. They were dressed sharply and seemed to know a great deal about wines.

We exchanged some pleasantries about the warm weather and compared the demographics of Medford and their home town, when suddenly the conversation soured.

One of the women said something about housing in both of our towns: "Well, you know, a certain white trash ... "

I felt my heart skip a beat, and I knew that I had a choice. I could agree with her, or I could offer my opinions about that particular terminology: "white trash."

Opting for a third choice, I tried humor. "No, I don't quite know what you mean. Are you referring to white Styrofoam or cotton Kleenex? Then I added, trying to avoid the subject, "Did you know that most of the Styrofoam nowadays is made of recycled material, and isn't that just great?"

The couple standing closest to me stopped swirling their claret and looked at me like I was some sort of wacko instead of the humorist I was trying to be. An uncomfortable silence lingered.

These folks didn't have any clue that the term "white trash" could be offensive, and then I couldn't stop myself from diving right into a sort of diatribe. It was like I went from golden retriever (happy-go-lucky) to basset hound (serious and downtrodden), and I contracted diarrhea of the mouth, with all of my opinions coming out.

I told these complete strangers, who were just trying to enjoy a pleasant Sunday afternoon of wine tasting, that I had recently made a vow to speak up against derogatory remarks of that kind. This kind of terminology doesn't match my convictions that our Creator values all human beings, I explained, adding that we have to start looking at people of poverty with different, more compassionate eyes.

I said that we, as people of privilege, need to find value in every human being, regardless of race or socio-economic level. I'm sure these people were ready to have me collect my blue cheese and take my Walmart flip-flops home. So I bid them farewell and awkwardly flopped on out the door.

When I arrived home, I flashed back to the scene I had created and realized I didn't even know the origin of the term "white trash." I recall having read it somewhere in "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee.

According to Wikipedia, the term "white trash" first came into common use in the 1830s as a pejorative used by house slaves against poor whites. In 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the chapter "Poor White Trash" in her book "A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin." Stowe explained that slavery not only produces "degraded, miserable slaves," but also poor whites who are even more degraded and miserable within the plantation system.

I had to ask myself whether I would have been as brave with my own family members as I was with these out-of-towners. I would like to think so, but I'm unsure. I think having practiced with these strangers might add to my confidence in speaking elsewhere against elitism and racism, two dividers in this great nation of ours. It's a challenge, at times, to find something good in everyone, but it can be like treasure hunting.

Denver Moore, once homeless, summarized these kinds of sentiments best in "The Same Kind of Different as Me," when he said, "I used to spend a lot of time worryin' that I was different from other people, even from other homeless folks. But I found out everybody's different, the same kind of different as me. We all just regular folks walkin' down the road God done set in front of us ... in a way, we is all homeless — just workin' our way toward home."

My guess is that Moore probably never used terms like "white trash," and I plan to keep on treasure hunting from this point forward. In wine tasting, the finish is very important, and a commitment to eradicating this kind of labeling seems like a great way to end.

So ... Cheers!

Niskaw Nippising lives in Ashland.

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