White Trash Pride: On Being a Black Girl Growing up with Poor White Folks
There are Black people and then there are niggers.
There are White people and then there are White trash.
(I’m pretty sure Chris Rock said this)
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to have a bag covered in pins. I couldn’t be found without it. My pins were mostly slogans declaring my political positions: anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-censorship, feminism, etc. But one of my pins read: Poor White Trash. That really confused people for obvious reasons. How can a Black girl be White Trash? Well, I am.
You see, my mother is White and I was raised on welfare in a social housing project. White moms with Black kids were pretty common in our neighborhood. At that time, there weren’t many Black adults in the neighbourhood, but there were a lot of mixed race kids. Sometimes their dads would come to visit, mostly Jamaicans, but most wouldn’t stay around for long. Papa was a rolling stone as they say. And mama would move on to the next Black dude. These women, along with my mother, were pretty proud of their collection of mixed raced kids. Sure, they had no idea what to do with our hair so I spent most of my childhood and early teens with totally jacked-up hair but they all thought we were goregous. Actually, I only really started doubting my cuteness when I got around Black people, who ridiculed my nappy-ass hair and the darkness of my complexion. I just wasn’t very light for a mix in their opinion.
No one in my neighbourhood thought I was adopted like all the middle class White teachers at school. The concept that a Black child could come from a White woman seemed to boggle their minds. But that wasn’t so in our White Trash neighbourhood, dubbed Welfareland by both teachers and more well-off students at my elementary school. Most of the kids from my neighbourhood, and other social housing communities in the area, were put into remedial education for low academic performance or behavioural issues. These kids were mostly White, with some Natives and mixed race kids like me thrown into the bunch. I didn’t get put into remedial despite all the school’s efforts to get me in there. My IQ was too high. But I still had to put up with harassment and ridicule from teachers and guidance counsellors who would tell me that I wouldn’t amount to anything, that I was just going to end up on welfare like my mother. This was pretty much told to everyone from our neighbourhood.
And I believed them. Part of me still does.
You see, we were trash and we knew it. Our parents knew it too. Most of them hadn’t finished high school and they didn’t expect us to. Things like finishing high school were just not options for people like us. It just didn’t seem like part of our reality. I was raised with the expectation that if I was lucky, I would get a job at a department store and not have to live on welfare. That was the best that could be hoped for. My mother expected me to be pregnant by 16. I was never expected to get married or even have a regular partner. A steady man wasn’t necessary to have a child.
As much as people have this idea that people enjoy living on welfare it is really not true. Growing up, I always felt that the adults around me were consumed with a deep sense of self-loathing which sometimes resulted in pretty self-destructive behaviour. We as kids didn’t have many boundaries. We could be out at all hours because our parents were partying and too high or drunk to put us to bed. The partying was just a distraction; a way to get their minds off of their self-loathing. I understood that as a child
But good things came out of the chaos. Racism at that time wasn’t tolerated in our neighbourhood. One man who called me and another Black child niggers got his window smashed in retaliation by the local bikers who were my neighbours at the time. When Heritage Front, a Canadian Neo-Nazi group, came to our neighbourhood looking to recruit poor frustrated White men, they were beaten with baseball bats and chased out of the neighbourhood by my White neighbours. I felt protected.
Although I still live in the same social housing community I grew up in, my way of life has changed dramatically. I work to support myself. University is something I want to pursue, although I have no idea when I’ll ever finish it and often feel like giving up on the pipe dream. Getting pregnant without being married is no longer an option because I’ve become a Muslim (Not to say that Muslims don’t get pregnant out of wedlock because trust me they do). I don’t sit outside watching my neighbours smoke and drink themselves into unconsciousness anymore. Becoming a Muslim has really distanced me from the people who were my elders growing up. This separation is probably for my own good but I do miss those childhood days in my community, as dysfunctional as they really were.
My White Trash cultural background separates me from most Black people in Ottawa. Most of them identify with the values of their parents from Somalia or the Caribbean, values like hard work, dignified conduct, and sexual propriety. Values often in strict opposition to the blatant lack of values exhibited by the behaviour of the poor whites they saw. Most Black people I know grew up working class often looking down on Whites on welfare as lazy debauched losers who were willfully ignorant for not taking advantage of the privileges their Whiteness and Canadian Identity supposedly offered them on a silver platter.
Similar resentment exists among most people of colour I know and interact with and I find it all pretty alienating. I can’t relate to their experiences and they can’t relate to mine. For a long while I just pretended that I saw things the way they did but I really didn’t. Class has always been more my concern than Race. I don’t believe in a hierarchy of oppressions so it’s not that I think racism is less important than classism. It’s just that I feel personally more affected by classism. Class has been a key factor in the formation of my identity and self-esteem. During the reign of Mike Harris as Premier of Ontario you could really see how much people hated us because we were on social assistance. It was all over the news and in the newspapers. Such hatred and contempt, like we were the scum of the earth. When I write or talk about my experiences of classism growing up as a child tears always come to my eyes. That doesn’t happen when I discuss my experiences of racism. This is just my reality. Class issues are often ignored by finanicially privileged people of colour, particularly in the left-wing activist community I’ve been involved with because it’s all about who’s the biggest underdog. You don’t want to have to admit that in many contexts you are actually more privileged than some White people. I pretty much avoid activism centred around the “people of colour” identity now because I just can’t relate to this analysis. I’ve been accused of being too “White Identified”, whatever that means.
Well, fine, I am. I’m White Trash identified.
It seems we always need to put other people down to make ourselves feel better. So sometimes poor Whites discriminate against people of colour in order to make themselves feel better and sometimes people of colour discriminate against poor Whites in order to make themselves feel better. It’s all really petty and pathetic when you look at it that way.
My cultural background also distances me from most Muslims. For one thing, I was raised in an extremely morally lax environment. Although I wouldn’t want to raise my own children in such an environment I also don’t think I want my children to be as sheltered as many of my Muslim friends were growing up. Frankly, some of their childhoods sound down-right Victorian in their prudery. Sure, I don’t want my daughter to grow up unmarried with three kids from different fathers but I also don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that such a woman is trash and has nothing to offer the world or if for some reason they ended up in this situation I wouldn’t still love them. There seems to be an anxiety around appearances, reputation and saving face in Muslim communities which I just can’t relate to. I wasn’t raised that way. It’s totally alien to me. I hate it frankly. Which means that I will probably never marry into any of these communities. For one thing, no one wants a Black girl from a White Trash family as a daughter-in-law. Particularly one who isn’t deeply ashamed of her background. I refuse to be ashamed.
I will always be something of an outsider. I only feel really at home with other people like me, people who grew up on welfare, no matter what colour they are. We often have similar issues: depression, an overwhelming sense of self-doubt and lack of self-worth, the ability to give up easily, some tendencies towards self-destruction. We are often deeply cynical and suspicious of the motives of do-gooder activist types. We are often laughing and cracking jokes…we use humour to survive. It’s a White Trash thing.
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