Thursday, May 19, 2005

The one time of the month I can be myself

I think it was comedian Roseanne Barr who said that PMS is the one time of the month that a woman can be herself. Well, I should have written a few days ago, then, but better late than never. Here is what's bugging me today. This is going to be pretty stream-of consciousness:

We rented the DVD Hotel Rwanda Saturday. I remember at the time that situation was going on, sort of vaguely listening and being very confused about what was going on. Anyway, after watching the film, I started reading a book of my son's that I had noticed for years but never picked up called We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. It's very informative and written with a good deal of passion, and dealt with the question that I kept asking during the movie. How do you get human beings to turn on their fellow human beings like that--people they work with, go to school with, live beside? And what is inside some people that gives them the courage to do the right thing, and the intelligence to do it effectively?

I know it's not an original question. I know getting people to turn on others involves dehumanizing, vilifying, and scapegoating people. Hutu Power called the Tutsis "cockroaches", and Gourevitch points out that at one time, Tutsis even claimed the term as one that expressed their stealth and persistence. However, it was used to great and evil effect by Hutu Power in the 1990s.

After finishing Part 1 of the book, I skipped ahead to the last chapter. Gourevitch described watching an in-flight movie on the plane, and calling some people who did something evil and criminal as "white trash." I will not lie and say this is a term I have never used; however, I think I have always used it in a self-deprecating way. That doesn't make it OK. It just seemed contradictory to me that Gourevitch used this all-encompassing term to describe a criminal act after having written an entire book, in part discussing how making sweeping generalizations about people can cause others to justify mayhem.

As I have heard the term"white trash" over the years, it is not just a term used to describe people who are criminally racist. It describes an economic status, cultural preferences, lifestyle decisions, perhaps even a dwelling, e.g. the hideous synonym "trailer trash" which I have never used other than to say how much I hate it. The classism inherent in that phrase is overwhelming. A college student in 1995 pointed out that someone at a university using it might very well not know that the student beside them grew up in such a dwelling.

I looked it up, and discovered that the term "white trash" has origins in slave culture, used to describe white people of low economic status, lower than that of slaves who held more prestigious positions among slaves, for lack of a better way of describing it.

Anyway, it has become something else, and I frequently hear it used by people I consider enlightened. I can't figure out any distinction other than economic: poor young woman who decides to raise her child or children born out of wedlock: white trash. Young woman of upper middle-class status in same situation: making a brave decision to be a single mother. Or perhaps exercising her Supreme Court -given decision to make a choice for abortion. Don't get me wrong; I'm pro-choice, but if a poor woman makes the decision to raise her own child--she's risking being called white trash.

I know the response would be that people aren't using the term to describe all poor people, or all people from a geographical region, just the ones who...right. There are two kinds of whatever.

People with money often make the same very bad decisions that people without it do. They just have a greater ability to cover their asses.

I find the justifications for using the term a giant load of elitist bullshit. But that's just me and I guess I've made it pretty clear who I am, right?

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