This afternoon while I was supposed to be paying attention in class, I was instead reading an essay called “I Went To College And All I Got Was This White Trash T-Shirt,” by Kat Marie Yoas. In the essay, Yoas discusses having grown up poor, in a trailer park, her mother struggling just to keep the place inhabitable without any outside help. Yoas herself is the first in her family to attend college, and when she gets there, she begins to take feminist classes. After a while, however, she realizes that the feminism she is learning in college is not an ethic that relates to her own life–it is the feminism of upper-middle class white women, where Yoas herself has come from, in the eyes of her classmates, “white trash” stock.
The entire essay was thought-provoking and relatable: I grew up in a very affluent community, where most of my peers had the latest fashions, played sports and lived in nice houses with hardwood floors and golden retrievers or black labs in their yards. Their parents went to PTA meetings and showed up for every parent-teacher conference. Their parents went as chaperones on field trips. When the girls started going to dances, their mothers would help them to pick out dresses that would not only not get them made fun of, but would actually look good. They had Nintendo, Sega, computers, huge trampolines in their back yards. I had a hand-me-down Walkman my mother had given me (the real thing–it was metal) and my back yard was full of other people’s boats, as I lived in a tiny, soulless cottage that belonged to a boat yard. My father didn’t chaperone or go to PTA or parent-teacher conferences because he worked sixteen hours a day at a back-breaking job to support us. He didn’t even have his own bedroom–his bed was positioned against one wall in the living room, and I had the only bedroom in the cottage.
In her essay, Yoas mentions being dropped off at home by her friends’ parents, and the pitying looks that she would receive from them: “Kathleen, your house is very clean on the inside. Very…well…put…together?” I could immediately identify with her sense of embarrassment and hurt–as a child in or on the brink of poverty, living among people who are far more affluent than you are, you are absolutely conscious of your own other-ness. I remember some of my friends’ first visits to my house, the curiosity and judgment on their faces when they saw my father’s bed in the living room, the hideous and threadbare couch, the nail driven deep into the fake-wood paneling on which he hung his coat. Added to this other-ness was something else: I was the “girl whose mother died.” I was looked after by a number of women who had my best interest at heart, and helped me through a very difficult time, but it was in no way the same as what other girls had. I envied the constancy that they had–of always having a woman around to ask the difficult questions, to seek comfort in, to do “girl” things with. My women were at the end of a telephone line–sometimes they answered, sometimes they didn’t (though when they did answer, they were all wonderfully understanding and patient). After a while, I felt guilty for calling, as if I were bothering them too much, or trying to call too much attention to myself.
Yoas, between anecdotes about her childhood and touching stories which convey the indomitable strength of her mother, relates her college experience with candor and honesty:
“I was so lost in the theoretical language that I had begun to see my family as the enemy. Academic language defined resistance as: using big words to name oppressions, attending protests, and creating change by moving on and up in the world–taking on the patriarchy in a big way. My family did none of these things. I mean, if there were ways to counter oppression and hegemony, why was it that my family just stayed in the same town doing the same jobs, with the same low economic and social standing?”
I remember hearing my father rant during one particularly ugly part of my adolescence when I had been taken away from him and put into foster care, largely due to a misunderstanding between him and me that had been blown way out of proportion. He complained that the system refused to take him seriously, that they were “out to get him,” untrusting of a single father raising a teenage daughter. At the time, I told him that was ridiculous, that they were not out to get him at all, it was just a complicated process and he was projecting his own distaste for bureaucratic agents on them. Gradually, however, I begun to realize that I was being kept in a system that I had no need for (and that could be far more beneficial to someone else who was in need)–I was not in any physical danger, nor was I about to go without food, clothing or shelter, despite our precarious financial situation–for reasons I could not identify. There were supervision issues, and the house was a mess, but then and even now, I don’t see the problems that were present as reasons enough to take me out of my home, out of my community entirely (the foster homes where I lived were full, so I was shipped away), treated as though, like the majority of other female teenage foster children, I was a high drug, pregnancy, crime and runaway risk. In retrospect I see the problem of the system not as one of sexism against men, but as classism against the struggling working-class. In the opinions of the social workers, I would be much better off in a clean, supervised, middle-class household than I would be with my own father. In the beginning, the situation was more complicated than that, but as it drew on, I realized that what I viewed as my “incarceration” would last indefinitely if the social workers had their way.
Subconsciously, in early high school I gravitated towards friends who were among the same socioeconomic class as me (what some would consider “white trash”). One friend, who lived down the street from where I’d once lived with my mother, lived in a tiny mint-green house–a glorified trailer, really–with ugly shag carpeting. My friend lived in a teeny-tiny dungeon of a bedroom. Her younger brother slept on the couch, and her mother had the other tiny bedroom. In retrospect I realize it was this friend’s house in which I was the most comfortable–though she had cable TV, which my father would never pay for, she was pretty much like me. She had a small family that was scraping by with the best they could muster, but they loved each other. She taught me about music all through my adolescence, bringing me into her dark little room and playing bands and artists I’d never heard of, music that was nothing like the superficial pop that was on the radio. Her mother was a single parent of two children and worked her ass off to barely support them, but every time I happened to be there at dinner time, there was a plate made up for me, and at one point during difficult times with my father, my friend’s mother offered that if I needed a place to live I could live with them.
Perhaps the most poignant point in Yoas’s essay is when she addresses the current trend for mocking “white trash” or “redneck” everything:
The terms “white trash” and “trailer trash” cut and affect me in a way that academic-speak never could. Yet, right now we are at the height of commodifying working-class and trailer park culture. I can’t go anywhere without seeing fucked-up depictions of my home and people. There are the mesh trucker caps and the trendy ironic T-shirts that say MAKE MINE A DOUBLE with a drawing of a double-wide trailer on the front. She goes on to mention the “hipster-queer subculture co-opting of working poor culture” which anger her, including invitations to “white trash” and “redneck” themed parties.
After reading this, I realized that I hadn’t taken offense to this ridiculous fashion statement–I’d just thought it was silly and would run its course. But Yoas mentions the blue mechanics’ work shirts which have become trendy, with oval-shaped name patches saying “Mike,” or “Bob.” My father did not wear one of these, as he either worked for himself or for people who did not enforce uniforms, but he did the sort of work where these uniforms are common. I have friends who do wear the “grease-monkey” uniforms, not for show, but because that is how they make their living.
After reading Yoas’s essay, I found myself becoming more angry, more conscious of my “other-ness” within the peer structure at the college I attend, much like Yoas found at hers. I am not studying feminism, as I abandoned any pursuit of it years ago, having been driven off by overly bitter lesbian man-haters and overly idealistic hippie-chicks with no grip on reality. Oddly, the best feminists I know are men. Go figure. But I digress. So I am not studying feminism or Women’s Studies, I am studying writing, at a prestigious college in Boston largely populated by middle- to upper-middle-class kids just out of high school. My school’s financial aid policy alone dictates how many students finance their own educations there: “For the purposes of financial aid determination, all undergraduate students are considered Dependent, regardless of age (paraphrased).” For this reason, I had to fight for three months with the school’s bureaucracy to get them to consider me an independent student; at the time I was twenty-five and had been supporting myself since the age of seventeen. I am the oldest student I have come across in any of my daytime classes (the night classes, called “Professional Studies,” have more of a diversity regarding age). Not only do I feel separated from my classmates by age (I listen to Guns N’ Roses because that’s what was popular when I was a young teenager; they wear Guns N’ Roses T-shirts for the same reason they wear mesh trucker hats), but by socioeconomic class as well. Though there are certainly Emerson students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the majority of students are a homogenous mass of trendy, fake-rebellious, privileged middle class kids who are still living off of their parents’ dime. Their reality growing up was completely different from mine, even more than the kids I went to elementary school with. These are kids a generation behind, who have been coddled by their parents, raised on commodity culture (instead of back yards and the woods), video games and Paris Hilton (though they’d never admit it), whose closest brush with dire straits has most likely been running out of money to buy (trendy) PBR beer on a Friday night. They are perfectly-coiffed (this includes the guys), perfectly made-up, with their wardrobes perfectly concocted to demonstrate how (ironically) white-trash or hair-rock or 80s they are (not). Their mothers were never house-cleaners, or blacksmiths (both of which my mother did) or waitresses past college. Their fathers were not truck drivers, welders, masons, fishermen.
One student in my Personal Essay class, an exception to my above generalization for sure, wrote in her essay about being envious of her peers because they got to go to Disney World with their families on vacation, and she and her family didn’t, because her father was a cook and her mother worked in a billing office and they couldn’t afford it. I’ve never been either, I wanted to say, though my desire to visit Disney probably expired when this girl was in first grade. It is an identification thing–“I know what you mean.” Every year growing up, I watched my classmates come back from Florida and the Bahamas, tan, having spent their vacations lounging on the beach while I shoveled snow or watched fuzz on the black-and-white TV in my living room.
I have been trying to figure out for a long time–since I got to this school, and perhaps before–why it is that I feel such contempt for the superficial culture of the generation behind me and indeed the generation itself. After having read Yoas’s essay, I realize it is perhaps because they take such pleasure in making fun of people they do not understand, cannot understand. The world is there for their entertainment and ridicule, and they don’t recognize those who are being lampooned as even being people at all.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not the shiny-happy-people, love everybody blog. I am not saying that making fun of people is wrong–I do it all the time (mostly I make fun of myself–half the time I see these kids, I want to tell them that I dressed like a trucker in high school a decade before it was cool, and completely unintentionally). What I’m saying is that there’s a trend among the younger generations to mock American working-class culture–mechanics, truckers, etc.–which comes from total absorption in media culture and complete ignorance of what it’s like to do without–and it pisses me off, because they just don’t get it.
**Incidentally, I have just gotten drunk by myself off of Budweiser “pounders,” while listening to Appetite For Destruction on repeat. And I stepped on a piece of glass about half an hour ago and, have unwittingly been bleeding rather profusely for some time.**