Date: Wed, 24 Aug 1994 18:49:38 EDT


Subject: What is a Racist Term?

I would like to know if there is simple definition of what a "racist

term" is or whether we must always take the context into account. More

to the point, is "poor white trash" a racist term?

Recently I finished a study of terms for poor whites to be found in

the LAGS records (212 different ones, by the way) and somehow the media

got word of this. A phonecall one afternoon put me instantly on live

talk radio in Galveston, TX, to discuss my research. About the third

question from the host was "Do you think racist terms like 'poor white

trash' are more common today than they used to be?" I didn't respond

according to script, because my immediate reaction was that "poor white

trash" is as much a social putdown, applied by whites above the line to

those perceived to be below it, as a racial one used by blacks for whites.

The LAGS data do confirm that it is socially sensitive middle-class

whites who say they use it at the highest rate. So I told the radio

host that, simply speaking, "poor white trash" was not a racist term,

because "trash" was the main insult sometimes it is used. But

at this point he expressed considerable annoyance at this obviously

muddle-headed professor and thanked me for my time. Click.

I still don't know that I would have responded differently to that yes-

no question that gave me almost no room to maneuver, but I'm wondering

if there is a common understanding of what a "racist term" is. Can we

define it only in context according to a set of criteria, like those

necessary to identify slang? Is "racist term" a word that is linguis-

tically useful?

Michael MOngomery, Dept of English, U of South Carolina, Columbia 29208