Date: Wed, 24 Aug 1994 18:49:38 EDT From: Michael Montgomery 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