So, What Did Asra Mean Exactly?

I was going to take a break from the blog today because I was trying to get some administrative stuff done, but I feel I have to answer some of the comments coming in about yesterday's Mocha Moms. In the segment, guest and Mocha regular Asra Nomani used the phrase "white trash" as part of a much longer answer about her reaction to the Sarah Palin story, and the whole issue of Sarah Plain's pregnant teenage daughter — if indeed that is an issue. For the record, here is partial transcription of what Asra said in this week's Mocha Moms:

I feel really conflicted, Michel. It's painful, actually, because, you know, I'm sitting here in England right now, and I'm having to do a lot of explaining about a concept that we know there in America, but folks here are wondering what white trash means. And I hate to say those words, and it's, you know, in its own way racist. But, unfortunately, that's the kind of politically incorrect conversation and internal dialog I'm having.

I have no way of knowing and certainly cannot control what folks are doing when they listen to the program — or if indeed they are listening or are just reacting to what somebody told them. But some who are writing to us have completely misinterpreted what Asra was saying. Context matters a very great deal. Asra was (and remains) overseas and was reporting about the kinds of conversations she was overhearing and to which she had been subjected. She took the additional step of identifying the phrase "white trash" as racist, which it is, and described how uncomfortable it made her.

This is no different than a reporter describing that she heard racist remarks directed at Barack Obama and that word was the "N" word, but for the fact that there is not a readily available euphemism to describe what she heard, unlike the "N" word. The complicating factor here is that Asra was trying to describe the fact that, as an American, she felt called upon to defend and explain conduct of which she disapproves. It may be that one should never use language which might somehow be misinterpreted. But my long experience in the media (and as a human being) suggests to me that anytime you open your mouth the possibility exists of being misinterpreted.

I don't take issue with any disagreements people might have with the substance of our guests' remarks. (i.e. Many of you are incredulous that another of our Mocha regulars, Leslie Morgan Steiner, says she is considering voting for the McCain-Palin ticket.) But I have to speak up when I feel that listeners are not, well, actually listening and raising objections to what they think was said, rather than what was actually said. I hope this helps.

Asra may want to weigh in herself later on as she is able. As I mentioned she is overseas, so when she gets back to us, we'll post what she has to say.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

More on the n-word:

Sent by thescoop | 7:44 PM | 9-10-2008

I disagree with your explanation of Asra's comments, Michel. As you said, context is everything, and Asra's is telling. She describes "white trash" as "in its own way racist," which seems to be qualifying the term as perhaps less so. She also describes it as "a concept we know in America." Really? Finally the term becomes simply "politically incorrect" according to Asra. But she goes on to add that "that's the kind of . . . internal dialog I'm having." So she has internal dialogs that include terms that are "in [their] own way racist"? The "conduct" of which Asra disapproves includes Palin's son's decision to join the military and Palin's "decision to have her own baby." (Asra's words) Asra feels that Palin made these decisions for "political mileage," but these decisions were made long before she was tapped by McCain for the VP slot. Palin's decision to have her fifth child (made more than a year ago) has nothing to do with what Asra was discussing, yet Asra's mention of it illuminates just what her "concept" of "white trash" is.
Asra's comments, if not racist, are at a minimum arrogant and insulting to military families and working mothers everywhere.

Sent by Carrie | 10:26 AM | 9-11-2008

In conversations about race, the euphemism/acronym P.W.T. has often been used. The funny thing is that the euphemism P.W.T., as does the N-word, still offend when said with malice. What is even funnier, is that people have not learned to acknowledge intent. When did we become soooooo sensitive in this country?

Sent by M. Deasy | 10:40 AM | 9-11-2008

I live in Nashville, where we have the White Trash Cafe and on you will find the the "White Trash" cookbooks---it is a common term in the South and has been for decades. When I worked in New Jersey, my white boss shocked me when he referred to another white co-worker as "trailer trash." These terms are not necessarily racist--they sometimes have to do with social class.

Sent by Glenda | 2:24 PM | 9-11-2008

I find the comments made my Carrie lucid, but not valid. Furthermore, I find her statement "are at a minimum arrogant and insulting to military families and working mothers everywhere" hypocritical and arrogant. How is it that she knows what "military families and working mothers everywhere" are thinking? I guess this can be attributed to the old assumption that, "just because I believe it to be true, everyone else does too."

Sent by M. Deasy | 2:47 PM | 9-11-2008

I disagree with Carrie. Asra's internal dialogue was about how she can explain this expression to others. Carrie you've taken it completely out of context, and are hearing only what you want to.

Sent by Michaela | 3:00 PM | 9-11-2008

This is my first time blogging to this site, so I am not sure if I am in the right location for my topic.

[I love your show.]

I want to comment on the story about the DC schools superintendent, and her plan to introduce a pay-to-learn model. I think it is a mis-guided idea for certain.

I am an adminstrator in New Jersey. The circumstances where I am are dismal too. Although, perhaps not a acute as in DC due to our smaller size. There is so much more I could say on this topic, but I'll leave with a few emphatic statements for now:

Do we want to further stigmatize Black children by introducing an incentive that other racial groups have not warranted?
Black children do not need to be subject to another experimental program that further stigmatizes their capacity to learn.
Black children are the only students who are defined by their lowest achievers.
The real problem with public schooling is not the students, or even the teachers, but timid administrative "leadership" that looks forward to tenure as much as teacher do.

I'll stay tuned.

Sent by Darren Palmer | 7:21 PM | 9-11-2008

@M. Deasy --re: PWT --ya know--I don't know what this says about me but I had to read your posting a couple of times before I had ANY idea what you were talking about..I was thinking what does Public Display of Affection have to do with what we're talking about here?...oh..riiigght--that's PDA...I have to get more sleep...seriously..I have never heard that term or acronym before in my that a southern thing?

Sent by Michel, host, TMM | 9:36 PM | 9-11-2008

Michele: I listened to the entire program carefully and intelligently. I am no supporter of Palin but I think what Asra said and implied are clear and indefensible. She is saying that to have a large family with a son who goes into the military instead of to college and a pregnant teenage daughter conjure up for her images of white trash. plain and simple. She said it she should own it no need to back down from the implication and no need to mount a lengthy defense for what is essentially indefensible.

Sent by Melanie | 12:24 PM | 9-12-2008

I have lived in four southern states---P.W.T. (Poor White Trash) is a southern term found in most books about slavery, the Civil War and U.S. southern history---Wikipedia has a pretty good definition, that cites a chapter in Uncle Tom's Cabin entitled "Poor White Trash." As time went by and people moved up to the middle class, the "poor," was dropped. Roseanne Barr used the term on her show and comedians make jokes about it. It is not necessarily as a racist term, but one that denotes social class. When I lived in NJ, I was stunned when my white supervisor referred to one of my white co-workers as "trailer trash." White Trash is usually employed in that manner---it indicates a class in society. Nashville has a "White Trash" Cafe and has "White Trash" cookbooks.

Since it stirs such controversy--You might want to do a show on it someday--you can start with the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Sent by Glenda | 11:49 PM | 9-12-2008

Hi Michel:

I believe what "M. Deasy" meant with the PWT acronym (since I've heard it used) in context with talking about the N-word is "Poor White Trash."

I listened to the "Mocha Moms" segment and I can't believe the outrage on this blog on what Asra meant. How did she get implicated as "racist" or "crude" when she was giving a reference to what some folks said where she lives? She even said she thought the comments from her neighbors were racist.

I really hope some people could improve their listening skills. Oh, and I hope explaining what PWT means doesn't make me a racist too?

Sent by Moji | 2:08 PM | 9-13-2008


NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from