STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This next story starts with six words from a woman who uses a jarring phrase to describe herself.
TRACY HART: I'm Tracy Hart from Washington, D.C. And my six words are, yes, I'm tobacco-picking white trash.
INSKEEP: Yes, I'm tobacco-pickin' white trash. We've heard those words thanks to The Race Card Project, in which people have candid and sometimes uncomfortable conversations around race and cultural identity, beginning with six words they send to the founder of The Race Card Project, our colleague Michele Norris. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: How often do you get the phrase, white trash, in your inbox?
NORRIS: It lands in the inbox fairly often. You know, people come to The Race Card Project to talk about cultural identity. And sometimes, yes, that has to do with skin color. But a lot of times, it has to do with geography and where they happen to come from. And so we get a lot of submissions that deal with fairly pejorative terms or stereotypes, things like hillbilly, redneck, hayseed, bumpkin and, yes, white trash. And people are sometimes writing about pain. Sometimes they're using humor to distance themselves from the pain. Sometimes, it's associated with a kind of nostalgia. For Tracy Hart, it's sort of all of those things. And she actually sent a little essay to explain what she meant by those six words.
HART: Yes, I'm from a tobacco-pickin' Southern white trash family. And I mean that in the most endearing way. Some stereotypes my family breaks. We were Southern but poor sharecroppers rather than slave owners. Other stereotypes my family embraces, using discriminatory language in equal measure across all those who are not white Southerners.
INSKEEP: She's reminding us there that the phrase white trash goes way back. It does imply people who settled the southern United States at one time and were not the people who were well off, not the white people who ended up owning giant plantations and slaves. So where does Tracy Hart fit in that picture of white trash?
NORRIS: She would probably be somewhere on the fringe. Tracy Hart is a water resource economist who works at the World Bank in a fairly, you know, intellectually elite setting. Her colleagues might be surprised to hear her describe herself in this way. She is divorced. She has a daughter. She was raised in Texas, outside of Houston. And most of her relatives lived throughout the South. And she spent her summers visiting them, often visiting relatives who were just getting by.
HART: I have a great uncle, Uncle Reece, who was living near Independence, Va. He died within the last 10 years never having had indoor plumbing, never having had electrical wiring in his house, never having had a telephone line to his house. The water for the kitchen came from the stream, through a PVC pipe then dumped into a sink. And then there was an egress PVC pipe that took it back to the stream downhill. And that was the only running water in the house.
NORRIS: And we should say, Steve, Tracy Hart's grandmother grew up in that house. She's come some distance from that now. She's one of the most educated members of her family. And tobacco-pickin' that she mentioned was not just a metaphor. It helped pay for her education. From the very beginning, her interests and ambitions set her apart from many members of her family. She had an interest in opera. She became a trained opera singer. She went to school at UC Berkeley. She's lived overseas for several years. She says that she speaks 10 different languages. And so she's used to crossing cultural bridges. But she says the hardest bridge for her to cross is when she returns home and faces the judgment of her rural, geographically isolated family.
INSKEEP: Why would her family be judging her?
NORRIS: Well, she says they're sort of judging each other. And because it's family, it's complicated. I actually asked her about this.
The term white trash is something that you have embraced, if I can use that word. Or you say, yes, that's me. But would your family members say that?
HART: I think my family might think that I'm being a bit uppity in saying that because I - I'm able to admit it because I've stepped out of it. It's where I'm from, but it's not...
NORRIS: So you're saying it looking over your shoulder.
HART: Yeah, I've stepped out of it. It's where I'm from, but it's not where I'm at.
NORRIS: White trash is a pejorative term. It is judgmental. It is harsh. It is mean. If you were to say that to someone - they're just white trash - that would not be a kind thing to say. Is it embraced in some way so that a term that could be used as a cudgel, as a weapon, as a slur, is instead embraced and used as a shield?
HART: Absolutely. I mean, I have members from my family who will say something about yeah, that's just because we're white trash and laugh. And if someone else said that, they would not be amused. But within the family, using it is OK.
NORRIS: Is there sort of an easy judgment that is made about white Americans who live at or near the poverty line? Is this sort of an acceptable slur or stereotype?
HART: I don't know if it is for the North. But in the Deep South, it is. You know, as you might say, it's owned by or it's been taken back or embraced by a significant part of poor people in the Deep South who feel misunderstood, to some extent. They feel misunderstood because of the heavy legacy of slavery and segregation and poverty. And I think part of their feeling misunderstood is to take on or embrace that term, which is self-denigrating. But it also says, you know, we've been hurt too.
NORRIS: What do you want people to take from this, people who are listening to it, people who go to the website and encounter your story? You sent in six words. You sent in an essay. You sent in a photo.
HART: At the time, I wondered about the photo. I wondered about taking ownership of this. However, if we can't name ourselves and name those small differences - we have many, many cultural attributes in common. And yet, it's the few cultural attributes we don't have in common that - that label us. And so that's why I wrote that - not that I ever expected anyone to read it. But I wrote it to put it on the paper, to say, here I stand. This is who I am. And if I'm going to understand anyone else, I'm going to understand myself first.
INSKEEP: That's Tracy Hart talking with NPR's Michele Norris, founder of The Race Card Project. And you can read more six-word stories and write your own at theracecardproject.com. Michele, thanks for bringing this story by.
NORRIS: Good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: A final contribution from our friend Michele Norris, who's leaving NPR. We wish you the very best.
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