White like me
Part 3 - White folks' ethnography
by Ellen Barry
Matt Wray dreams of a reading list that would start out with Forbes
magazine's annual survey of the country's 400 richest people. "I would say the
most important group of whites to understand are the ruling elites," says Wray,
a doctoral student pioneering the study of whiteness at UC Berkeley. He thinks
students should ask "who these people are, and what kind of cultural work do
their images do? Where do they put their money?"
But it's tough for an ethnic-studies graduate student to get an interview with
the ruling elites -- what's known as "studying up." To date, Wray's work has
been oriented in a distinctly downward direction. He's taught Spam, he's taught
Rush Limbaugh, and this year marks the publication of the book he edited,
White Trash: Race and Class in America (Routledge).
Wray was one of the young scholars who soaked up the works of Roediger and
Ignatiev and went into the field to fill in the gaps they left. So it's odd to
find Wray doing exactly what his older colleagues most distrust: offering
semester-long dissections of white culture.
The young critics say their work follows a predictable academic trend. The
social movements of the '70s fostered the creation of academic departments
whose mission was to tell the story of an oppressed class. By the end of the
1980s, the same departments had swung the spotlight around to study the
oppressors. The feminist movement, for example, gave rise to women's studies,
which eventually turned its attention to the mechanics of male
But much of the prominent work in white studies has not examined
dominance. On the contrary, perhaps because of the challenges of "studying up,"
the growing field of white ethnography tends to focus on the more grotesque
stereotypes of lower-class whites -- the trailer parks, the promiscuity, the
abuse. In effect, this branch of whiteness studies has simply discovered a new
minority, as Wray puts it in the preface to White Trash -- "a form of
white identity that is comfortable in multiculturalism, and with which
multiculturalism is comfortable as well." In other words, white-trash identity
can be approached comfortably as an ethnicity, because it is so marginalized
itself that it challenges what Wray calls the " `vulgar multiculturalist'
assumption that whiteness must always equal terror and racism."
In the process, poor whites become just another set of artifacts for a
critical working-over. Here's Wray and Annalee Newitz on the public's amusement with John
Wayne Bobbitt, in the Minnesota Review:
We would suggest that part of this glee came -- perhaps unconsciously -- out
of a sense that Lorena's blow was struck, not for women, but for the middle
class, against lower-class men . . . As a manual laborer and a
Marine, Bobbitt's masculine body was his source of work and income. Cutting off
his penis, therefore, robbed him symbolically of his identity as a member of
the (potential) working class.
And here he is on Roseanne:
Roseanne epitomizes the way white trash has come to be understood as a
marginalized white identity which nevertheless peculiarly evades disclosure of
its own class-based origins.
It is interesting to speculate on what Roseanne would have to say about
Ellen Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.