The complainant considered the use of the term “white trash” offensive and hateful.
By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman
The complainant, Rudolph Bangert, considered the use of the term “white trash” offensive and hateful. He thought the conversation with Professor Nancy Isenberg, author of a book about class in America that has the phrase in the title, should never have been broadcast. The phrase was used in context and never to disparage. It was a thoughtful and nuanced interview about the role of class in American politics.
You were deeply disturbed by a discussion on The Current in August 2016. Unfortunately, your first email did not reach this office, so the complaint was not addressed until November. The guest host of The Current, Laura Lynch, interviewed an American academic who had written a book about class in the United States. The book was entitled: “White Trash. The 400-year untold history of class in America.” You called the episode “hateful.” You couldn’t believe that someone had not pulled the item before it even aired; it was so obviously offensive and wrong. It is the term “white trash” that you consider hurtful and racist. The Current segment is on the website and is entitled “‘White Trash’ history reveals why class is crucial in the U.S. election.” You find it so objectionable, you believe the page should be taken down.
They started their program with a quote of a Duck Dynasty individual, and then went on to say he was a red neck, and then to suggest that all red necks are ‘white trash’. They further went into the program and explained that ‘white trash’ are poor (low income) white people. Further into the program they were quoting movies, and suggested that ‘white trash’ people are below black people on the people hierarchy… If they think just because there is an ethnic group that is low income, and are now fair game to attack and slander, they should not be in the broadcasting business in Canada.
The Executive Producer of The Current, Kathleen Goldhar, responded to your complaint.
She told you she sincerely regretted that you had such a negative opinion of the interview, and that the purpose of the interview was not to label or condemn or be hateful of white people. She explained the term was used and explored because it was featured in Professor Isenberg’s book. (Isenberg is a Professor of American history at Louisiana State University.)
She added that the point of the interview was to explore Ms. Isenberg’s thesis that while Americans believe they live in a classless society, it is not so. She believes that class plays an important role at various historical points in the United States’ history, including this last election cycle.
Ms. Goldhar explained that Ms. Isenberg used the term “to identify an economically deprived segment of American society that can be traced back to the founding of the country.” She added:
Although identified by different names in different regions, it is a class consistently exploited by generations of politicians and the elites for their own purposes. “White Trash” was originally used as term of disparagement by the middle class to look down on the poor, Professor Isenberg said, but since the 1970s it has taken on a somewhat different meaning becoming a part of the way people define themselves. As Americans began looking back to rediscover their roots, including their “red neck” roots, they also sought to get rid of some of the negative baggage associated with that group – even to celebrate their heritage. She cited Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson and several popular television series, including The Beverly Hillbillies, as examples.
Ms. Goldhar told you that the programme did not describe the “Duck Dynasty individual as a “red neck”; rather the programme stated that Mr. Robertson refers to himself by that term.