Last week, the New York Times published a quiz called: “Can You Tell a ‘Trump’ Fridge From a ‘Biden’ Fridge?” The Times surveyed hundreds of people about the contents of their fridge and invited their readers “to identify Trump and Biden voters based on what’s inside their refrigerators, on the theory it might say something about our similarities and our assumptions about one another.”
Readers are not only asked to guess the political orientation of the owners of the refrigerators, they’re also asked to identify the contents—i.e., almond milk, Chobani yogurt, Cool Whip, and Picante salsa—that influence their decisions. The process is made transparent so that readers can see how other respondents guessed. And by the end of the week, Times readers had made over 23 million guesses, “correctly matching refrigerators to a family’s favored candidate 52 percent of the time.” The intended point? You can’t tell a person’s politics by looking at what they eat, “much more reliably than if we just flipped a coin.”
Yet, even as the Times staff set out to challenge readers’ assumptions, they also reinforced them. And while Americans of all races are casting (or have already cast) their votes in this election, the fridge quiz is a referendum on class and whiteness. We know that 88 percent of the people who voted for Trump in 2016 were white, many did not have college degrees, and around 35 percent lived in rural areas. These qualities all fold neatly into the “white trash” stereotype. And though the quiz may seem like light-hearted fun, the fact that it exists at all reinforces the idea that many still think it’s okay to judge poor white people for their taste in food.
What is “white trash?” In her essay “You Can’t Get Trashier: White Trash Cookbooks and Social Class,” Sherrie Inness writes, “’White trash’ remains a vitriolic term because it links whites with poverty,” which she notes is taboo within a culture shaped by white supremacy. Inness also references a definition offered in the 1996 anthology White Trash: Race and Class in America: “It refers to actually existing white people living in (often rural) poverty, while at the same time it designates a set of stereotypes and myths related to the social behaviors, intelligence, prejudices, and gender roles of poor whites.”
Media artifacts and discussions like the fridge quiz scapegoat impoverished white people for structural failings created and maintained by systemic exploitation. “White trash” and similar pejoratives are weapons used by rich, powerful white people to pit everyone else against impoverished, disenfranchised white people. These stereotypes seek, through the lens of white supremacy, to explain why some white people “fail” despite the advantages of whiteness. They ask: If whiteness is both the human default and the superior race, why are some white people poor?
The Times is using bad taste as code for bad politics, but whose bad politics? And who determines what’s good taste and what’s bad? The paper shapes tastes and trends in its cultural coverage, from book reviews and recipes to opinions on music and restaurants. That coverage, however, is primarily coastal, urban, and caters to a readership that is younger and identifies as more liberal than most of the rest of the country.
The same messaging has been applied to processed cheese, which has a powerful association with poverty due to the time the Reagan administration was embarrassed into giving away millions of pounds of “government cheese” through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program. We see it in the rhetoric of “clean food” versus the McDonald’s dollar menu. The Times knows that its readers are comfortable with this narrative, even if it doesn’t line up with the fact that Trump won the most votes among Americans making $50,000 a year or more.
But how can white people calling out other white people for prepackaged muffins be racist? Racism describes a power dynamic, a relationship forced upon people with less power by people with more. Whiteness is a contingent political category. It hangs on whether any particular group serves the interests of the people in power. Judgments about diet are judgments about the intelligence, fitness, and cultural capital of not merely individuals, but entire populations, and serve to label those groups as either belonging or not.
Social class is never only about income or self-identification; it’s about performance and gaze, which is why we can get away with describing wealthy and powerful politicians like Trump as “low-class white trash,” because of his preference for well-done steaks with ketchup and then lump him in with low-income white people who buy Steak-Umms to enjoy some affordable beef. This conflation allows an educated, liberal, and predominantly white class to continue to define themselves in opposition to tasteless, lazy, ugly, and foolish whites, and to continue to vilify poverty.
White supremacy scapegoats an underclass of impoverished white people by implicitly and explicitly naming them as inferior. Humorous approaches like the Times’ fridge quiz call on some of the tropes applied to poor, rural white people: ignorance, stupidity, uncleanliness, obesity, bad taste, bad eating habits, and more. But diet, health, and education are shaped by the social determinants of health.
And while the Times does acknowledge the fact that just over 12 percent of respondents indicated they did not have enough food during the previous two weeks, it also runs the risk of glossing over a fundamental issue of our time: food insecurity. Even before the pandemic, access to healthy, fresh food in red states—and especially in those state’s rural “food deserts”—has been a serious problem. Dollar stores dominate the grocery landscapes, and independent grocery stores struggle to stay open. Many of the foods and brands that Times readers might associate with Biden voters aren’t available at all, let alone affordable.
The project of singling out the inferiority of “trailer trash” also casts doubt on their whiteness. The history of public health is riddled with attempts to categorize impoverished and disabled white people as somehow non-white. Take the slur “mongoloid,” which was used to describe an appearance associated with some chromosomal disorders. Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash highlights how 20th century eugenics programs especially targeted poor white women for forced sterilization. These “anti-social whites” were also subject to imprisonment, institutionalization, and lobotomies.
White supremacy’s answer to its apparent failure to lift up all white people is to say “these people aren’t really white, and if you lose everything, neither are you.” The dangers of losing the status of whiteness are made tangible with imagery of sickness, poverty, chaos—and bad food. This discourse creates and directs white anxiety, which is not merely a symptom of economic insecurity, but a tool to maintain a hierarchy that directs ever more concentrated wealth and power into the hands of our leadership.
Because of the government response to COVID-19, adult food insecurity has “nearly doubled,” yet Trump continues to try to cut SNAP, peddle fears of immigrants stealing jobs, and wage a wasteful trade war with China. The irony of it all is that his leadership is hurting the white working class more than migrant laborers or a trade imbalance could. In an election year, white anxiety is extra potent. And in a year where Black and Indigenous political activism is more visible than ever, white anxiety is especially violent.
At the same time, the social construct that is whiteness has also been made more visible. And what we can perceive, we can more easily organize against and dismantle.
Does the fact that they’ve been scapegoated by white supremacy mean all impoverished white people are good? No. Victimhood and oppression don’t confer sainthood. A queer, disabled, impoverished white person can still be a white supremacist. The constant flipping of the roles of aggressor and victim is an inalienable part of the white supremacist state. While our cultural and political leadership tell white people not to eat, sound, or look like “white trash,” the same leadership tells impoverished white people that the architects of their misery are people who don’t eat, sound, worship, or look like them.
But to continually center and caricature low-income white people in our popular vision of white extremism does them a great injustice. Many poor white Americans, both urban and rural, have organized against and fought white supremacy alongside Black Americans, from the 1663 Gloucester County Rebellion and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union of the New Deal era to the mass mobilization of demonstrators across the United States in 2020.
To paraphrase Heartland author Sarah Smarsh, the poor are not dangerous idiots. But it is convenient for culture influencers like the Times to ignore these contributions and continue scapegoating “white trash” so their middle and upper-class white readership can differentiate themselves from “the bad whites” and remain complacent.
Conflating “good” food with “good” politics obscures the roots of our national failings, exploits poor Americans, and distracts us from justice by fanning the flames of mutual contempt. This is merely one battle in the struggle against injustice, but it remains crucial. Until we call out this type of discourse when it arises, our struggle to close the ideological divide will be hampered by a tangle of inferiority complexes with cultural capital.
We can counter “white trash” by respecting reclamation efforts, by holding ourselves accountable for our own words, by committing to ending food deserts and agricultural exploitation, and by calling in powerful creators of cultural capital when they play into stereotypes. Our food is grown by and our water is drawn from rural America; it’s time to stop treating the exploitation of the rural poor as a joke.
Top photo CC-licensed by Robert Nagle.