Watch & Listen

The White Trash Identity in “Bastard Out of Carolina”

"This was the real stuff. I could feel the whiskey edge, the grief and holding on, the dark night terror and determination of real gospel."

By Abigail Mengesha

As much as it is a coming-of-age novel, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina is a sociological exposition of poor white life in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement. Narrated by Ruth Anne Boatwright—commonly referenced as Bone—the book examines notions of identity, poverty, sex, religion, and race. Allison manipulates point of view, and the interactions, responses and consciousness of characters to vividly portray a type of whiteness that is derogatory and disregarded: the “white trash” identity.

The book’s narrative technique presents a first-hand account of the “white trash” identity and reveals its contrast against white-pride. This dichotomy—between “white trash” and white-pride—gets introduced in the beginning as Bone’s mother, Anney, relentlessly strives to the get the “ILLEGITIMATE” stamp removed from her daughter’s birth certificate. Shortly, Bone makes an insightful and retrospective observation,  “Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she’d ever spent bent over other people’s peanut and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground” . To Anney, the stamp on the certificate was a confirmation of their “trash” status, and her white-pride will not let her have it. What distinguishes white pride from regular pride is the degree of entitlement involved in the emotion. Due to her whiteness, Anney feels entitled to get the stamp removed, regardless of the fact that Bone’s birth is truly an illegitimate one—Bone’s father does not appear on the birth certificate—according to the law. Anney is aware of the stigma that comes with the stamp, since it burned her as much as the labels society branded her with, “no-good, lazy, shiftless.” Hence, Anney has enough entitlement and privilege to actually believe that she could fight to get it removed from Bone’s certificate. This sense of pride is what reveals the paradox of the “white trash” identity as it is also present in the other Boatwrights. For instance, the uncles feel entitled to peace and a better life regardless of the crimes and atrocities they commit. So, as much as Boatwrights face injustices, they have certain privileges and pride that they wouldn’t be able to afford if they weren’t white.

White Trash_ Annika Bjerke.png
Art by Annika Bjerke

Moreover, Bone repeatedly mentions a form of familial destiny, one that is tainted with doom and toxic patterns. Ranging from alcoholic men and overworked women, the Boatwrights can never escape the struggles of their predecessors: “Stupid or smart, there wasn’t much choice about what was going to happen to me, or to Grey and Garvey, or to any of us. Growing up was like falling into a hole.” Specifically, Bone’s retrospective self confirms that “[her] body, like [her] aunt’s bodies, was born to be worked to death, used up, and thrown away.” Hence, “white trash’s” multifaceted, derogatory nature gets revealed. It expands beyond the expanse of race; after all, it is also the lovechild of poverty, gender and geography. Like other societal constructs of identity, “white trash” is utterly and completely dependent on the stereotypes of poor white families in the South. The unambitious and criminal Boatwright men, the overworked and mistreated Boatwright women, and the numerous and wild Boatwright children fit society’s caricature of “white trash.” Therefore, other aspects of their identity get disregarded, reducing them to mere generalized avatars.

Also, this revelation exposes a homology with racism, specifically, one faced by African Americans. Despite the dramatic difference between the two forms of discrimination,  they are both intergenerational. For instance, even though the Boatwrights aren’t discriminated against because of their skin color, their behaviors—even their name—serve as genealogical traits that can’t be scraped off. They are stuck in this cycle of being regarded as worthless human beings who don’t deserve respect, because of who their parents are and the amount of money their family has.  So, when Bone’s ex-friend, Shannon, reduces the talented, black choir singers to “niggers,” Bone responds as if she was the one attacked by the hateful words, because Shannon’s “…tone pitched exactly like the echoing sound of Aunt Madeline sneering ‘trash’ when she thought …[Bone] wasn’t close enough to hear her.” Hence, Bone draws a link: the poor are as disenfranchised as African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights South.

Alternatively, she also exposes another relationship between the struggles of African Americans and poor white families in the South: they have a resilient fire inside of them. Bone’s first interaction with a black family—when she visits her aunt—reveals this similarity. As the little black girl stares at her from one of the basement’s windows, Bone sees herself looking back at her. Both girls have so much anger and frustration inside of them. The little black girl has been oppressed her whole life because of her racial identity, while Bone has forever been mistreated because of her economic status. For similar and different reasons, the young girls have grown up at a rate that doesn’t match their physical age.

In addition to poverty, abuse fuels Bone’s aforementioned anger. Sexually, verbally and physically abused by her stepfather and emotionally neglected by her mother, Bone has been spinning in a whirlpool of guilt and blame throughout most of the novel. As she tries to make sense of her stepfather’s abuse, she follows both dark and light paths. As much as Glen uses sexual abuse as an outlet for his insecurity, frustration and rage, Bone uses masturbation as a way of releasing her anger. She continuously orgasms to images of fire engulfing her town and to a watching audience as she resists a molesting Glen. Sex becomes more than an act of satisfaction or means of reproduction, it becomes a power instrument. Yet, as much as this enables Bone to release her built up frustration and rage, she falls upon religion and gospel music as alternate means of therapy. In a way, they feed the spiritual and emotional hunger she has been subduing. Baptism ceremonies become a way to get love and attention—“there was something heady and enthralling about being the object of all that attention”—while gospel music becomes an outlet for her pain: “This was the real stuff. I could feel the whiskey edge, the grief and holding on, the dark night terror and determination of real gospel.”

In the end, Allision draws in all of these to reveal the complexity of the “white trash” identity. Shame and pride appear to reach an agreement when the birth certificate reemerges after it has been forgotten for the majority of the book. Symbolically, the birth certificate was the physical manifestation of Bone’s position in society. As long as the “ILLEGITIMATE” stamp exists, Bone cannot escape her history. So, when Anney decides to give Bone her birth certificate after successfully getting rid of the stamp, she gives her daughter a chance to start over, to escape the rage and pain she had to endure because of the abusive father figure in her life. In her last attempt at motherly affection, Anney is giving Bone a chance to escape the shame associated with her “white trash” family and eventually build a sense of pride. Yet, this paradox of shame and pride doesn’t get neutralized, because Bone fails to escape the cyclical nature of the Boatwright family. Due to sexual abuse and emotional abandonment, she was bound to be who she was going to be, someone like her mother, a Boatwright woman. In the end, the birth certificate was just a shallow representation of identity as it only fed and threatened Anney’s white pride. In actuality,  Bone’s “white trash” identity is solidified through other important rudiments: poverty, sexual abuse, gender, and rage.

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