On Being White Trash

I’ve talked before about being the oldest child of a couple of burger flippers, but I haven’t really talked about what it was like, socially, to be the daughter of fast-food employees; however much I enjoyed my time in the restaurants, the kids at school, the people we knew socially, didn’t really see it as a terribly enjoyable experience. Fast food was something you got away from, fast.

Fast food was white trash.

I can remember a time for about two years when I’d go so far as to say my parents were “poor,” though we’d likely be “lower middle-class” by anybody else’s standards, cause we always had enough to eat. For about two years, my parents were paying their bills with credit cards (now that they own their own business, they’re doing this again – another one of my eternal battles is figuring out how to figure out money). My sister and I were subsisting primarily on scrambled eggs and macaroni and cheese. I suspect that my aversion for scrambled eggs has something to do with being presented with yet another dinner of scrambled eggs when I was five or six.

Things got better, but when we played show and tell at school, I didn’t particular want to bring in my parents. When I was younger, I resented the fact that all of the other kids seemed to have mothers who baked cookies and didn’t come home smelling like grease every night. When I’d go over to other kids’ houses, their mom cleaned the toilets – in my house, I learned how to clean toilets when I was four.

My mom was always really adament that her kids become self-sufficient. We chose our own clothes every morning (which lasted until the day my sister dressed herself for kindergarten and forgot to wear underwear. My grandmother was horrified, and from then on, she would set out clothes for us every morning and re-dress us when my parents dropped us off at her place). We learned how to cook a remarkable amount of macoroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches (I have an especial fondness for all sorts of cheese, to this day). Every Saturday or so, we cleaned the house, working with our mom from a big to-do list. Whenever we’d go out to restaurants, even if it was just the local diner, my mom would give us a rundown on basic restaurant politeness, napkin over lap, “excuse me,” “thank you,” and which fork to use (when we were at places with two forks).

“Someday,” she’d say, “you’re going to go out to a nice place, and you don’t want to look foolish.” What that meant, really, was “You don’t want to look like white trash.”

In fact, I’ve always sort of viewed my family as about one step to the left of white trash. The kids I hung out with either lived in a trailer packed with ten kids or lived in a crapped-out moldy place down the corner, or the dilapedated barn down the street (somebody did finally gut that fucking pigsty and redo it from the inside out).

When my dad worked some weekends for a stump grinding company, my sister refused, refused to have him pick her up from school in “the stump grinding truck” because it was so incredibly white-trash looking a vehicle.

The one time my dad did this, she burst into tears. “What’s everyone going to think of me!” she cried. “It’s bad enough that when everyone asks, I have to tell them you work at a burger joint!”

The one thing I never, never, learned how to do was dress like anything other than white trash. That’s something I’ve been spending the entirety of my 20s working on. I just don’t understand clothes. I don’t know how to buy them. It doesn’t help that fashion’s not made for women who look like me. Throw in the fact that I have no idea what looks decent on me, and it means hours and hours and hours of crappy shopping time and a lot of stuff that makes it home and then gets thrown out when I realize it’s way crappier in real life than it was in the store and “Sweet fuck, what was I thinking?”

The last time I went shopping, I went to Nordstrom in downtown Chicago, and I stood in the middle of the shoe store, holding two shoe styles I wanted to try on, feeling incredibly out of place among the Beautiful People who all hustled about looking busy like they belonged there, and nobody was coming up to help me, and I thought, “They can see it, can’t they? They can totally see that I’m really white trash. That’s why nobody’s helping me, that’s why –“

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

Er. Yea.

It’s funny, though, how the white trash thing still stirs me sometimes. It’s one of the reasons I find it so funny to be in these meetings, to put on a suit jacket. There’s just this incredible feeling that I don’t fit here. I keep waiting for the moment when some hotel clerk yells, “Aha! White trash! I knew it!” and kicks me out of the hotel.

I’m waiting for the corporate dinner where there’s a fork I don’t know how to use (though to be honest, many of these guys wouldn’t know how to use it either). I worry that I’m being too nice to the waitstaff, do they think I’m being condescending?

It’s funny, what follows you.

Once I got older, I realized that in fact, my mother had done me an incredible favor by being a working mom, by teaching me early that I needed to figure out how to do shit for myself. I have a friend back home who got married and realized that, in fact, toilets do not clean themselves. Her mother had done all of her laundry, cleaned the house, made her bed, for her entire life. She had no idea how to do any of it on her own, and no set routine. I have another friend who moved out and managed to burn a can of instant soup: she’d never cooked anything before. And there were others, mainly women, but lots of guys I know, who don’t understand how to work for a living. Who don’t know how to do an interview. Who don’t know how to write up a resume. I’d been working informally for the burger joints for years, and done so many crap jobs since I was 16 that I don’t even find interviews scary anymore. I clean my house every Saturday (yea, the toilet too). I can cook – sure, mostly only what can be cooked in a wok, but I can cook. I learned how to be self-sufficient really quickly. Nobody did it for me. When I moved in with a guy who *wasn’t* self-sufficient, problems quickly ensued, cause I ended up playing mom. Let me tell you: I’m never doing anybody else’s fucking laundry ever again.

But for the most part, I got a great gift, being the sort of white trash who had two parents who worked their asses off. They knew about work ethic. They knew that even if you fucked up everything else, if you got up and went to work everyday, you’d keep scrambled eggs in the fridge and kool-aid on the table, and some days, that’s enough.

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