In “King of White Trash Culture”, Gael Sweeney details the properties of White Trash culture and what space it occupies in the United States, as well as Elvis Presley’s relationship to it. In the essay, Sweeney argues that being poor and white or specifically White Trash (which she separates from the rest of poor White America by allying it with the South) is the worst social group in America to occupy. She does so by stating that being poor and white suggests a failure at achieving whiteness. She believes that White Trash is hated by whites more than Black people because whiteness imbues them with the special ability to succeed.
While I agree that poor white people/White Trash are perceived as less white than the middle class or upper class white people, I whole heartedly disagree with the belief that poor white people are more loathed than Black people. If anything, poor whites profit off anti-Black sentiment by believing their saving grace is that they are white. This is explained by poor whites’ tendency to vote for conservative candidates and policies even if it hurts their quality of life. They cling to the notion that their whiteness will elevate them in social class and one day they too will become middle class or upper middle class. Sweeney’s reminder that the KKK was originally formed by white people and not poor whites that have joined the clan is racist in its submissiveness of poor whites complicity in the KKK.
She argues that Elvis Presley was feared for his forward sexual nature that was coded by his White Trash upbringing and White Trash’s proximity to Blackness in society. She believes this White Trash coloring created a sexuality that created fear in white parents and allure in white teens. However, she does not comment on the benefits of his whiteness, just that people were confused by a white man being able to sing “black”. Here I would like to comment that despite being White Trash, Elvis’s white privilege allowed him to profit off of Black musical traditions. His cover of “Hound Dog” effectively erased the original by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the Black woman who released the song to success in the R&B charts. Elvis was afforded the crossover appeal because of his whiteness. Not only that, his ability to sing black music was given more credit than given to Black people because his ability to do so was exceptional compared to the natural ability Black people were seen to have. He became known as an originator of Rock n’ Roll when Black people had been engaged in the genre years before.
Sweeney approximates whiteness relationship to Blackness, but does not work deeper into how White Trash can profit from it. Another example of this profiting off White Trash’s closeness to Blackness, is Eminem and his success as a rapper. While some parents find his music threatening both for its content and its genre, as many parents did with Elvis. However, Eminem has been very successful as a rapper. Part of this is his success is his whiteness. Listeners can listen to rap without engaging with Black people. Additionally, Eminem’s whiteness makes his ability to rap exceptional, unlike Black people who are expected to be able to. Again the case with Macklemore, who won the Grammy for best rap album despite his lesser skill in comparison to other nominees. Whiteness allows poor whites to profit from traditionally Black music traditions, pushing themselves up the social ladder by leveraging themselves against poor whites.