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Gutter talk

Time for some language cleansing, says Lezlie Lowe

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Sometimes these columns brew and brew. Like niggling little errands left undone or that call I ought to have placed to my grandmother for the birthday gift she mailed two months ago. With to-dos, you need time and opportunity. With columns, you need a hook. And now that local comedian and first-time playwright Michael Best is presenting a new work, I can finally say it: I hate white trash.

Not the people (as the stereotype goes: loud, crass, working class whites with little taste and less tact), but the phrase.

Best uses it in the title of his latest performance, Gay White Trash, running November 23 to December 3 at The Crib.

I smugly condemned with the slur when I was a teen (ironic, really, since I grew up loud, crass and tactless, and in a working class family in north-end Dartmouth). To say others have picked up the torch since I gave up using the term is a walloping understatement. Pop culture is unabashedly adoring of white trash—from late ‘90s mullet-love web sites and early seasons of The Simple Life to the Vogue-approved White Trash Charms brand necklaces worn by Gwen Stefani and Lindsay Lohan and that homegrown behemoth of white trash culture, Trailer Park Boys.

Still, the term is hateful. Using the adjective “white” implies all people who are not white are just plain trash. It’s like living legends, which relies on the word “living” because most legends are dead; or male prostitute, which is meaningful because nearly all prostitutes are women. We never say “female prostitute” or “dead legend” — that prostitutes are female and legends dead is all but self-evident.

Best says he wanted an incendiary title for the story of Terry (Kevin Curran) and Gary (Best), “economically disadvantaged life partners from rural Nova Scotia who have just moved to the ‘big’ city.” But he never considered it offensive. I can’t blame him. Most people don’t. And maybe it’s not.

There are 48 definitions of white trash on UrbanDictionary.com, a reader-compiled online slang dictionary, and only one deals with the implications of the term for non-whites, calling it a racial slur “used to uphold…white privilege.” Well, there’s at least one person on my side. But which is the right definition? Is white trash about tank tops, Wildcat beer and cars on blocks in the front yard? Or is it a knot of ingrained racism stuck in our language? Do we accept the commonplace understanding of the word because everyone knows what it means? Or buy the argument that it’s implicitly offensive and ditch it from our disses, conversations and ad campaigns?

Before you answer, take this into account: Michael Best is making his own statement about stereotypes in his naming of Gay White Trash. “It’s about lower middle class gay guys you never see portrayed in any kind of art or media,” he says. “The only time you ever see gay men is as high-end designers or street hustlers—down-and-out drug-addicted drag queens. I’m projecting a whole other kind of character which far outnumbers either of those two groups.”

Best’s play, he says, is “a bit of a rail” against the way hordes of “normal” gay men are missing from our media. I’m railing too, about the missing meaning of white trash. Because it’s more than a convenient stereotype, it’s inherently racist, even if that’s not what we mean when we say it, nor what we understand when we hear it. Funny thing is, we’re both looking for fairness, Michael Best and I, and somewhere in the middle is Gay White Trash.

Shades of gray? Email: lezliel@thecoast.ca.

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