Sociology professor Dr. Matt Wray often asks his students to do an exercise in which they list various elements of African-American culture. Generally, students can come up with a list quite easily.
Afterward, Wray asks his students to list the various elements of white culture.
“I usually am met with silence for a minute,” Wray said. “What that suggests is that either students are right, and there is no white culture, or what’s more likely is that white [people] don’t pay attention to their cultural identity.”
Countless studies, majors and comedians dedicate time to answering questions about ethnicity and culture, but there remains one question that usually goes unanswered.
Is there a white culture?
Wray has spent time studying white culture, specifically poor white culture. His findings were published in his book, Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness.
Wray spent two years researching at Harvard University and is currently teaching general education classes on race and urban health.
There are a lot of common stereotypes about poor white people, and Wray said it has been accepted by society to make jokes at their expense.
“Why is it OK to make fun of poor white people?” Wray asks, noting it certainly is not acceptable to make jokes about other minority groups.
“I try to really understand where the stereotype and stigma around being poor and white comes from,” Wray said.
The term “white trash” has been around since the 1820s and was coined by African Americans and applied to poor white people.
In addition to Wray’s studies in white culture, he worked and lived in Las Vegas for five years.
“My current work grew out of my experience there,” he said.
Las Vegas is a very unhealthy place to live, Wray said. There are more than two to four times as many suicides in Las Vegas and the West compared to the national average.
Wray, who studies suicide rates in Las Vegas and the West, said there is a connection between suicide and white culture. He said poor whites commit suicide because they are pushed to the margins of society and begin to despise themselves.
“I’m fascinated with people who are despised by others or people who despise themselves,” Wray said.
Valerie Rubinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.