Oil Field Trash

I see the phrase “oil field trash” in the New York Times today. Too bad. We can be better than this.

“Oil field trash” is an epithet applied to lower middle class whites who work at the most menial and dangerous jobs in the oil patch. It was applied to me as a third-grader in a dusty West Texas town. My dad was an oilfied roustabout, also known as a roughneck. Oilfield famlies like us were among the nomadic poor. We travelled from place to place following the re-location of drilling rigs prospecting for oil. Our lives literally revolved around the location.

At this level oilfield people don’t own homes, they rent. They don’t take part in civic affairs because they move when the well comes in or proves dry. They aren’t members of the PTA, the local church, Boy Scouts or Rotary, or whatever the social glue is today. We lived at the margins of society, and at the margins of the constraints of society.

This was long before oilfield work paid high salaries and even before freelance workers could qualify for health insurance and Social Security. But the phrase sticks in my craw to this day. It’s classist and perhaps racist.

I note this because an article in the New York Times this morning highlights a quote from the book, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, by John Ghazvinian. The Times reports that Ghazvinian spent six months traversing Africa looking at the scramble for oil in 12 nations and he writes about the their putschists, preachers, kleptocrats, activists, child soldiers and foreign “oilfield trash” — that is, pot-bellied white men bar-hopping “with 19-year-old Naomi Campbell look-alikes.”

I’m disappointed the characterization is highlighted by the Times editors, but not surprised. Long ago I came to the understanding that it’s still OK to stereotype lower middle class white working people. In the social totem I grew up in Rednecks are higher up than white trash who are higher than oilfield trash.

I know Jeff Foxworthy has made a fortune claiming his redneck roots. And I know that some working folks call each other by these epithets. It’s long been recognized that one way to drain the power from negative typecasting is to claim it and use it. It’s controversial, as when African Americans claim the N word, but it’s a way to insulate against the exclusion and inferior social location imposed by the majority culture.

This isn’t much ado about nothing, as I see it. To characterize other human beings as trash is beyond the pale. The men Ghazvinian saw may behave badly, even trashy. They may be beer swilling, obnoxious, overweight, miserable human beings, but they’re not trash. It’s a dangerous thing to denigrate the humanity of others. It’s worth remembering only a few years ago Hutus justified genocide against Tutsis by reducing them to “cockroaches” and calling for their extermination. The less classist, racist stereotyping we have, even in benign form, the better.

When we denigrate the humanity of others, we degrade ourselves. Besides, I’m not willing to be called trash anymore and I don’t think anyone else should be.

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