As a counselor-in-training, it is crucial for me to consider the many facets of my identity and background to better understand myself as a cultural being. Though I have no meaningful connection to a pre-American ethnic identity beyond the handful of anecdotes my parents shared with me about our supposed Polishness, being raised poor in a trailer park in rural upstate New York had a much more defining impact on how I came to understand myself growing up. From as early as I can remember, I recall having a sense that we were poor but never really feeling poor in regard to what my parents provided for me and my younger sister. We always had plenty of food to eat, clothes to wear, and toys to entertain us. My sister and I each had our own bedrooms and always had a bathroom to share between the two of us (much to the satisfaction of my parents). I heard each of them use the phrase "we can't afford that" countless times during my childhood, but also had delightfully abundant Christmases and new backpacks and Trapper Keepers each school year, thanks to Christmas Club savings accounts that built slowly and layaway options at discount stores like Ames and K-mart. My parents put considerable effort into shielding us from the financial hardships they faced as a young couple working low-wage jobs: my father at a cardboard packing factory early in my life and then as a manager at a small grocery store later on, my mother at a bank as a teller.
It wasn't until I began school that I learned that trailer parks carried a negative connotation, but the lesson was learned quickly and harshly. I recall once being mockingly corrected by a classmate in second grade when I said my "house" was on Orchard Street: "Un-uh, Amanda! You don't live in a house; you live in a trailer!" It didn't take long before I discovered the negative stereotypes of unmowed lawns and broken-down cars on bricks, of abusive single parents and drug problems. Though none of these stereotypes aligned with my personal experience, I learned early on that living in a trailer was something I was supposed to be ashamed of. Popular culture further reinforced this shame, and, for a long time, the works of artists like Eminem and television programs like Trailer Park Boys left me feeling uncomfortable. While terms like "trailer trash" and "white trash" always felt like an indirect indictment of where my family lived, it was euphemisms like "mobile home" and "manufactured home" that stung the most, as though the word "trailer" was a dirty word that needed to be scrubbed clean and hidden behind a more palatable term.
My parents, sister, and I lived in the trailer park until I was in fifth grade, and while we had solid relationships with several neighbors who had children around my age and my sister's, there was definitely a sense of self-imposed distancing between ourselves and other residents of the community. I distinctly remember both of my parents remarking on the unruly lawns of some neighbors, the rowdy behavior and unkempt appearance of several children in the trailer park. Several residents seemed to be a part of a collective "them" that I understood as "more trailer parky" than we were, which often felt like a defense mechanism to distance ourselves from the societal assumptions that are commonly made about trailer park life. In an article called "Salvaging Decency: Mobile Home Residents' Strategies of Managing the Stigma of 'Trailer' Living," Margarethe Kusenbach (2009) refers to this type of distancing as "fencing." After conducting 45 ethnographic interviews with residents of mobile home communities between 2005 and 2008, Kusenbach (2009) notes that she observed many of these residents erecting a metaphorical "fence" between themselves and other members of their respective mobile home communities as a way of warding off the pain of the stigmas associated with trailer park living. By deriding the conditions of neighbors' homes and perceived lifestyles, my family, perhaps unknowingly, sought to build this metaphorical "fence" to separate ourselves from the hurtful stereotypes we all knew well about trailer park occupants, in an attempt to maintain a sense of dignity in spite of these stereotypes. As Kusenbach (2009, p. 407) suggests, "the strategy of passing the stigma down the social pecking order to even more subordinate people serves to redraw the symbolic boundary between good and bad." One of the consequences of my family redrawing of this symbolic boundary with several other residents of the trailer park was a diminished feeling of community, which we enjoyed only with a select few of our neighbors.