Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hick Like Me: On Southern Identity and the Politics of Erasure

     Among white people with Southern accents that have attended college outside of the deep South there seems to be one narrative that is almost universal to all of us (it may be nearly universal as well or completely different for people of color but I cannot comment on that as it is not something I have any personal knowledge about). It appears to happen whether we are male or female, LGBT or heterosexual, cissexual people, liberal or conservative, fat or thin, able bodied or disabled, religious or atheistic. This is what occurs: We are having a conversation with someone or with a group of people. We are often trying to make a serious point about politics, economics, society, or our personal lives. In the midst of our soliloquy on neoliberalism's effect on the poor, our views about Obamacare, poverty in Africa, gender roles in society, the prevalence or lack thereof of racism at our university, or how we are going to handle challenges in our personal relationships we are interrupted with comments about our accent. It soon becomes immediately obvious that no matter the wisdom or unwisdom of what we were saying about the war on drugs, social hostility towards interracial and interfaith couples, or the legalization of same sex marriage we might as well not have said it because no one was listening to the content of our speech. It is frustrating at best and infuriating at worst.  

   I have loved every Southern professor I have ever had regardless of what I thought of their teaching abilities, politics, or grading policies. While some of them have been upstanding instructors others have not. What I have loved without reservation about all of them, however, was the fact that they spoke with a voice of authority that sounded like mine to a class of people who by and large did not. When I first ran across the concept of "stereotype threat" and read that women and people of color are more likely to identify with instructors that look and sound like them, thereby deflecting the risk of stereotype threat, it made intuitive sense to me that for many people this would be the case. After all, what better way to defuse the stereotype that women, blacks, Latinos, or rural people are stupid than by positioning a member of one of these groups as an epistemic authority?

   Like bisexuals, trans people, disabled people, and people of size, rural Southern people are almost never depicted in the media except as a punch line or a curiosity. What is reflected of us in the media is the notion that we possess sub par intelligence, revel in religious extremism, and are to a person racist, sexist, homophobic antisemitic raving lunatics. Like any other stereotype, it is damaging, often inaccurate, and morally wrong.

   What is frustrating about these prejudices is that it causes people to misread one another. A rural Southern person's political, social, economic, and religious views are almost always read in the context of their Southern identity. I by no means intend to imply that all people are not shaped in significant ways by the cultural contexts of their environments. But it is a factor, not necessarily the factor. And interpreting every belief a person holds in the light of one superficial identity marker is bound to make those who do so oblivious to what they are actually seeing and hearing from Southern people. Frustrated by these attitudes, some of us even decide that if we're going to be credited with embodying the worst of Southern stereotypes (even when we do not) we might as well embrace our inner racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic raving lunatic. Like all people, we often internalize the images that others have of us, thereby perpetuating these stereotypes even further.

   By way of example, I have been frequently critical of the state of Israel. My reasons for this are similar to those of many liberals. I think it is ludicrous to pretend that a society that drafts its young people into near constant warfare, that does not allow interfaith marriages to be performed on its own soil, that allows for the existence of an apartheid regime, and that is run by clerical fanatics is a free society by any reasonable definition. Were Israel in Europe and not the Middle East the savagery of all this would become immediately apparent, but because Israel is located in one of the most dysfunctional regions of the world it looks fairly good by comparison since it doesn't stone people for witchcraft or hang people for homosexuality. I would like to think that these views are understood as the informed perspective of someone who studied religion and Middle Eastern politics a great deal in college but alas they are all too often interpreted as a product of the secret antisemitism I must harbor as a Southern American. It is rank prejudice and it is completely infuriating. This is but one example and I could write about many others from my personal experience as well as that of others.

   Like almost all Southern people I know, I have a curious relationship with this aspect of my identity. Sometimes I appreciate the attention that comes my way as a result of being a Southern person and it is an aspect of my identity I have unapologetically leveraged when I have believed it has been advantageous for me to do so. Other times I wish that it was something that could recede into the background when it becomes too much of a distraction. And from what I have heard, most members of marginalized groups tend to feel the same way.

   Rural Southern people face many of the same obstacles as members of other marginalized groups: poverty, less educational opportunity, lack of positive and realistic media portrayals, and negative stereotyping by the dominant society. But for various reasons we don't talk about these issues. There are cultural, socioeconomic, and other reasons for this phenomenon which deserve a blog post in their own right. But I want to end this post by saying that is important we start talking about rural Southern erasure in our media, politics, and elsewhere. It has been a major phenomenon in many of our lives and it is time we give it the sustained analysis we have given to so many issues regarding marginalized groups in American society.

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