What a Difference a Word can Make

The headline of this article over at Inside Higher Ed, “The Last Acceptable Prejudice?” has drawn ire, agreement, and counter-example in the comments.

The sequence of events that prompted the article seems, honestly, to be more than a bit of a tempest in a teapot.  Someone saw a student traipsing about without shoes, and (not to the student’s face) described the appearance as “hillbilly” for that reason.  Cue the sensitivity brigades.  For starts, other than the location of the school where it appears to have happened (University of North Georgia), I’m not sure exactly why “hillbilly” was the first description to pop into the mind of this particular person.  I mean, genuine hillbillies are almost by definition extraordinarily rare around college campuses.  In contrast, you can’t swing a cat even on the most Podunk campus without hitting what a cousin of mine (who’s lived in San Francisco for decades now) terms “stinky-foot hippy chicks” and their male equivalents.  If the sight had even registered with me, oblivious as I tend to be, my reaction would most likely have been, “Oh, another granola.  Look out you don’t slip on an organic banana peel.”  And my reaction would have been that because that’s by a wide margin the most statistically likely correct explanation for why someone who’s got enough resources to attend college and thus shoe him/herself properly would nonetheless appear unshod in public.

Perhaps because this is the U. of N. Ga. they’re more than usually sensitive to accusations of “y’all are just a bunch of rednecks up there,” sort of like the black sergeant in “A Soldier’s Story” tearing a strip off the musically-gifted, slow-witted buck private for playing “that guitar-pickin’, sittin’-around-the-shack music” (highly recommend the movie, by the way).  Whatever.

I’ve lived a good chunk of my life outside my native South.  While doing so I never attempted to hide my antecedents.  To my cost.  So I know for a fact that anti-Southern bigotry is both very real and something that people elsewhere feel perfectly comfortable not only expressing to one’s face and in public, but openly acting on in their personal decision trees.

The commenters to this article do have valid points, though.  There are a lot of other groups that come in for their share of chaffing.  Who’s not seen on a sit-com at some point a gag about Jewish mothers and chicken noodle soup?  Or Roman Catholic priests and prelates (although preachers in general are fair game, as are politicians and lawyers)?  Or fundamentalist Christians of pretty much any stripe (pay attention, though: you see them portrayed as Southerners, as a general rule, and not just fundamentalist Christians, almost as if the Christianity thing were simply an attribute of the Southern stereotype).  Even homosexuals get portrayed in pop culture not infrequently highlighted by what can only be described as stereotype behavior or appearance, and only a lunatic is going to argue that homosexuality is still looked down upon in those circles these days.

All that having been said, while it may be “acceptable” to play to those other stereotypes (and by the way, a “stereotype” is not necessarily a specifically hostile prejudice; it’s just a mental cartoon we form for ourselves, and whether we make it something hateful, or humorous, or admiring (East Asian brilliance at math and the sciences, anyone?) is largely up to us individually) or even to poke fun through the medium of them, my own personal impression is that trashing Southerners and the South is not just acceptable, but fashionable, in a way that poking fun at our Jewish mother for whom chicken noodle soup is the universal specific simply is not (or at least not in pop culture, itself an imperfect mirror of our society).  It’s sort of like a ritual of introduction, by the observance of which one asserts his initiation into The Enlightened.  You seldom see it done in any other than an explicitly vicious spirit.

Thought experiment:  It’s simply not imaginable, nowadays, to think of someone “who knows better” asking a black acquaintance where he prefers to buy his fried chicken.  In contrast I’d wager a small sum that most Southerners who’ve lived outside the South and not bothered to hide their background have had that sort of “someone who knows better” ask them something about indoor plumbing, or shoes, or in-breeding.  And do it in a manner which proclaims that, “No, I’m not saying this as a joke; I’m saying this to make sure you understand these are my assumptions about you and where you grew up.”  I use, by the way, the expression “someone who knows better” because I don’t think you can draw proper inferences for how tacky people behave.  That’s what they are: tacky; that’s how they act.  So I use that expression to refer to someone who at least claims some degree of refinement, of broad outlook and accepting disposition.

Just my two cents.  Do I know for a fact that these attitudes have cost me personally, in the form of refused employment, among other things?  I sure do.  Do I harbor a grudge about it?  Not really.  They weren’t obliged to like me as I was and am.  I could have tried to suppress who and what I am, and I chose not to make the effort.  I have to accept those costs.  Being an introvert helps, of course.  But I’d be less than honest to claim that it doesn’t rankle even a tiny bit.

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