I’m outing myself, right here on this blog. I’m a southerner — there, I said it. Being from the south, I think I’ve always had a little bit of paranoia when I meet new people. I speak with a slight drawl (if you’re from the Philly area… yea, it’s a strong drawl). I can very distinctly remember working on lessening my accent when I was in middle school. You know, saying wa-ter instead of waar-ter; or saying ten instead of tin.
My paranoia started with news stories. It was always some deep, south, mobile home park that was the location of alien sightings. Always, some southerner who got drunk and drove their tractor down the highway (ok — yea, we really do own that one). In movies and television shows, the dumb person always had a southern accent — I wanted to get rid of my accent. Well, I couldn’t. It pops up all the time. But, the paranoia is really related to the idea that others, not from the south, have of southerners. The idea that we are uneducated, unkempt, unwilling of acceptance.
When I was around eleven or twelve, the hottest place in town was the roller rink. All the kids for miles around could be found there every Friday and Saturday night. One very memorable Saturday night comes to mind though. It was probably during the summer, I remember the weather being warm — almost hot. There were double doors at the front of the rink where everyone came in and out. There was also a single door in the very back of the rink, for emergency’s. Outside that door was an open field. I remember skating around, laughing — then I noticed a gathering at that back door. Of course, I had to join the crowd to see what was going on. As I stretched my neck to peer over the crowd, I saw it. A huge wooden cross engulfed in flames. We were all silent, terrified — too scared to move from that spot. The manager of the skating rink ran to us, slammed the door… locked it. The music stopped — the skating stopped. I don’t remember if the manager was a black man or a white man — but, I remember, that evening, he was very purposeful and scared. He called all our parents to come get us and walked us each to our cars — there must have been two-hundred kids there.
On a couple of occasions, the klan held rallies in my town. The police went door to door and told everyone to stay inside on those days. So, when I tell people I’m from the south — I know their thoughts go directly to those people — the ignorant, the racists, the bigots. As a southerner, I am very cognizant of the terms I use, I am very cognizant of the jokes at which I laugh. It’s paranoia you see. Paranoia that someone will think I am one of them.
I went to college in Memphis. One of the first friends I made was a girl from the Pittsburgh area. I noticed her necklace one night and commented on how beautiful it was. She looked at me very strange and said she had been reluctant to let me see it — it was a Star of David, she was Jewish. She assumed, because I was from the south, that I was one of them.
Being a southerner means I don’t want to be referred to as redneck, hillbilly, or country — all of which (when delivered by someone not from the south) have some not so pleasant connotations about education level and bigotedness.
By definition (Wikipedia of course, and in order of offensiveness):
Redneck is a disparaging term that refers to a person who is stereotypically Caucasian and of lower social-economic status…
Hillbilly is a term referring to people who dwell in rural areas. Due to its strongly stereotypical connotations, the term is frequently considered derogatory, and so is usually offensive …
Country — although not found in Wikipedia, is also a disparaging comment when made by someone who is not from the country. It implies someone has poor taste, poor social interaction skills, and a borderline education level.
I’m a southerner with a graduate degree from Vanderbilt. I live in a really nice house (yes, it’s on a hill). I drive a nice car (yes, it’s four-wheel drive). I’ve never seen an alien (although I’m open to it). And yes, I have listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd (but I always follow it up with a little Neil Young).
The act of bigotedness and racism is a learned phenomenon — I was lucky enough to have parents who never taught me that lesson. I can’t hide my accent or my southern heritage. My need to do that has faded with age. So, if I ever get the opportunity to meet my “new” friends from New York, California, Massachusetts, or Germany — you have my permission to make fun of my accent. Trust me, I’ll return the favor.