Redneck Legos by Jim Denham (Flickr/cc).
by Camille Myrick-Stuart
Like any place, person or thing on the earth, Southern states are surrounded by a load of stereotypes. Some of these assumptions about us are true, but many are founded in misunderstanding, miscommunication, or are completely false. We use stereotypes to generalize foreign ideas or people so that we can better understand them. In order to help others better understand the South, there are a few stereotypes we need to embrace to the fullest and some that need overhauling.
1. Y’all Come Back Now, Ya’ Hear?
Accents are indicative of where we come from. The eclectic twangs and drawls of the South tell a story about our culture and add diversity to the world. In high school, I would have given anything to find a voice class that would erase any tell-tale sign that I lived in Mississippi, but after a few weeks of vacation in the North I quickly changed my tune. Foreigners were never shy about telling me how “sweet, charming, and polite” my accent sounded. Liking the idea of being charming and polite, I began to embrace my accent. We sound different from other regions and that’s okay. Our voices add to the variety. In my opinion, trying to sound more generic takes a little bit of beauty and color from the world. You never know what people actually think about how you sound.
2. “Stupid is as stupid does”
Maybe our education system needs a little TLC. Maybe we need to show our teachers more support and kids more attention. I have little to no power over changing these kinds of things right now. What I do have control over is the words I write and the things I say. We can make slow steps over time towards changing this stereotype by voting for political figures that prioritize education, but there is one thing we can all do right now: We can start changing our dialogue.
The evidence of ignorance is in the words we speak. In order to fight the stereotype that we are all ignorant, we have to make sure we are fully educated on subjects before we gab about them. We have to know when to remain silent (sometimes the wisest decision of all) and what to say when we speak up. I’ve come to realize that it’s not the diphthongs in my diction that matter so much as the words I’m mispronouncing. A Southern accent is part of me and I am proud to accept it as who I am, but I’ll cut my tongue out before my narrative is intolerant, hateful or misinformed.
3. A Church on Every Corner
The stereotype is that the South is religious, but the truth is that we are a collection of people with varying beliefs and doctrines.
I see great potential for this reputation (with all its negative connotations) to be turned into a good thing. What if we started accepting religion? No, I’m not saying we should all convert to some form of religion, but we could change our attitudes about people who have. What if the rest of the nation saw Southern states celebrating inclusion, tolerance, and free-expression? We can choose to understand rather than be offended, and in that small action erase the divide between us.
4. Hey! How’s Your Momma and Them?
As far as stereotypes go, I’m happier than a pig in slop about this one. We are one step ahead towards creating an inclusive society when we start caring about the well-being of other people, or simply being social to strangers. Southerners are good at this, especially at events like parties or weddings. Let’s say “Lisa” comes to my dinner party with a friend I’ve never met. I’d probably talk to the friend like I’d known them forever and we’d exchange numbers and the squad would be plus-one. However, when it comes to being polite with someone we aren’t obligated to talk to, it’s a different story.
A few months ago, I noticed that scowling is a common resting-expression around here. If I made eye-contact with anyone, it was usually reciprocated with serious shade. Feeling jaded by all the nasty looks, I began to adopt that behavior and scowl right back. Then, something unexpected happened. I made eye-contact with a guy on a bicycle with the most beautiful dread-locks I had ever seen and he smiled at me. I was instantly disarmed and giggled about it for a good hour afterwards. It stayed in my mind for much longer. So, I tried it. I started smiling at everyone I saw. The reaction was instant. All the defensiveness, distrust, and attitude disappeared from the faces around me and my life was filled with happy faces.
Existing “Southern hospitality” could extend a happy hand to include the entire community, not only those we are forced into meeting. Something as simple as a positive expression can change someone’s entire day, or even break a social barrier between two people who would never associate otherwise. If we practiced this daily, we could not only be the most hospitable, but the most accepting.
The South is bursting at the seams with culture, diversity, community, flaws, hang-ups and the best gumbo you’ll ever sip. All that matters is that we act and speak in ways that show the truth about this place. Let the kindness and variety bleed through until it overpowers the voice of division. We have so much potential to lead in areas of tolerance, acceptance, and diversity. Let’s get started.