Welcome to the South.
Whether you’re from around here or not, you’ve likely Instagrammed the multicolor mosaic of autumn leaves, shouted the lyrics to “Wagon Wheel” at the top of your lungs, and fallen victim to fried chicken and waffles.
Living in the South sure has its benefits, and we love ‘em! We’re proud of where we come from and love sharing our signature hospitality and culture with you out-of-towners. That being said, we aren’t too fond of some of the negative stereotyping that comes with it.
Inspired by an article from the online magazine, Everyday Feminism, which details the harmful, ignorant things urban feminists say to rural folks and why they’re problematic, this slew of thoughts is an extension as it pertains to being from a smaller town in the Southeastern United States.
Generally speaking, the media tends to present us in a binary representation: the Southern belles, Luke Bryan-esque gentlemen, and cowboy-boot wearers of the world, or the down-home, uneducated, Confederate-flag-waving country bumpkins.
As you can probably figure out, that’s a little too simplistic.
Thus, it’s discomforting when upon meeting someone new, they act perplexed about things like a lack of an accent or, worse, our overall intelligence level, despite an accent.
“Among many others, ’Buckles, your accent doesn’t lend credit to your level of intelligence,’ is one of my personal favorite phrases I’ve encountered since entering [the Navy],” says Petty Officer Kristina Buckles, a 21-year-old from Johnson City, Tennessee.
Johnson City is a small town in the easternmost tip of Tennessee, and it has been home to Buckles for practically her entire life. In addition to giving new acquaintances a 10-minute spiel about the geography of her home state, such as the location of her hometown with respect to Nashville or Memphis, Buckles says that she’s also had to offer an explanation about her signature twang. She adds that people have even gone so far as to attribute it to a lack of a proper upbringing.
“One upper-level officer [in the Central Intelligence field of the Navy] said to me, ’Well, my parents loved me enough to beat the accent out of me, so you would do well to lose yours before applying for a job in a private sector of our field,’” she says.
Buckles prides herself on keeping up with the news and regularly educating herself on political, social, and economic issues while working towards a Masters in Computer Science and Cyber Security. She has, however, become irritated at the blatant discrimination she has received that has primarily stemmed from her Southern accent.
Wake Forest University senior, Ivory Shelton, who also hails from East Tennessee, agrees, saying that she’s even been asked to repeat words to others, to a point that it has even prevented effective conversations.
“One person I was speaking with interrupted me, asking me to say, ‘right’ again, with a grin on their face, and the original topic was completely forgotten,” she says.
Enter the act of linguistic profiling. According to Dr. John Bauch, author of Black Linguistics: Language, Society, and Politics in Africa and the Americas, “Linguistic profiling can have devastating consequences for those U.S. residents who are perceived to speak with an undesirable accent or dialect.”
Southern accents are perceived as “cute” or “charming,” not “intelligent” and “commanding of respect.” Just as it’s difficult to discern from where such negative stereotypes—such as that people of color, particularly blacks, are innately violent, dangerous, or angry—stemmed, it’s also difficult for us, as proud Southerners, to understand why people have it in their minds that having an accent deems us as slow, uneducated, incompetent individuals.
This being said, both the problem of linguistic profiling and the ignorance it breeds aren’t just pertinent to the Southern United States. This simple concept can also be applied to any aspect of language across a multitude of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Dr. Agnés Krozser-Hamati, Chief of Oncology at the Mountain Home VA Medical Center in Johnson City, TN, has said repeatedly that had she spoken with a thick Hungarian accent, her competency as a doctor would be vilified.
“When I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, at eleven, I did everything in my power to be as American-sounding as possible,” she remembers. “I got tunnel vision—I practiced speaking English every day after school with my teachers. I was determined to put an end to the mindless bullying that surrounded my being foreign.”
Krozser-Hamati has called Johnson City home for nearly thirty years, and is proud to live there. One note she, Buckles, and Shelton have made is this: “You can’t pick and choose which parts of a culture you idolize while dismissing the rest.”
Cultural stereotypes are multifaceted, and each facet can be dreadfully harmful. They pose a power struggle between the powerful and weak; the able and disabled; the civilized and savage.
Stereotyping is the Regina George of society: even though it’s the popular, conventional, and—dare I say—ingrained thing to do, it deepens the divide between equality and progress.
For Shelton, such cultural stereotyping has “created opportunity for linguistic and social elitism to put chinks in an otherwise solid armor.” It is disheartening. However, grinning, she retorts that witnessing such moments of ignorance have helped her to avoid stereotyping others, and gain perspective on a broader scale.
“I have personally seen these experiences are frustrating for me as an Appalachian woman, but, [in looking at the broader problems of profiling and stereotyping as a whole], I see a jumping point off of which to check privilege and leave elitism at the door.
In the South, the sweet tea is sweet, and the accents are sweeter. What would really be neater, however, is fostering respect towards our culture by challenging such hurtful stereotypes. We, too, are multi-dimensional and dynamic idealists, and we’d be more than happy to discuss our ideas with y’all, anytime.