Link: On Southern Ignorance

by Jessica Link | 4/27/16 6:38pm

About 17 percent of Dartmouth’s student body is from the South. Despite this, many non-Southern students act in total awe whenever they meet a classmate from the region.

“Why don’t you have an accent?” It’s a question Southern students, most of whom have no noticeable accent, will get on a regular basis. They are asked more often than Californians, “What made you want to come all the way up here?” despite the fact that any West Coaster must take a longer trip than a Southern student to get here.

I always respond that even my dinky, magnet public high school had an extremely large number of students applying to the Ivy League and other elite and faraway colleges. Astonishingly, nearly everyone at my Southern public school knew what Dartmouth was and very few of them spoke with any accent. My high school exhibited more liberal and progressive sentiment among its student body than Dartmouth does. I admit I come from New Orleans, an anomaly of a Southern city, full of forward-thinking creators and scholars, within a conservative state.

The April 15 New York Times article “Southern Cities Split with States on Social Issues” verifies a fact that I hope most Dartmouth students already know: socially and culturally progressive enclaves are alive and well in the majority of Southern cities. Unlike what the article implies, however, these enclaves manifest themselves in more nuanced ways than the simple existence of hipster coffee shops.

This is less evident in the wake of the most recent anti-LGBTQIA laws passed in Southern states. The media has informed us that progressive state governments and organizations nationwide have vowed to boycott these states — vows that I initially supported.

The media, however, failed to inform us of the protesters standing in front of their own state capitols in Raleigh, North Carolina and, yes, even Jackson, Mississippi waving gay pride flags and begging for a reversal of these hateful laws.

The greater problem being ignored is the utterly anti-democratic system where more populous, diverse and liberal Southern cities have little to no representation in state governments.

The national response to the discriminatory law passed in Mississippi seemed to be a resounding, “Well, what did you expect?” It is true that Mississippi has some of the worst social, economic and racial problems in the country. I associate my visits to Mississippi with Confederate flags along the highway. I think of rundown shacks and segregated towns and wide cotton fields that evoke our country’s most evil historical institution.

Yet I cannot help but think of the unconditional kindness and smiles from strangers I encounter when I’m driving through my neighboring state — something I rarely experience in New England. I think of the Mississippi women from my rural Southern summer camp who were some of the most thoughtful and intelligent people I have ever met. I think of our family friends from the university town of Oxford, Mississippi who are possibly the most adamant Bernie Sanders supporters I know.

Our region’s culture is entrenched in a history more problematic than the north. That is not to say the rest of the country lacks its share of grave social, economic and racial problems. Within our Dartmouth bubble, it is easy to forget about the social ills and poverty that plague much of rural New Hampshire and Vermont. But history’s legacies in the South are greater and more visible because our progressive enclaves are not as strong or influential as elsewhere. Thus, our institutions of education and socio-economic infrastructure have failed us when we have tried time and again to improve.

I’m now not so sure how effective outright bans are in the states whose bigoted governments passed these laws. These bans perpetuate the misconception that only an extreme minority of Southerners seek progressive improvement, which in turn leads to ubiquitous disgust of the South among those who have never visited it.

If the South is the butt of all jokes because of our supposedly change-resistant, backwards culture, how can the rest of America take our region’s systemic problems seriously, if they don’t believe we can or want to change? When Dartmouth students truly believe that their spring break training trip to Georgia will be an exotic and frightening cultural experience, how could I ever convince anyone that Atlanta or some other thriving Southern metropolitan area would be an amazing place to work, live and affect change after graduation? Why do we politically-charged students advocate for improving our country’s devastating inequity, and yet shudder when a friend accepts an internship with a health care provider in rural Alabama, simply because “rural Alabama” connotes some immoral, anti-intellectual place?

I encourage those not from the South to realize that most Southern communities are diverse and full of individuals whose last wish is to spread hate. I urge you all to challenge the way you may generalize or judge this extremely large and diverse part of our country. Instead of rolling our eyes at Southern ignorance spewing from the media, let us show the same amount of compassion and concern we would show if these laws had been passed in a liberal Northern state. That would be unacceptable, and the integrity of the lawmakers would be questioned rather than that of the entire state’s population. To me, this double standard is disheartening.