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In Defense of the South

The stereotypes have got to go

By Emilee A. Hackney, Contributing Opinion Writer

Southerners are stupid. At least, that’s what was implied. I sat in the back row of a crowded lecture hall and listened to the professor remark, with little reasoning or explanation, that Trump won the presidency because his “six-hundred-word vocabulary” resonated with poor, white Southerners. Apparently poverty is synonymous with illiteracy, and illiteracy went hand in hand with the 2016 Republican vote. I didn’t know whether to be insulted by this absurd logic, or to simply laugh at it.

The American South is saturated by mostly unfounded negative stereotypes. In a place as vividly conscious of political correctness as Harvard, I didn’t expect those stereotypes to be so blatantly perpetuated, even though those stereotypes have been depicted in the media and pop culture for years. While combing through about a dozen Southern photo-essays for a research paper last semester, I found exactly what I expected: the South was almost exclusively portrayed in images of crazed religion, white supremacy, and above all, dire poverty. If you judged the South by these images, you’d think it was nothing more than a poor, wild, lawless wasteland. But we’re at Harvard, and we should know better than to take things at face value. To accept Southern archetypes is to foolishly dismiss the beautiful intricacies of the South I know.

There was no doubt about the favored candidate in my town. The 2016 presidential election was contentious across the nation, but in central Appalachia, there was an overwhelming consensus: Blue Trump signs, big and small, dotted front yards, business windows, and car bumpers. Each one a sign of unintelligence, if this professor is to be believed.

Now, I come from a white, working-class, Southern, Trump-voting family. I didn’t support Trump in the election, but over 80 percent of the voters in my county did, and for a good reason. Appalachia’s main concern was the economy; the coal industry has been drying up for years, and Trump at least feigned interest in reviving it (an out-of-context comment Clinton made about “put[ting] … coal companies out of business” doomed her chances of election in southern West Virginia, east Kentucky, and southwest Virginia).

It may seem foolish and naïve to those who have never lived there, to those who have never witnessed the hopelessness of poverty or been threatened by a possibly permanent loss of career, but in such an economically and socially depressed region, any display of concern, any ray of hope is something to cling to. Those votes were cast purposefully, despite what any Harvard professor or other Trump opponent thinks. Southerners didn’t vote for Trump because he communicates with an elementary vocabulary and they’re too illiterate to understand otherwise; they didn’t vote for Trump because they were too ignorant to know what they were voting for. They knew exactly what they were voting for.

Don’t get me wrong; this means that some—a very small percentage—did vote for Trump because they’re racist and sexist and just plain scummy people with horrible, backwards beliefs. But not every vote for Trump was a vote for hatred, violence, and inequality—despite all the media coverage, there are very, very few radical racist Dylann Roofs and Charlottesville neo-Nazis. Not every vote for Trump was a vote against social justice. In truth, social justice issues aren’t a burning concern when you don’t know if you’ll be able to feed your family next month.

Poverty and whiteness is not confined to the South, and neither were Trump voters. A quick glance at Southern demographics and a 2016 electoral map can show that. This professor’s statement proves that a narrative of Southern ignorance still exists. It’s time to stop perpetuating outrageous misconceptions about the South; Southerners shouldn’t have to defend against antiquated stereotypes at a college known especially for its innovation and brilliance. Insulting an entire demographic’s intelligence has no positive effect—quite the opposite, really—and proves no one’s ignorance but your own. Insults only deepen the divides, which is the last thing America needs right now.

After all, intelligence is not measured by income, race, geography, or check marks on a ballot. Stereotypes will continue to survive unless we look beyond appearances and learn to question what we’ve always seen, what we’ve always been told. The South is beautiful, intricate, and relevant. The South is intelligent, and the South will overcome the old, tired stereotypes that have for far too long attempted to repress it.

Emilee A. Hackney ’20 is an English concentrator living in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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