In my words: Rethink what you know about “the South”

Published 5:15 am Friday, March 8, 2013

“Why do so many people think the South is so bad?” one of my international students asked me this winter on the first day of a class I taught about Southern history and culture. “I think it’s pretty great here.”

Lacking a good reply, “me too” was all I could muster.

It was a weak answer to an important question. Like the boll weevil that once blighted cotton crops, stereotypes about the South rob the region of its greatness and hamper efforts to improve its shortcomings.

Most Southerners realize “y’all” is a contraction and not a single word bequeathed to us by Southern birthright. Very few of us plan our New Year’s Eve celebrations around dropping ‘possums down a pole. Car horns that play the “Dukes of Hazzard” theme song are quite rare. Mullets are seldom preferred over molars. And fried butter is hardly a delicacy in Dixie, despite what Honey Boo Boo’s mom might have told you.

Repeating falsehoods tends to reinforce them. I’ll refrain from alluding to more here, but trust me: you’ve heard them before.

Stereotypes about the South, both good and bad, stigmatize many native Southerners in a competitive global economy that values cosmopolitanism. They confuse people who are deciding where to live. They can mislead businesses when deciding where to invest. And they coerce government leaders to focus on the wrong issues facing the region.

Many of these stereotypes arise from the way we’re programmed to think in broad brushstrokes. It’s not just shortsighted, but actually dangerous, when folks assume that an “average” anything about a place applies to everyone who lives there. Efforts to build on Southern “virtues” or to repair Southern “vices” have a cracked semantic foundation. Such efforts mistake the trees for the forest.

America is in the details. We can only address social or economic problems by understanding them in their full complexity. Differences within states are usually greater than differences between them. For example, and contrary to popular belief, America’s wealthiest state, Connecticut, has more in common with its poorest, Mississippi, than the rich have in common with the poor in any given state.

Then there’s the media. Hollywood and many national news organizations provide a skewed view of the South. Forest Gump, though lovable, wasn’t real. Neither was Scarlett O’Hara. George Wallace, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dolly Parton are realistic but atypical. In fact, there is no “typical.” That’s part of the problem we have when talking in generalities.

If that weren’t enough, the South suffers from what social scientists call “confirmation bias.” Humans selectively accept information that supports their views of the former Confederacy while rejecting information that challenges deeply held beliefs. It cuts both ways. Viewing “Southern hospitality” as universal is just as misleading as expecting a complex demographic group to be a monolith of “good ole’ boys.”

Many stereotypes come from natural tendencies that, in the short term, help people make sense of a complicated world. In the long term, however, these tendencies in thinking further complicate that world.

“Discovering Dixie,” as I called my winter class, ain’t so easy. Fertile farms, graceful charm and other sweet things sit juxtaposed with troubled legacies, economic hardships and lingering social problems. Mansions line remote swamps while homeless line urban mansions. Skyscrapers rise from old cotton fields while weeds grow from decaying factory yards. Myths fuel lies while piquing fascination.

I ended my winter class with a better answer to the student’s question. Simple observation alone will not lead to a true appreciation or understanding of a place. They need to seek a deeper, richer view of the South by looking at real evidence and seeking a diversity of experiences. Accept that grand statements about an area, however appealing, are almost always a mile wide and an inch deep.

Resisting our personal biases won’t end misunderstanding of the South, but it’s a worthwhile start. Stereotypes hamper the region’s progress and compromise the potential of a nation.

Many people tell me they would have difficulty finding anywhere worse. I would have difficulty living anywhere else.

Jason Husser is an assistant professor of political science at Elon University and a Washington Parish native.