I will start this post off by warning that this post will be in no way politically correct. I don’t think I could make this politically correct if I tried. So consider yourself forewarned.
I have been away from my home land for 3 years now. In those 3 years I have gone back for a visit 4 times, usually for less than a week at a time. I left my home town in the Tennessee Mountains with a population of just over 26,000 to a coastal city with a population of just over 300,000. The move was not a huge culture shock for me as I have traveled extensively all over the world and had spent a large part of my college summers in this area. It was not till I moved out of Appalachia that I began to realize the extent of prejudice against people like me. This was the biggest culture shock to me.
I first came up against this stereotyping at my job. The sheer amount of off color jokes and comments about my home was disturbing. I will pause here and say that this is racist behavior, the dictionary definition of race is “a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics” and racism is defined as “racial prejudice or discrimination”, just because it happens to be socially acceptable does not change this fact. As time as gone on I still come up against these issues and I am convinced that had my boss not graduated from the University of Tennessee I would have not gotten an offer.
Remarks like you have “you have all your teeth” and “you are wearing shoes” were common when people found out where I was from. I have had my knowledge and education (Bachelors degree with 12 years experience) of my field (IT) questioned and belittled. Even with all of this I refuse to hide where I am from or hide my accent. I do peacefully correct the person when this happens and have mentioned my frustration to my superiors. When I did I was told to deal with it and it was not against any rule for me to be treated as such, however I know had the tables been turned and I had insulted them in the same manner, I would be fired on the spot.
Yea I got angry, pissed off honestly, and I “dealt with it”. I distanced myself from those persons and built up some internal walls. I also began to ask myself why this was the way it is. I have always tried to be forgiving and see things from others perspective as well as educate…it is the way I was raised…ironic isn’t it. The more I thought about it the more I began to realize the horrific stereotypes that have come to define what Appalachia means to those from the outside. We are seen as dumb, backwards, fearful of outsiders, lacking in hygiene, lazy, and many more. This is NOT Appalachia and I am really tired of seeing the region and its people marginalized and exploited. Appalachia is full of people who have had to work hard just to scrape by a living and have been exploited along the way.
Many have come into Appalachia and stripped it of its resources and taken all the profit with them as they left. First the timber companies came and stripped away the old growth forests and left poverty and poor soil in their wake. The land was left barren and the floods came and with them more destruction and death.
When the coal mines came in they brought jobs but they also imported exploitation and corruption. They forced the miners to not take a paycheck and instead get a “script” that was only good at the mine company store. A store where the miners routinely had to go into debt just to live, due to the inflated prices. When the miners began to attempt to unionize the coal companies then hired groups of armed men to kill union sympathizers and instill fear in miners. Even though eventually the unions prevailed the coal companies still exploit Appalachia through unsustainable mountain top removal mining that poison the water and the land and completely remove a mountain from the landscape for the sake of profit. Let me make it clear I am not against mining or even coal but it must be mined in a sustainable and ecologically responsible way, and be used efficiently and without great waste.
Many make jokes about how dumb people are in Appalachia. While it is true that there is a need for better education in the region, people there are far from dumb. As a group of people who have had to make do with what they have many intelligent inventions have come from the region. It was in Tennessee that one of the major sites of the Manhattan Project (where the atomic bomb was developed). Many major manufacturing and chemical companies still call Appalachia home. As the technological revolution has developed major tech companies like Google have moved into Appalachia and have created data centers and server farms.
As far as the stereotype that Appalachians are fearful of outsiders- I have not personally seen this. I have seen people treat outsiders with skepticism and not trust them… but not be fearful of them, and all the while treating them kindly. I’ve never seen the out and out violence that is stereotypical. However, with the history of exploitation coupled with the stereotypes who can blame someone for being skeptical.
I’ve always known the stereotypes and have struggled in times past to educate as to their fallacy… especially while over seas… but after moving away full time the issue became more apparent. I began to wonder what was fueling this train of thought. It was then that I noticed the proliferation in mass entertainment that props up the stereotypes. Now I know that may sound odd in a way but in my defense we had purposely chosen not to have cable television, and instead watch Netflix and Amazon Prime, for years and during that time avoided the commercials and network TV. As I began looking into this I was surprised to find that the exploitation on the “hillbilly” stereotype in TV was nothing new.
I found movies and TV shows all the way back into the 40’s that exploited the stereotype for some laughs. During this time it was not uncommon to see racial stereotyping used for comedy. As time went on the old films with black faced actors fell into history never to be released again (as they should have been) but remastered versions of Ma and Pa Kettle, and others, are still being produced today because it is still socially acceptable to make fun of Appalachians.
Fast forward to today and you have shows like Outsider on WGN. When I first saw that trailer I was speechless as to how insanely racist it was. It seems like the writers and producers pulled out a checklist of stereotypes and began checking off a list one by one. Lawless…check…Dirty…check…outsider-phobia…check…small family tree…check…language…check…and the list goes on. As a side note I might add that the accents are horrific, it is easy to tell that none of the main actors are from Appalachia (in fact at least 3 aren’t even born in the USA). Just a visit to the website of this show with its “Speak our language” quiz and “Knives N’ Shine” knife throwing/moonshine drinking game is enough to be revolting. I ask you in all honesty if there was a website for a major TV network that had a “Spanglish” or “Ebonics” quiz would they be boycotted and vilified? I won’t even get started on Deliverance.
So what is Appalachia really then? It is more than it’s beautiful vistas and windy roads. It is a place with people…kind, hardworking, and honest people who help each other out. A place where people still stop on the side of the road to let a funeral pass. A place where doors are still held open for others. A place where if you are stranded on the road somewhere someone will stop and help.If being a kind, hardworking, honest, and God fearing Appalachian makes me backwards in the eyes of mass society then so be it. I am proud to call myself an Appalachian and would not have it any other way.