What’s Wrong With Being From the South? Just Ask an Academic in the North

As an American studying in Toronto during the Clinton administration, I encountered some non-negligible anti-American bias. I learned to pronounce the last letter of the alphabet “zed” when I was spelling my name. When I sang “ahh-men” in a church choir, the music director stopped the rehearsal to express his surprise that I hadn’t sung “aay-men.” A student in an American literature class accused me of being racist for suggesting that it was possible to use dialect cues to assume the race of a speaker in a short story.  (The fact that the character in question was called the n-word by another character in the story didn’t seem to deter his insistence that I was being racist by using textual evidence to support an interpretive claim about a literary work.)  Another student, stunned by a racist attitude in a letter written by a Canadian author she admired, explained it away by noting that this author grew up within a hundred miles of an American military base, so it was possible she picked up racist language from her interaction with Americans. As a grad student, I made my own share of sophomoric blunders, and truthfully, nothing really came of these incidents. I sometimes drew attention to the assumptions the students were making, and sometimes I just noted the bias, shrugged and carried on. I made many friends, learned a lot, and finished my Ph.D.

My parents had been next door neighbors in Chicago; while my mother was pregnant with me, they moved to a suburb of Washington D.C. So I grew up the social construct “Northern Virginia,” which is geographically but not culturally part of the Old Dominion. I did take a few classes in southern literature, and my wife spent her teenage years in Texas, so I was conscious of the differences between the Northern Virginia culture I knew (which generally celebrated revolutionary figures via landmarks such as Patrick Henry Library, George Mason University, and Colonial architecture) and the regionalisms of the south and of Texas.

To my classmates in Canada, the South and Texas and motorcycles and Hollywood and The Right Stuff all got mixed together into a stereotype of what, to them, differed from Canada.  They called the place where I was from “the States” and talked about the culture of “North America” (the Canadian term for a cultural entity that includes Canada and the USA, though generally not also Mexico). I remember fondly how confused I was when I went to a grocery store for the first time and saw milk in little bags, and a kind stranger told me I needed to buy one of these little pitchers to put the milk bags in. So, while a mild anti-Americanism was part of the default pose my fellow grad students adopted, they almost always made me feel personally welcome. (Well, there was the time I called a student organization for advice, and when I told the person on the other end of the phone I was American, she hung up on me.)

This article about how elite Northern colleges perpetuate stereotypes about the South offers some useful insight.

The stereotype of the Southerner — the rube, the redneck, the bigot — pervades elite colleges and hinders the important work of bridging a growing cultural divide.

It is strange to me that so many academics cannot see when they show prejudice against the rural, the religious, and the less formally educated. We are trained to recognize systematic bias in terms of race and gender — but we remain too often unaware of our geographic prejudices. These prejudices are casual and rampant, and undercut the credibility of much good work. Too often I find myself in academic settings where the white working-class phenomenon — the Trump-voter stereotype — is taken as fact at the expense of more evidence-based conversations about the suburban affluent, where many academics grew up and Trump voters are also concentrated. They’d rather not think about the Trump voters in their own backyard. —Chronicle: What’s Wrong With Being From the South? Just Ask an Academic in the North