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Saturday, June 20, 2009

The White Trash Country

Rachel Rubin, American studies professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, belongs to a steadily growing group of academics and activists who want politically correct consideration for poor and rural whites. They see a double standard at play that makes phrases like "hillbillies," "rednecks," "hicks," "white trash," and "trailer trash" socially acceptable, unlike epithets aimed at other groups. To many people of the Appalachian Mountains, these terms carry a negative connotation which has been greatly emphasized by how Hollywood movies and films portray the "hillbilly" as impoverished, ill-educated, toothless, shoeless, unstylish, and inbred.

"The reason they are acceptable is that they're about white people and not seen as racist and derogatory," says Anthony Harkins, history professor at Western Kentucky University and author of the forthcoming book Hillbilly: The Cultural History of an American Icon. "We tend to degrade people of lower class in general."

Some view the modern day hillbilly as the descendants of the human scum of Europe, paupers and petty criminals forced to the margins of civilization and isolated by the mountains in which they live. Appalachian stereotypes include views of humans who are unintelligent, uneducated, and illiterate. Many believe Appalachians are weak, helpless, shiftless and lazy people mired in poverty and supported by welfare.

The Appalachian country, instead of being portrayed as a center of ignorance, can just as well be depicted as the genetic, linguistic, physical, and cultural Anglo-Saxon center of the United States, an area settled by the pioneering blood of Teutonic and Celtic immigrants. Loyal Jones, Co-founder of the Berea College Appalachian Center cites strong values of individualism, self-reliance, religion, hospitality, family solidarity, love of place, modesty, patriotism, sense of humor, and sense of beauty in mountain people.

Sociologists and ecologists point to Appalachia’s own inner eye, as the way in which trouble and pain, discovery and self-discovery fortify the region’s soul and backbone. Many of the criticisms of Appalachia actually follow those who live in some form of isolation, some self-imposed isolation by its own conservative residents and some isolation imposed by Americans who view any opposition as backwards and unimportant, merely remnants of a dead past. Where is the sense of political correctness in this lack of respect and outright hatred of where people reside?

Political correctness consideration in America has been a part of active attempts to thwart degradation of other groups for many years. In the early 1950s, for example, the NAACP protested the Amos 'n' Andy TV show as a return to minstrelsy. Italian-Americans protested mobster depictions in the 1971 movie The Godfather, and more recently sued the producers of HBO's The Sopranos. And the women's movement brought a turn away from "dumb wife" jokes and one-dimensional portrayals of women as bimbos, whores or matrons.

In a recent example of degeneracy, Megan Fox, Transformers' star, when asked how she'd stop the evil MegaTron from destroying earth recently replied, "I'd barter with him and say instead of the entire planet, can you just take out all of the white trash, hillbilly, anti-gay, super bible-beating people in Middle America?"

Modern views of lumping all Appalachian people into stereotypes of negativity are very real. This isn't just fair game for comedy, but, in reality, many people choose to denigrate those who dwell in this part of the country. Many Appalachian residents actually view this negative portrayal as harmful and racist while others tend to clown their redneck roles as part of an age-old ruse to trick any lofty outside egotists into thinking all rednecks live the birthright of being "dumber than dirt." It becomes a game played with self-abasement and deceitful intent.

Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy induce laughs with redneck humor. Should they use these stereotypes and terms the same as many black comedians refer to themselves as "niggers"? Many people like neither inflammatory portrayals.

In something as subtle as dialect, Appalachian residents risk rejection and humiliation. Brain cells, unlike many residents in the rest of the country may think, do not deteriorate or deform in the air of Kentucky or West Virginia. Residents may sound "different" to outsiders, but difference does not entail academic ability or achievement.

Nothing gives a person with a backwoods accent more pleasure than to prove the sound of speech does not correlate with intelligence. In fact, the Southern dialects make up the largest accent group in the United States. As dialects go, once here, the mountain people were so secluded because of the terrain, they either never left, or others never came in, hence, the reason the area has such a unique blend of dialects. According to Dialect of the Appalachian People, "Almost all the so-called 'bad English' used by natives of Appalachia was once employed by the highest ranking nobles of the realms of England and Scotland." (Wylene P. Dial)

People must realize that living in Appalachia does not qualify a person to be any one of the stereotypes associated with the area. Believe it or not, these people have electricity, running water, and even computers. As a resident, I often use my unique perspective to sort through our problems and strengths in our culture, and I would expect you, as a resident of California or New York, to respect me with similar treatment of your own problems and strengths.

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