I: ‘Who Are We, Really?’ (2001)
This past summer, as I travelled through the British Isles (London, Edinburgh, Dublin & Northern Ireland), I saw lush green countryside dotted by numerous small towns, all of which reminded me of my native, rural South. Transportation networks as well as power and communication grids linked those rural, agricultural areas with densely populated urban areas. Throughout, I could see people going about the business of everyday life: locals shopping, children playing, and tourists gawking. Despite the presence of quaint little pubs, many people seemed to prefer McDonald’s, Burger King or Subway. These scenes, rural or urban, could as easily have been in South Carolina as in London, Edinburgh or Belfast. Had I not been acutely aware of the vast cultural differences between the locals and me, I might easily have been deceived by the similarities.
This was exactly what I observed happening to my tour group when, in 1988, I guided forty-four Americans (ranging in age from eighteen to seventy-five) on a twenty-five day trek: Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, East Berlin, West Berlin, Hamburg and London. Although my tourist flock ‘experienced’ the various cultures, they continually noted how ‘American’ everything looked. Their highlight of Berlin was not ‘The Wall’ or Frederick the Great’s Sans Souci, but the Burger King that was located down the street from our hotel. ‘Finally, we can have a decent meal’ was a common refrain. Their focus often excluded learning about or trying to understand the real cultural differences, but instead concentrating upon the superficial. When the country visited had a different language, they clustered together and ignored language barriers by ignoring the natives. Interestingly, when one of the flock had to communicate with a non-English speaking person, the voice volume level went up and words were carefully & slowly enunciated – as if that would help in translation. Fortunately for the group, my German university year came in handy and saved at least some of my cluster from being tagged as ugly Americans.
Sadly, they often saw what they expected to see. When a culture is viewed from a car, bus or train, it is an incredibly sterile impression. Language variations are not heard and are seldom factored into the image. Nor are political, social and economic differences and attitudes. Because outsiders rarely get close to the locals, their superficial impressions are rarely accurate. Yet outsiders tend to speak knowingly and emphatically about their knowledge of ‘how these people really are’ and ‘what this country is truly like’. Most Americans who travel to the United Kingdom usually describe the inhabitants as British (the generic term), or, what is truly unpardonable, as ENGLISH. With a bit of travel, knowledgeable Americans do learn to subdivide the natives into English, Welsh, Irish or Scottish. Even then, each term is utilized as if homogeneity actually existed throughout a geo-cultural region. In truth, even after centuries of social and economic mobility within Great Britain – and despite a rather thick veneer of similarity – significant linguistic, social and cultural variations still separate peoples within each of those regions. Various sub-groupings within each region of Britain have clearly identifiable cultural variations, which are the very essence of an ethnic group, a clan or a folk. Moreover, in addition to binding a specific group together, these differences also separate a specific group from others. For example, Scots clearly resent being referred to as English; and outsiders quickly learn that Scots are proud of their heritage and their ‘separateness’. Sadly, the issue of identity also creates divisiveness, hostility, tension and conflict between groups. This is especially evident in Northern Ireland where sectarian differences have resulted in violent confrontations for centuries.
These observations regarding Americans and Europeans reminded me yet again of how stereotypes affect and determine attitudes and actions. As an American who is from the South, I am constantly faced with stereotypes and negative attitudes about my region. In a newspaper article regarding job interview techniques (Aiken Standard: 17 January 2001), it was noted that experts agree that ‘regional accents can make a difference in whether you get the job.’ Southerners learn to their dismay that ‘dropping the “g” off words ending in “ing” can open you up to all kinds of judgements about intelligence levels and competence. Mention Dixie and a stereotypical image – which can be positive or negative, depending upon the race, sex, age and place of birth of the person – is immediately evoked. For example, the only image many outsiders have of South Carolina is the Confederate naval jack which once flew over our state capitol [and about which I was often asked by Scots, New Zealanders, Canadians and non-Southern Americans during my three weeks in the United Kingdom in 2000]. In 2008, South Carolina’s then governor [Mark Sanford] took off to visit his mistress in Buenos Aires [telling his aides that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. I was cruising the Mediterranean and the first question is always: Where are you from? To stop the snickering, I stopped telling people that I was from South Carolina; I said that I lived near Augusta, home of ‘The Masters’.
It was maddening to listen to outsiders speaking knowingly and emphatically about their knowledge of ‘how Southerners really are’ and ‘what the South is truly like’. Sadly, to many of them, white South Carolinians (and Southerners in general) are not only ‘slow’ but also ‘Racist Rednecks’. Once, when I was introduced to a non-Southerner, and upon his hearing my accent, this person actually began speaking to me more slowly and more loudly, as if to help my comprehension level. Offensive? Incredibly so! But at least I understand from whence this misperception stems: history and popular culture. Reflect upon the numerous negative portrayals of and interviews with flag supporters which appeared on national television following rallies over the location of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol. Did those supporters accurately reflect the opinion of most white and all black South Carolinians? Hardly, but they were chosen, in part, because that is how outsiders [or at least popular culture news-persons] expected white South Carolinians to appear. The visible South Carolinians were also what the viewers expected to see.
Is there anything that can be done to overcome this image? The answer is yes, and there is a three-part solution. First, South Carolinians (and Southerners) must stop living their own stereotype. Most white South Carolinians have finally concluded that (a) they lost ‘The War’, (b) African-Americans aren’t difficult to live with, (c) cities aren’t so bad after all and (d) modernization and Americanization are acceptable alternatives to tenant farms and poverty. It would help if jacked-up cars were taken down from the blocks, if the whitewashed tires were removed from front yards, if rebel flags were removed from state capitol flagpoles (and pick-up truck antennae) and so forth. In sum, South Carolinians have to realize what creates stereotypes and work to remove the causes. This is not to suggest that South Carolina should become a carbon copy of the rest of the United States, but it does have the opportunity to choose what it will and will not keep.
Second, South Carolinians must be provided with the opportunity for a better education. For too long South Carolina has led the nation in negative factors pertaining to quality of life and has been at the bottom in positive factors. The state cannot afford to have potential investors believing that they will be relocating to Tobacco Road. If South Carolina is to change its image, it must improve itself mentally. It has changed physically – the symbol of the Sunbelt is the bulldozer – but continued growth will depend upon South Carolina’s willingness to adapt itself further. The Sunbelt came into existence because of the needs of industry. As the next stage of industrial development will be in service and technological areas, industries will be looking for areas with brainpower – a Brain Belt. If South Carolina is to compete with the rest of the nation, it is imperative that it upgrade its educational system.
Third, South Carolina must educate the rest of the nation about itself. The state has made a good beginning at this, that is, by attracting various industries and retaining them. If, however, it wishes to continue this process, the state must do a better job of selling South Carolina’s potential. It is sad that Southerners and South Carolinians who appear on TV seem eternally caught up in racial strife or in making fools of themselves in cars or in courthouses. Understandably, filmmakers, program producers and other creators of popular culture prefer the stereotypes. It is easier to use, and the audience readily accepts it. As long as South Carolinians tolerate this negative stereotype passively, even subserviently, then a ‘Racist Redneck South Carolinian’ stereotype will continue to exist. If South Carolina is to move forward successfully in the Twenty-First century, we must be aware of our heritage, be intelligent enough to challenge values and systems that retard our development, and be courageous enough to make the changes that will allow us to reach our potential. Only then will South Carolina again appear in history books as a state which has made a significant impact upon our times.