No, I Don’t Find Your Hillbilly Jokes Funny: Cultural Stereotyping & the Destruction of Appalachia
By Zada Mae
The Seams & the Story
As an anti-mountaintop removal activist currently living outside of Appalachia, challenging mainstream cultural assumptions about the region is a critical part of my work against strip mining. Admittedly, I don’t always do this well. I’ve sometimes found myself staying quiet when hillbilly* jokes are made, afraid of seeming argumentative or overly politically correct. These are poor excuses, especially because commonly held cultural assumptions about Appalachians are not harmless. They are part of what allows destructive practices like mountaintop removal, which has leveled over four hundred peaks across the region and sullies its’ air and water, to occur.
Let’s face it: Many Americans see Appalachian people as expendable. Consciously or not, when we stereotype them as white, poor, uneducated, backward, patriarchal and racist we are justifying our comfort (the comfort brought to us from light and heat via mountaintop removal coal) at the expense of Appalachians dying from poisoned air and water. Many Appalachian activists have suggested that if mountaintop removal were happening in more culturally important or affluent areas, it would not be tolerated.
In her essays “Moved by Mountains” and “To Be Whole & Holy,” black feminist and native Kentuckian bell hooks writes eloquently about the real world consequences of stereotyping backwoods folk. In the former essay, hooks, who was brought up in black hillbilly culture (thus challenging the notion that all mountaineers are white) writes:
It is not difficult to see the link between the engrained stereotypes about mountain folk (hillbillies), especially those who are poor, representations that suggest that these folks are depraved, evil, ignorant, licentious, and the prevailing belief that there is nothing worth honoring, worth preserving about their habits of being, their culture . . . To truly create a social ethical context wherein masses of American citizens can empathize with the life experiences of Appalachians we must consistently challenge dehumanizing public representations of poverty and the poor.
Are there some rural, white Appalachians who are racist and patriarchal? Certainly. Do I think it’s important to call people out on their racism/patriarchy and engage in dialogue with them about it, if possible? Of course. But these actions must be coupled with continued examination of our own prejudices. In “To Be Whole & Holy,” hooks writes:
Houses in the hollows close to ours [growing up] were inhabited by poor white folk, who we were taught were rabid racists . . . Even if they were by chance neighborly, we were taught to mistrust their kindness . . .Racial hatred and the racist actions it engenders are not the exclusive domains of poor whites. Class prejudice is at the core of their belief that these white people are more likely to be free of racial prejudice . . .I have found white neighborhoods in all the privileged-class neighborhoods I have lived in across the United States, including Kentucky, to have as much a presence of racial prejudice as their poor counterparts.
I see racism and patriarchy among the New York City coffee shop crowd I interact with daily, and grew up with it in the suburbs, where whites are struggling with their prejudices in the face of growing and vibrant black and Hispanic communities. I’d like to go so far as to suggest that, by demarcating a white other (in this case, rural Appalachians) as more racist & sexist than us (progressives/radicals living in urban, affluent areas), we avoid confronting our own prejudices. Stereotyping also carries with it an inherent classism and cultural bias that lets us privilege certain forms of knowledge, such as college degrees and careers, over traditional Appalachian skills like wild crafting, hunting, crafting and food storing. I’ve found Appalachia to have as much, if not more, cultural richness as New York City, where I live now, and the liberal arts college town that I called home for two years.
Appalachian activism, culture and values have had tremendous impacts on life in the United States. Union coal miners put their lives on the line, and sometimes lost them, for worker’s rights, and we have reaped the rewards of their legacy. The miners who fought in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor insurrection in United States history, laid the foundation for a national movement that eventually won the eight-hour day, weekends and minimum wage. Appalachians were pioneers of popular education, founding the Highlander Folk School and settlement schools, and were critical leaders and allies in the Civil Rights Movement. Appalachia gave us the songs of Johnny Cash, the liberal hipness of Asheville, North Carolina and an anarchic spirit of resistance all but dead in the contemporary United States. I am constantly awed and intimidated by the skills my friends who grew up in southern Appalachia possess– deep knowledge of the mountains, the land, traditional crafts and community history.
If we are choosing to fight capitalism and oppression, whether generally or in their specific manifestations through the destruction of the globe’s most ancient mountain range, we must examine our own understandings and popular representations of hillbilly culture. To win this struggle and any other that impacts Appalachia, it is imperative that we stand in solidarity with its people and call on our comrades to do the same.
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