As someone who at least looks white and has had access, albeit with difficulty, to a lot of educational opportunities, I do have some kinds of privilege - in some ways, quite a lot of privilege - and I want to acknowledge that, straight up, because that shit matters. It creates the possibility for me to even be here, typing this to you, whoever is reading it.
(Edit: thanks to anghraine for suggesting a “read more.” I’ve had trouble making them work in the past, let’s hope this one does.)
Thank you for this.
There have been times I’ve regretted going to college and then grad school in my native Georgia, and then taking a job here in Alabama—a state where I spent much of my childhood because my mom’s family is from here. I felt like I should branch out more, settle elsewhere, learn to cope with cold weather and brusque attitudes. But then I read shit like this and remember that the rest of the country doesn’t want me. I remember my advisor telling me, when I first went on the job market, that Southerners don’t get hired outside the South. That schools elsewhere would assume that I was either stupid or racist. I remember watching myself in an instructional video for comp teachers and saying “Where the hell did my accent go?” and my husband saying “That’s how you talk when you want to sound smart.”
My mother grew up with no electricity, no plumbing, and often not enough to eat. Her father was an alcoholic truck farmer. They had nine kids. When the family mule died, my grandfather had to hook two of my uncles up the the plow. And that’s not the fucking punchline to a joke, that was her fucking life.
All of the eight kids who survived infancy went to college. Several, including my mother, got masters degrees. Two got PhDs. There are a fuckton of smart Southerners.
And you know what? There are a fuckton of ignorant Southerners. Because education costs money. Because travel to places where you meet people who are different from you costs money. A lot of my students make it to college barely able to read, and it’s frustrating as hell, but I’m not going to hate them for it. And no, I’m not defending racism and homophobia—your right to swing your fist ends at another person’s face—but dear God, we’re not morally and intellectually bankrupt, we’re just poor.
It’s like patriarchy (and it has a lot to do with patriarchy): this shit hits everybody and we all suffer for it. There’s a fine long history in the U.S. South of upper-class whites setting poor, uneducated whites and blacks against each other, lest they band together and start some shit — from the Populist movement in the South to George Wallace. I’m two generations from the farm. One of my grandfathers didn’t finish high school. My father volunteered for Vietnam because he figured that was his best chance to get out of south Georgia and see the world, and if he didn’t get blown up, well, then maybe he could go to college. My grandparents and parents busted their asses. White privilege helped. So did, on the part of my grandparents, a fear-born commitment to the politics of respectability, which involved looking as not-poor as possible.
Y’all know that Lilla Watson quote, about coming here not to help, but because your liberation is bound up with mine? That is precisely why I do what I do. Kids all ought to have the same opportunities I had growing up. And those same kids all should be treated with respect, no matter what they look like or where they come from or what they sound like — which is going to take everybody, regardless of geography, recognizing that while some prejudice (hell, a LOT of prejudice) is worse than other prejudice, that doesn’t make the less-worse kind not prejudice.
My verbs don’t always agree with my subjects, especially when I’ve had a few. I say y’all. I have a Piedmont, rhotic accent that I can make go away when I think about it. And that’s just the way that is. If it results in an inability to achieve prestige in other parts of the country, it’s not because I’m not good enough or smart enough or nice enough or unable to play the game, and that is fucked up. It’s all fucked up. And it all intersects.