I spent Thanksgiving with my wife’s family in Indiana. Some of these fine Midwestern folk enjoy slipping in a joke or two about my Tennessee roots. Apparently, Southerners are racist, drink moonshine, and have crucial gaps in their education. In both the historic and more contemporary meanings of the word, Southerners aren’t “classy.”
I’ve run into this stereotype before. The Beverly Hillbillies may have filmed its final season in 1971, but the show seems to have seared the caricature of a Missouri-Arkansas-Tennessee bumpkin into the collective consciousness of many otherwise intelligent and urban people around the country.
One summer during high school I was in Tuba City, Arizona on the Navajo reservation doing some building projects. The kids from another youth group in Ripon, California, asked if we often went barefoot in Tennessee.
“Yes,” we said,” especially when we’re riding mules to church.”
We then asked in our sweetest, most sarcastic tones, if all of their parents worked as software developers in Silicon Valley and smoked lots of weed on the weekends. Could they teach us to surf and eat tofu?
Another episode of cultural elitism gone awry happened in a dank pub called EUROBAR Cafe & Hotel in Oxford, England. My friend Jim was introducing me to a Rhodes Scholar whom he knew because of their Ivy League connection. Jim went to Dartmouth, and Seth went to Harvard.
I disliked Seth immediately. He was one of those guys who can convert one polite question from a stranger into a ten-minute monologue about his credentials and academic accomplishments. I asked, “So what are you doing here in Oxford?” but you would have thought I was a Fortune 500 CEO interviewing for his new right hand man.
I wanted to be impressed. After all, Seth had gotten a full ride to Harvard, and Harvard offers, what, two of those a year? He was also a Rhodes Scholar living it up in one of the oldest and most storied centers of scholarship in the world. But the guy was noxious. He wore arrogance like four sprays of cheap cologne. At some point he made the obligatory shift in conversation by saying, “So, I’m guessing you go to some small, private, liberal arts college in the South?”
I guess this was an attempt at a joke. Harvard men must sit around in their smoking jackets in old, mahogany-lined rooms with brandy in hand and take cracks at poor Vanderbilt and Sewanee and the more obscure universities in the South struggling to keep up with the real scholastic powerhouses—except that they don’t.
Seth’s condescension would have embarrassed his more astute and socially adept classmates.
I did go to a small, private, liberal arts college in the South. Even worse, it was a Christian school, yet despite this misfortune, I was studying in Oxford too.
Note to self: an Ivy League education is no more likely to imbue good manners than a less expensive one. True sophistication is neither bought nor assigned by locale but learned.
That’s is the irony of stereotypes. If you use them, you become one.
Last summer, this Tennessean spent the day at the Indianapolis Zoo with his wife, mother-in-law, and niece. In the parking lot I saw this, proof that people with no class live everywhere.