Bill O’Reilly’s recent contemptible rant against Appalachian Americans is only the latest example of the widespread and multigenerational problem of Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes. Quite simply, O’Reilly reminded the world once again that people of the Appalachian Mountains are still the only cultural group in America that many people have the audacity to ridicule publicly as being of low intelligence, and worse.
Can you imagine if O'Reilly had made the same despicable statements about ________ in _________, or ________ in ________, or _______ in ________. (Fill in the blanks with any racial or ethnic or cultural slurs you can imagine, the more insensitive the better.)
How can we as a people ever overcome this pervasive hillbilly stereotype? Why do we continue to pull in our heads like turtles and pretend we don't care and that we will survive regardless of the outside world? Well, I do care—for myself, my family and friends, and my culture—and I don't believe that we are surviving very well or will survive in the future as a culture with a shred of honor and dignity if we do not rise up, en masse, and protest at every opportunity this kind of insensitive abuse.
We continue to loll about in our insular Snuffy Smith, Lil Abner, Mammy Yokum, Jed Clampett, grits-and-possum stereotype as if the opinion of the rest of the world does not matter, even while we are being brutalized every time someone laughs at our dialect or accent, or asks WHERE are you from, or rejects us for a job, or does not publish our writing because how could an ignorant hillbilly possibly have something to say.
A professor at the University of Colorado once said to our own Charles Frazier, "Imagine that! A hillbilly with a Ph.D.!" Even worse than the professor thinking such a misbegotten thought was that she felt entitled to publicly say it right to his face. Can you imagine her making that statement to a person of any other racial or ethnic or cultural group? "Imagine that! A ______ with a Ph.D.!"
As much as I love COLD MOUNTAIN, both book and movie, I hated the "Young Mammy Yokum" portrayal of Ruby by Renee Zellweger who won an Academy Award for it. (Frazier’s Ruby in the book had a quiet strength and wisdom, as do most native Appalachian people.) As much as I love our bluegrass music, I hated the stereotypical portrayal of ignorance in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
And, when I worked in the Alaskan Arctic, an Eskimo woman who had seen a "Songcatcher" DVD asked me why hillbillies don't fix up their houses. She thought the stage-set ramshackle buildings in that movie were really the kind in which we actually live—rather like us stereotyping Eskimos as living in ice-block igloos, the difference being that we are stereotyped as being too dumb or lazy to fix up our houses while Eskimos are stereotyped as being intelligent enough to survive in an extreme place.
In the age of global communication, this debilitating hillbilly stereotype is pervasive even internationally, and it affects us negatively on so many levels.
For the past century, companies that have considered our region for placing new enterprises have looked for local "hands" to do their low-level jobs, while bringing in management and executives (the “brains”) from outside; and now no one even considers Appalachia as a place where management would want to bring their own families to live or where intelligent local people might be available for employment.
Further compounding the problem, too many of our local governments are now made up of second-tier pseudo-leaders who are interested primarily in promoting tourism; but who, we should ask ourselves, will own the new hotels and mountaintop second-homes and assorted eateries the appointed tourist boards and self-serving chambers of commerce say we need—and who will be paying increased taxes for infrastructure to support them, and cleaning their rooms and waiting their tables and manicuring their lawns?
The local "hands," of course, are expected to do those low-level jobs. This servant mentality is deeply embedded in our history and culture and language, and all of us have perpetuated it simply by not rising up and fighting it. “He/she is a good hand to_____," we say.
Zell Miller of Georgia is the only well-known person who has ever stood up publicly to try to end this crippling multigenerational Appalachian stereotype. He single-handedly created enough flak several years ago to prevent television producers from creating a Beverly Hillbillies Reality Show that would have placed an Appalachian family in a Beverly Hills mansion and ridiculed them for a year. Can you imagine if the producers had even suggested doing the same with a Beverly _____ Reality Show? (You fill in the blank with the most insensitive racial or ethnic or cultural slur you can think of.)
The reality show producers even advertised in our local newspapers for an ignorant mountain family, all expenses paid. Can you imagine the justifiable outrage if they had placed such advertisements in the Atlanta or Birmingham or New York papers for an ignorant _____ family to send out to Beverly Hills and ridicule for a year.
While some racial and ethnic and cultural groups recently tried to get a newspaper cartoonist fired, and rightfully so, for depicting the shooting of a "stimulus plan gorilla,” O'Reilly was shooting down the future of an entire culture by perpetuating a century-old stereotype in the most egregious and offensive manner—and we ought to be outraged. We ought to care, and care deeply, because the issue is infinitely larger and more far-reaching than simply our own personal irritation with O’Reilly.
Actually, O'Reilly is small potatoes when one considers what we as a culture are up against. This negative stereotyping of our culture is becoming more focused and pronounced than ever before, simply because it has become politically incorrect to target other groups. Think of all the other minorities in this country who are discriminated against. Are any of them summarily and publicly declared to be ignorant and of low IQ? Can you name any other such group?
Other minorities may be insidiously stereotyped and discriminated against for assorted other reasons, but they are not blatantly and openly ridiculed as ignorant. And now, O'Reilly has added "immoral" and "drug-addicted" to our litany of Appalachian stereotypes, as well as our being unworthy to live in our own mountain homeland. Our children should move to Miami, he says. Oh, my.
Even "rednecks," who are everywhere and are a social class rather than a culture, are not dismissed as ignorant and inferior to other people because of intelligence. In fact, rednecks are often praised for their many independent and self-sufficient attributes, except for those rednecks who also happen to be classified as ignorant hillbillies in one-gallused overalls sleeping with their sisters and the farm animals.
Fortunately some "outlanders" do "get it" and are embarrassed by the likes of O’Reilly, but the fact remains that no one outside of an abused group can truly "feel" it without having "felt" it. No one without minority physical characteristics or other personal differences can truly "feel" that discrimination. No one outside someone with a mountain accent (or any other accent or dialect outside the prevailing norm) can "feel" a job interviewer lose interest when you open your mouth to answer a question.
O'Reilly is hate-filled, but he is not a fool. He has built an empire by spouting the poisonous hatred that millions of people want to hear. They do listen to him and are influenced by him. While he himself is not fully the issue, he is a flash point for bigotry and intolerance, and that is why he is dangerous.
Yes, O’Reilly is a catalyst, but he is not the source of our problem. We are. We are to blame for not doing everything we can to root out such ignorant O’Reilly-type bigotry, to expose it for what it is, and then to replace it by honoring who we really are—by honoring our centuries-old heritage of persistence, perseverance, courage, loyalty, and love of freedom nourished for generations by our Scottish, English, Irish, German, Welsh, and Cherokee ancestors.
Why can we not pick up our pine knots and go to war against this blatant, insidious destruction of our culture? It will not take care of itself, and no one else is going to do it for us.
For the past 125 years, especially during wars and periods of economic depression, people have come into our mountains to exploit us as easy targets as they irreversibly destroy our forests, scalp our mountaintops, pollute our rivers, turn our community schools into mega-institutions, raise our taxes, rape our land with roads and airports and cookie-cutter shopping malls, and ultimately pollute our DNA.
It becomes increasingly harder to identify real native mountaineers, and within a few more generations our real culture, like that of the Melungeons, may fade into oblivion long before the stereotypes disappear. Our centuries-old physical characteristics will be gone, along with our language, values, customs, ethics, and morals; and that is why it is important for writers and storytellers and videographers to work overtime now to record our rapidly vanishing culture, to record who we are.
Children in the future may be asking, "Who exactly were the hillbillies? Where did they live? Where did they come from? Where did they go?" And their mothers will respond, “You must not say that ‘H’ word. It is politically incorrect.”
Let us now pick up our pine knots and go to war—to save ourselves.
By Betty Cloer Wallace