Where Are You From?

I get this question a lot: “Where are you from?” People always seem surprised when I say that I’m from the South: “You don’t sound like you’re from the South.” Even others who have little accent say this. You would think that they would realize that you don’t have to speak with a stereotypical accent for your home region. So what the hell do they mean?

I suppose that they mean “You don’t sound like an idiot.” The South has been so stigmatized in popular media as a land of morons, inbred yokals, good ol’ boys, and incompetents. This image pervades society to the point that even educated people cannot break the stereotype.

But it gets worse. I have had the same reaction from people who have lived their life from the South! These are competent people who are smart enough to have risen in their company by merit. So are they surprised? Because the stereotype cuts the other way. If you are smart, well educated, ambitious, and talk confidently, you must be from the North (or the Pacific states).

Another of these types of statements is “He/She speaks so well” when referring to a Black person. This is really an unfinished sentence that ends “…for a Black man/woman.” The nation has been fighting stereotypes about Black Americans for nearly 150 years (I’m saying that it began at the abolition of slavery) so why is it so hard to believe that Barack Obama speaks well?

I’m not saying that these stereotypes are not well deserved. Many Black people don’t speak English well and don’t express themselves well in any language. Many Southerners are inbred yokals, ignoramuses, and good ol’ boys. I don’t begrudge anyone to have these stereotypes, they help us quickly ascertain peoples’ abilities and characteristics when we assign them to a group*. But I am dismayed by the fact that people are surprised by an individual who doesn’t behave according to a certain set of actions they have been assigned after only a brief encounter.

*I’m not saying that the perceived characteristics are accurate, just that it makes it easier to quickly determine how to interact with a person. Right or wrong, this is a useful tool. While the grouping is not necessarily based on skin color or accent, these two physical qualities certainly help determine which group we place individuals. Of course these are not the only stereotypes people may have, and they are not necessarily the only grouping criteria. For example, if a person is well dressed and manicured, these features may overshadow his race.

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Posted on October 31, 2007, in USA and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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