Ever since I made the choice to move my family from Oregon to South Carolina I have spent a great amount of time thinking about my relationship with the south. I have noticed that most people I know who moved to the west coast from the south have the attitude of having “gotten out” or “escaped”. I, too, had the same attitude when I arrived in California. What had I escaped from? I was a vegetarian for about five years and after I went back to eating meat I (half-jokingly) referred to myself as a ‘recovering vegetarian’. Did I also see myself as a ‘recovering southerner’?
When you grow up in the south the perception is that there are two camps: 1) “Yee Haw!” + Rebel Flag Belt Buckle or 2) “The south is an embarrassment.”, but in my experience it just isn’t true. Even though I have invested a lot of my own emotional capital in the idea. The vast majority of my time spent in the south was simply not markedly different than the time I spent in Santa Barbara, California. In both places you find people you agree with, commiserate with, and relate to; and in both places you find those with which you can find no common ground. In the south the latter category were most often over religiosity, “heritage”, and various political assertions while California mainly had white people who pretended that racism doesn’t exist because they “don’t see” colour, those who vilified Republicans as evil without a moment’s thought, and other typical liberal biases.
In both cases there are harsh, unwavering, and wrongheaded biases in place. The reason California seemed better was because I agreed with the biases. When a Californian gleefully referred to all of the white trash Republican rednecks in the south (present company excluded, of course)— I relished in it. I wanted to be part of Liberal Utopia where no one cared that my (now ex) wife was black, my atheism was accepted or appreciated, and it was okay to dismiss supporters of George Dubya as a group of idiots. However, on deeper inspection it came at a price. My personal identity could only be that of the ‘recovering southerner’. The attitude toward my interracial marriage had a flip side of utter blindness to the reality of racism in our country, society, and especially within Santa Barbara itself. As I grew as a person in Santa Barbara; as I went through a divorce; as I found out who I was— there was a palpable sense of loss when I found that I, again, did not like where I was. It was because I didn’t like myself and I was not prepared to, willing to, able to accept who I was.
Ultimately, everywhere I have been— both internally and externally— I have played in to stereotypes. I have allowed the easy, tempting, and simple-minded stereotypes of those around me lead the conversation. The stereotype of the south is the moronic, hateful redneck; of the west, the educated and elite. Neither are true and both are useless.