Occasionally, I am able to pretend that such things don’t exist, but on a recent sojourn to Ohio, prejudice stared me square in the face.
I had been invited to give a presentation at the International Problem Oriented Policing conference. A program of the now (pre-shutdown) Congressionally abandoned POP Center, this conference is a meeting where law enforcement agencies from around the world gather to discuss best practices for making their communities safer. I was flattered that the POP Center had noticed the great strides my hometown is making — and noticed enough to ask that I come teach other agencies about them.
This conference attracts all sorts of folks. It boasted people from almost every state and 12 different countries. It was amazing.
Among those assembled was a woman we’ll call Deborah. Deborah and I shared the shuttle from the airport to the conference hotel. She struck me as an intelligent and otherwise cosmopolitan person.
When the discussion turned to geographic origins, my opinion of her changed markedly. The precise fulcrum was this statement: “Well, you have to admit that people from your part of the country really are from nowhere.
She went on to rail about the ways in which she perceived the South and the Midwest to be cultural deserts; and to brag that she used the acronym “I’M A LOSER” to teach her daughter the names of these “inferior” states. I’m not really sure how she put that together, but where there’s a poisoned will, there’s a way.
Anyone who knows me knows how proud I am to be from Arkansas. They should also know that a dose of provincial bigotry will warrant an unkind reproach.
As anyone from the South can well attest, this sort of stupidity is one of the last acceptable forms of open public prejudice. Case in point: if Hollywood wants to tell the audience in a shorthand way that a character is a boob, they give them a Southern accent… because we all “know” anyone with a drawl is a moron.
In my own life, this stuff has happened often enough that I should let it pass without mention. Perhaps there’s just enough hillbilly barbarian in me that I am biologically predetermined — and thus unable — to do so. If only my great-great-grandmother had let the Yankee soldiers get a little friendlier, maybe I wouldn’t be such an obstreperous and indolent vulgarian.
When I went to graduate school in New York, I was greeted by a professor who spoke of the “violent nature” of people in the South. He did so with such a matter of fact tone that it was accepted on face by everyone in the room — almost. He and I never seemed to get along after that.
As my shuttle companion and I reached the hotel lobby, she apologized “if she had offended me.” We both knew she wasn’t sorry that she had been a rude xenophobic bigot. She was “sorry I felt that way.
Because I was tired and didn’t have the energy to list the Rhodes Scholars and Pulitzer Prize winners from my backwater swamp hometown, I just stood there silent — for a minute… she didn’t much like what came next.
People like Deborah will never be changed. Even if she were to be cruelly forced to move here, she’d think that her purpose would be to save us from ourselves. She’d fancy herself like a missionary to Africa. She’d teach us to read and write, wear shoes, floss our tooth and stop impregnating our sister… Pygmalion only with hillbillies.
Here’s a newsflash: We don’t need or want to be saved. In fact, if we have come to a point where we need the Deborahs of the world to save us, I’ll bet most of us would rather just be lost.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.