When I first came to GW, I was excited to escape the outdated closed-mindedness of my small southern hometown of Hickory, North Carolina. I always felt that I did not fit in because it seemed like I was the only person from my area who deeply longed for social progress in our country. Others often saw no issue with the way things were – and sometimes they wanted it to stay that way. But never would I expect students from a progressive institution like GW to make such classist and insensitive remarks about those they may hope to serve and represent.
Moving to the District was everything I thought I wanted – the opportunity to engage with others who were passionate about the same social issues I was. Above all, I was excited to finally be in an environment full of different, accepting perspectives. But the reality is that I’ve come face to face with the stereotype that people from the South are not as educated, progressive or intelligent as their fellow citizens during my time at GW. This stereotype makes me feel uncomfortable while participating in classes and left out of political conversations. But most of all, it turns the real problems southerners face into the butt of countless, harmful jokes.
I spent my high school years engaging in local activism through internships and working with organizations like Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, fighting for causes like reproductive rights, racial justice and voting equality. Unfortunately, this activism was not always received politely because my political views often differed greatly from those of my peers. But just because I grew up in the South doesn’t mean that I cannot attend a progressive school or understand advocacy and equality.
Being from the South, it seems many often categorize southerners as empty-headed and naive. During my freshman year, a professor jokingly said during a discussion, “You sure don’t seem like you’re from the South.” I was genuinely appalled by this remark. My class was very small, and my professor knew where each and every single one of us was from. Her words echoed in my head – what was that even supposed to mean? I was very vocal in our discussions in that class and felt as though her comment referenced the stereotype that southern people are uneducated or stupid. This stereotype has been constantly perpetuated in the media, often assuming most possess an ignorant mindset. I worried that my intelligence was being questioned and did not feel as comfortable participating in class discussions anymore for the rest of the semester.
My professor’s comments were unfortunately nowhere near the end of the classist remarks I heard and continue to hear about being from the South. Even peers of mine somehow find humor in comparing southern states with crippling poverty and abortion bans to their progressive and accepting Northern home states. I have seen firsthand how many people struggled to maintain a quality life because of the South’s inability to sustain our communities. Nearly one in five individuals who live in Western Carolina live in poverty. Less than 30 percent of all Western North Carolinians have only earned a high school diploma.
It should not be funny to my peers that my home state’s education system is severely underfunded or that I am a constituent of conservative public officials. This supposedly accepting University needs to stop finding humor in the sad reality of underfunded education, abortion bans, deep-rooted racism and so many more issues that the South faces. Trafficking in stereotypes of southerners reveals the ignorance and privilege of this community.
And for all the attention that the South gets, there are plenty of issues in the North that need attention too. From racial segregation in New York City’s public schools to affordable housing in Philadelphia, focusing only on the South sweeps other communities’ struggles under the rug.
I thought GW would bring me to like-minded people who are passionate about making the world a better place. The last thing I expected was to become the butt of jokes about the sad reality of southern poverty. Students should be passionate about addressing issues in the United States and not poking fun at supposed southern incompetence. Issues like financial discrimination, racism and abortion bans disproportionately affect the residents of southern states. So don’t make fun of the South – help fix it.
Maryn Larsen, a sophomore majoring in political science and minoring in criminal justice, is an opinions writer.