Conservative Rural Stereotype Diverts Attention from Urban, Liberal Racism

Kiley Petersen, Managing Editor

“White people are racist. Not all of them. But white culture is. Our white country is. Our nation is. Our American culture is full of white supremacy. We live in a white supremacist culture that caters to white people, [where everything from] the media to education to art to culture to politics is white-washed. What is not white-washed? … This country was built for white people.”

You might expect the above quote to have come from an article on the basics of white supremacy from the blog Black Girl Dangerous, or from a short on the Baltimore uprising from The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central. So the face of white, middle-aged, self-described “fat redneck” Dixon White, staring out from an April 4, 2015 viral YouTube video titled “I’m a redneck and I love America,” might surprise you.

White, using a pseudonym to avoid trolls and anonymous hate online, is an actor and filmmaker raised in Tennessee, where he grew up in an environment steeped in religious white supremacy stereotypical of the South. It wasn’t until college, when he befriended his Black roommate, that he understood his learned prejudice and began actively writing and speaking on anti-racism in America, specifically in the South.

Some folks might get angry that I am centering this piece on a white man talking about white supremacy rather than a person of color recounting their lived experiences. While I think it’s essential that people of color speak about their lives and the oppression they experience in America, I also think White adds a couple of very interesting ideas to the discussion on white supremacy that might be lacking from other narratives: He’s from the South. And he’s a redneck — a derogatory term he reclaims proudly from its classist roots.

So much discussion centers around young urban activists, but by focusing only on the actions and protests happening in cities, we lose a lot of content with regard to the rural, oft-forgotten regions of our country. The South is often dismissed as a place of rampant racism and homophobia. The white rural poor are judged as rude, uneducated and ignorant of the systems governing our politics and social spheres.

This stereotype invalidates the determined activism occurring in those areas because it’s often less powerful or dramatic than urban-centered protests. Additionally, the rural working poor, who often survive by the exploitation of natural resources through mining or fracking, are judged as environmentally-unfriendly compared to the liberal vegans, locavores and environmentalists populating urban centers.

I’ve talked before about how the class issues in Oberlin affect the town-gown divide (“Watergate Reveals Disparities in Urban, Rural Communities,” The Oberlin Review, March 13, 2015). When the majority of Oberlin students come from urban coastal regions and are hurled into the rural Midwest for four years, there are a lot of disparities in culture, amenities and opinions. I have felt uncomfortable at some points, as a queer woman, in interactions with the “townies.” It can’t be easy for trans individuals or people of color to be surrounded by this largely conservative Midwestern uniformity, either.

But what is important to remember is that the redneck stereotype is often used by urban, upper-middle-class white liberals to distance themselves from the racism and general “conservative” culture of the rural Midwest and South. In fact, it’s most likely the urban middle-class, college-educated individuals who are denying housing, healthcare, mortgage and credits claims to Black people, running the national mass media coverage on Ferguson and Baltimore and making other far-reaching decisions that affect marginalized communities in America.

The stereotype of the hillbilly is a shameful attempt of white, college-educated liberals to distance themselves from the “real problem of racism,” i.e. the South, with its lynch mobs and Confederate flags, ignoring their own complicity in the problem. As a majority-white, urban, progressive and upper-middle-class school, we can challenge that divide. Engage with community members, maybe even begin a dialogue. White supremacy is a system that plagues all of America and all of the world, not just one region or class.