By Dakota Collins
People love to make fun of the South, and as a born and bred Tennessean with family ties spanning both sides of the Civil War, I can say there are plenty of reasons to do so, but not numbered among them is this: the southern accent.
A southern drawl has become the go-to voice to adopt when ironically mimicking an ignorant opinion, creating a not-so-bright caricature, or, put simply, whenever the audience needs to understand that the character is an idiot. The bumbling hillbilly stereotype is so deeply perpetuated in modern media, it’s been ingrained in the human psyche that anyone who speaks with a southern accent must, therefore, be stupid.
Before delving into what’s harmful about this assumption, I would like to make it clear that it is simply untrue. Like any cultural group (and yes, hillbillies are a cultural group, most notably poor Appalachians, usually white, but not always), hillbillies come in a thousand-and-one types. To say that there are not a number of truly stupid people among those types would be a lie; however, to say that all thousand-and-one of them are stupid would be the far greater lie.
My mother is from Poor Valley, Tennessee, which is just as bleak of a place as it sounds, wrought with opioids and bad infrastructure. All her life, she’s spoken with a thick Appalachian accent, something she inherited from her parents. In addition to speaking with an accent, she is a breast cancer survivor, #1 songwriter on the Billboard charts, business owner, and international copyright law expert regularly employed by the USPTO. She has had a genius-level IQ since she was a child, and if she tells people any of that, their eyebrows fly right up their foreheads in shock, because she says it with a southern accent.
She is the kind of educated hillbilly that might be excused as an exception to the rule — “well, sure, it’s not okay to make fun of people based on their accent, but clearly, this woman is an outlier.” But the fact of the matter is, most hillbillies don’t have access to opportunities like higher—or even lower—education. Education in America is a privilege that comes with money; either one’s own, or, in the case of public schools, property taxes from one’s neighbors. Most of the American South is rural, most rural areas in America are poor, and most rural areas in the American South are abysmally poor. In stigmatizing the voices of southern Americans, one is, however inadvertently, stigmatizing the voices of poor Americans.
Yet, despite their lack of quality formal education opportunities, even those hillbillies who don’t go on to become scholars or hit songwriters can be and, overall, are geniuses in their own informal way. My paternal grandmother is from Missouri, and got married and had my uncle by the time she was nineteen-years-old. Her accent is so thick that she can barely use talk-to-text (although she perseveres), she’s missing one of her front teeth, and though she has yet to master the art of pronouncing the word “tortilla,” she is, undoubtedly, one of the smartest people I have ever known. She built her current home by herself, has a beautiful garden year-round, collects and correctly identifies fossils and arrowheads, and can fix anything from a leaky faucet to an eggplant parmesan.
It can be easy to fit southerners into one neat red box wearing a MAGA hat, drinking a Mountain Dew, beating their spouse, and calling someone a slur, but it’s just as easy to step back and realize that the American South is the nation’s most populous region. 114,555,744 people live here. To assume that all of them can be roped into one category is just as ignorant as assuming all fifteen-million people living in New York are the same, and certainly more ignorant than any handful of hillbillies are compared to what the stereotypes say.
So, the next time you need a funny voice to make fun of someone dumb, think about the implications of stereotyping a person based on how they sound. If you wouldn’t use the sound of your own voice as a punchline, would you use someone else’s?