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The persistence of stereotypes

March 26, 2012

I’m not even specifying that this is a quickie post, since most of them have been lately.

I was just reading a rather interesting piece by s.e. smith, xoJane – The Hunger Games: I Want My Bread and Roses Back, and reading through the comments, when I ran across this clanger at the end of one:

No one,that  I remember, in the books ever mentioned race as an issue.  It was all district and that.  Now, that might mean that races were segregated in districts at some point.  I got the picture of an Applachain mining town from 12, and so… because it’s semifamiliar to me, I imagined her as  (possibly with black or more likely native american in the mix) basically caucasian, in an insular society where most of the people in the town have been inbreeding for a while. It reminded me of the line in “To Kill a Mockingbird” where Scout notes that a lot of the people in her town share features.

This is the kind of totally unexamined fail I run into all the time.

There are a couple of interesting things going on there. There’s the classic “not quite White” perception, more likely to be brushed over in recent decades; see also the quote from THE LEGACY OF SOCIAL DARWINISM IN APPALACHIAN SCHOLARSHIP paper I used here for some clear political reasons, mostly related to resource-grabbing. These imagined multiracial people are still “basically caucasian”, however–but still a little savage underneath. *headdesk*

That was dodgy enough. Then there’s the classic insular goddamned inbreeding assumption.

Hint: Multiracial people? Not so inbred, pretty much by definition there. On top of all the other problems with assumptions and Othering there. Including the “all look the same” thing I went into before, with a good portion of my family in the coalfields.*

Additionally, it struck me again that very possibly some of the Horrible Hillbilly Inbreeding stereotypes have come straight from the hoary old “They All Look The Same” perception. We don’t look any more alike than, say, the English do; we just look sufficiently different from them. (This is besides the Carrie Buck factor.) Not to mention a lot of people still keeping close track of genealogy, so they can tell you that somebody is their second cousin once removed–and wouldn’t marry them on a bet, BTW, which is part of the reason for doing it. That might make it look to outsiders like more people in the area are actually related than would seem to be the case if they were completely unaware of the fact; either way, they’re still related!

Besides the related different culture == backwardness, we are right back around to Virginia sending its pet scientific racists around to measure schoolkids’ “degenerate” heads for eugenic purposes. Really.

I already felt compelled to wade into another thread there to point out that Florence Owens Thompson, the woman whose photo was famously used as poverty porn without her permission–and with a background story just made up by the photographer– was not White and would not even necessarily “look white” to someone from a similar background. (And in which Oklahoma and assumed-all-White Appalachia were, again, being treated as Exactly The Same, which they frequently are in terms of stereotypes.)

"Migrant Mother, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936"

She looked a lot like several people I know back home, in a general type kind of way.


While the real migrant mother was, indeed, a native of Oklahoma, she also was a full-blooded Native American, whose family had been displaced from tribal lands…

She was born Florence Leona Christie on Sept. 1, 1903, in the Indian Territory of the Cherokee Nation, to which both of her parents claimed blood rights.

I had seen her referred to as Cherokee/Choctaw before; apparently her stepfather was Choctaw, and she grew up thinking he was her biological father. Again, culture trumps “blood”. (And I am appalled that I do keep feeling like I need to say this. Note the emphasis on “full-blooded” above.)

I did not even get into another relevant point about some of the ethnicity/race stereotyping coming into play with reading about “olive skin” and dark, straight hair, and then trying to fit some kind of ethnicity around a character based on (largely colonial racist) stereotypes passed down straight from Blumenbach.

My comment was actually very relevant to the dynamics being discussed there, including White-By-Default assumptions. But, after that, I held off throwing in even a polite two cents on the  inbreeding thing, not wanting to look like I was trying to Hijack With an Agenda. Especially since I have neither read nor watched The Hunger Games, so far.

But, yeah, I am again not wanting to single out the individual commenter–common as these stereotypes are–but running across this stuff in discussions of possible whitewashing and racefail honestly makes me want to snatch people baldheaded. I was initially going to say “rip out my own hair”, but no, snatch somebody else bald. One of the problems with this kind of thing, though, is that it would be hard to figure out where to start.

And, BTW, I thought I would die laughing at this one, when I ran across it:

Image text: BEWARE! Harassing the Indian may result in SEVERE hair loss.

(via Large Mug by crazybear|

As much as I have heard offers to snatch people baldheaded, and watched a couple of attempts at it. (Another reason not to really do that, no. *shudder*)

But, even/especially in discussions about turning characters White-By-Default and other vaguely anti-oppression type contexts, maybe people should stop and think about why certain images and impressions pop immediately into mind. Especially when, given two seconds of critical thought, said images are on a par with, say, lazing around with fried chicken and watermelon.


* Some of my relatives did end up working in the mines, but more actually looked down on local people who were “reduced” to mining, much less living in the company towns. But, then, they had mostly managed to hold onto more land than the ones who had to go to work in the mines. Sad but true.

Not to mention that the companies were preferentially bringing in (sometimes illegally indentured) immigrants who were perceived as easier to control–especially if you could threaten them with deportation–who were mostly the people who ended up living in mining towns. From a food blog post:

This, maybe unexpectedly outside the region, ties back in with Appalachian food. Large numbers of Hungarians were brought in to work in the coal mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (along with Sicilians and other Italians, and a number of other groups who ended up influencing regional food). From the linked page:

Central and East European immigrants were frequently brought to the United States as strikebreakers. Large industrial firms, unwilling to cede to the strikers’ demands of fewer hours, increased wages and/or safer working conditions, simply brought a shipload of immigrants from Europe to fill the striking workers’ jobs. The agents recruiting such workers were usually instructed to choose immigrants of many different national origins, so that it would be difficult to organize the newcomers because of language barriers.

As you can probably imagine, not many of these immigrants had any idea what kind of situation they were getting brought into. Peonage* was the mining companies’ preferred method of dealing with workers anyway, but the usually already heavily indebted for passage immigrant workers had even less recourse or protection.

There were enough Italian nationals in the mines that ” for many years an official of the Italian government was stationed in Fairmont, West Virginia, to look after their interests.”#

So, yeah, not only are those “inbred hick” stereotypes nasty, just on the face of them, and not only do they disappear non-White people in the region–that totally erases a lot of history of exploitation of immigrant labor. (Not to mention their cultures, and how the surrounding cultures they found themselves in grew and changed in response. Beyond basically everybody now eating cabbage rolls and not-so-recently-discovered Italian dishes.) And a lot of context for the continuing reliance on exploiting cheap immigrant labor, since colonial times, which has helped build the US into what it is.

The insular, inbred inhabitants of mining towns? That’s them. And the people already there who mostly absorbed all these different immigrants, like had been happening for centuries that we know of.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rebecca Ore permalink
    March 27, 2012 12:06 am

    I am always amazed by the stereotypes about Appalachia and high Piedmont country — the very small county I lived in had a Portuguese immigrant in the 1820s, whose descendants are still there. A fair number of people were known to be “Indians” or part indigenous. I remember watch a kid watch a program on Europeans diseases and indigenous mortality — very obviously, his ancestors came from all groups who’d come into Virginia at various times from the Paleolithic on.

    • urocyon permalink*
      March 27, 2012 3:00 am

      This reminds me of one piece from Jack D. Forbes, The Mestizo Concept with some observations which also seem to apply here.

      Including the idea, used to support divide-and-conquer approaches, that somehow certain cultures and the actual humans making them up cannot, by definition, grow and change. Besides having some handy boogerman to point at while you plunder resources, I have had to wonder about the motivations behind the insistence, on one hand, that Appalachia (and, indeed, parts of the Piedmont) is so horribly isolated and stagnant, with no ideas or even people moving in and out, ever–while, on the other, any obvious changes to this supposed stagnation mean that the whole supposed monolithic culture is at death’s door. Nor why this passes for sense among so many people, beyond some encouraged xenophobic willingness to believe it. That’s just not how humans work.

      But, one relevant bit:

      Are the Germans no longer Germans because they merged different tribes, changed their religion, and social system? If Europeans can remain Europeans while going through processes of tremendous social change, Anishinabeg can remain Anishinabeg while doing the same thing (no matter what white social scientists want to tell us)!…

      Who are the Mexicans? The Mexicans are what they always have been- Mexicans. Since (and before) 1520 they have absorbed many non-Mexicans (including other Anishinabeg as well as Asiatics, Africans, Spaniards, and so on); and their culture has changed (as do all cultures). Fundamentally, the Mexican people go back into history as far as we can see into the past.

      (I can only suppose he chose “Anishinabeg” as a generic term because it’s at least as reasonable as “Indian”, but it’s very distracting.)

      Within the context of basically claiming ownership over whole other cultures–to use toward whatever ends–it makes an unfortunate amount of sense. Shame this seems to work so well, so many places in the world.

  2. March 27, 2012 6:44 am

    Florence Leona Akman Owens: Although I would like to prove it, and believe it to be the case, there is no proof that Florence was the daughter of Jackson Christie. Mary, her mother, not Jackson, mention a daughter in their Dawes applications. Florence is on the 1910 Oklahoma Census as Florence Akman (her mother’s husband’s surname at the time). Her mother, Mary Cobb, was an intermarried white in the Cherokee Nation during Dawes enrollment (abt. 1900). If anyone has proof that Florence was the daughter of Jackson Christie I would appreciate it if they shared that with me. Because of the circumstances of Florence’s birth/life she would never be eligible for Cherokee Nation citizenship. She would have no blood quantum. If Jackson Christie is her father she would be racially Cherokee 7/16ths.

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