Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I debated whether or not I should write this article. My brother, a sophomore at Brown, told me that it sounded like I was going on the defensive. Did I really want to create a division between North and South? This isn’t 1863, the United States isn’t in the middle of a bloody war. I understand that. My intention with this article is meant less as a defense and more as an explanation of my journey.
In my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, I am not considered to be much of a Southerner. My dad is an immigrant from India, and my maternal great-grandparents journeyed to this great nation from Greece, although my mother was raised in Atlanta. And the first question I was asked throughout elementary school was “Where do you go to church?” — a question which sounds strange, until you realize that a church existed on literally every street corner from my house to school.
Despite my surroundings, though, I had never identified or been identified as “Southern.” I don’t say y’all. I don’t go to church. I don’t say pen the way another person would say pin. But when I came to Swat last year, the South became a critical part of my identity. I wanted people to know that I come from North Carolina, that I drink sweet tea, that I say y’all every once in a while (mostly when I’m playing a team sport). Where did this regional pride come from? Why did I feel the need to defend a state and a region that I had never before claimed as mine?
I think most of my concern (and righteous indignation) came from an emoji-laden exchange with one of my good buddies from Massachusetts. He seemed to think that by virtue of living in a Southern state, I was familiar with farming and farmland. I’m pretty sure that he was messing with me. But the point is: I know nothing about farmland. I live in a city, not some hick town. The exchange made me realize that people who aren’t from the South know nothing about it. They make assumptions based on history lessons that cover the Civil War (read: slavery), the inventor of the cotton gin (Eli Whitney, whaddup?), and the classy port city of Charleston (okay, Charleston is very classy). Most people know about a South built from ignorance, oppression, and hatred. When I realized that this negative summation of my home permeates much of Swat (and maybe even much of American) society, I claimed my identity as a Southerner.
This personal recognition that I am Southern has gone through a couple of adjustments. At first, it meant going on the defensive. I recall many a conversation-turned-rant with my brother about how people here just don’t understand. I saw it as my job to educate. Yes, the South is flawed, but it is more than its flaws.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t angered at some of my home state’s failings. What kind of place refuses to extend to the LGBT community the same rights that it extends to heterosexuals? What kind of place contains pockets of people who proudly fly the Confederate flag?
There are many problems in the South, but I wanted my fellow Swatties to know that I didn’t choose to migrate north because I was trying to escape those problems. I came here because I wanted to explore, to grow, to get the best education possible. I could have gone to UNC-Chapel Hill or Duke or Davidson (all of which have a high standard of education), but I chose Swarthmore because it was new and different, unpredictable.
There are so many things to hate about North Carolina, but there is so much to love, too. I love the contrasting smells of spring rain and Indian street food each year at the Festival of India; I love the slight drawl that I slip into when I discuss religious philosophy with a person who is truly of the South; I love walking into an art museum downtown and hearing the stereo sound of Belinda Carlisle’s voice at Charlotte Pride proclaiming that heaven is a place on earth. The love outweighs the hate, most of the time, and that gives me hope. I wish that people who aren’t from the South could see more than rednecks and racism. I wish that they could share my hope. I wish that they understood that I am not the outlier or the one who managed to get out in time. I am the representative.
Featured image from http://www.persiabaptistchurch.com
What a thoughtful and sensitive account of a young person’s journey in progress, of a slice of life happening. Makes me wonder what the liberal arts can add to a liberated mind.
Fantastic piece, Sona! This is such a beautiful expression of something I wish, too: “I wish that people who aren’t from the South could see more than rednecks and racism. I wish that they could share my hope. I wish that they understood that I am not the outlier or the one who managed to get out in time. I am the representative.”
Great writing Sona! You put into words a lot of the thoughts I’ve had at Swat over the past 3 years. Plus I loved the Davidson shout out.
In my years here, what I realized is that people here are incredibly ignorant and bigoted towards Southerners and the South in general.
Things that should be completely unacceptable to do to a person is completely acceptable if that person is a Southerner.
Some of the things that I have experienced:
Being ridicule for my accent and place of birth. “You’re from x state?? LOLOLOL”
Being assumed to be a number of stereotypes from being dumb, racist, religious, living on a farm, not having shoes (acutally!!) , etc.
Being constantly condescended towards for no other fact than I am from the South and have a slight Southern drawl.
Can you imagine if an exchange between an international and a domestic student in which the domestic student mocked the international for the way that they pronounce words? Can you imagine someone saying “You are wrong because you are from x country.”? Can you imagine someone saying “You are from x country, what was XYZ stereotypes like?”
I’m sure things like that happen to international students all the time in this shithole, but most Swatties would pretty easily recognize this as being problematic. In my experience, I have never had a non-southern Swattie call out the problematic shit that gets slung at southerners every day from people who have never even spent any meaningful time at all in the South. It’s upsetting for me that a place with people who claim to care so much about diversity and community would perpetuate these sterotypes, even folks who are active in other social justice causes.
While I truly hope that your experience will be better than mine, Sona, I would not get my hopes up about it. I hope that you can retain some of your Southern heritage and be proud of where you are from despite the many faults (that are present throughout this country not just the south, but that’s a different comment for a different time). Just stay strong and use your experiences of discrimination from being a southerner to recognize and fight discrimination based on class, race, nationality, ability, gender, and yes, even regionalism against some of these damn Yankees.
Overall a good piece. I would like to remind you, however, that lumping together knowledge of farming to being from a “hick” town is exactly the kind of dismissive, simplistic attitude you are trying to remedy in this article. Although it doesn’t bother me personally too much, as someone who grew up in rural middle America, I could certainly see some being insulted by that tone.
Sona, I share some of your thoughts and experiences. I too, am an immigrant who grew up in the south. My journey hasn’t been the easiest, and growing up in Oklahoma gave me my fair share of experiences. I tried to love the place, but the environment wasn’t just right (hence I came to Swat). However, getting told here that “where I’m from” was “the middle of nowhere” doesn’t exactly leave me with a good taste in my mouth. I’m not trying to critique my fellow Swatties, but maybe we all should see the positive side as well.
In this case, no matter how hard we try or where we go, it seems like we’re always stuck in the middle doesn’t it?
Thank you Sona for posting this article! As a Southerner who never wanted to identify as such when I came to Swat, I found myself defending it more than I ever thought I would, which is not really a complaint, but some of the non-Southerners definitely had their assumptions. I also have a thick drawl, so I wouldn’t have been able to hide where I’m from for long! I haven’t run across anyone with a super-negative view of the South, but I did find myself overcompensating freshman year so that the “dumb Southerner” stereotype wouldn’t persist.
I second Peter’s comment about the “hick towns.” I’m from a small, rural town and having someone call it a hick town who may have never been there is contradictory to the message of your article (and by the way, I don’t know how to farm).
We support the diversity of people…as long as you think like us!
Thanks for writing this, I’ve never really considered this viewpoint before. I’ve definitely teased people from the South before, and in my mind I was just trying to be funny…. but really, it was probably unnecessary and rude. I’ll adjust myself in the future. Sorry southern friends 🙁
Well, a lot of people in North Carolina, likes to take life easy and loves drinking tea while sitting on the couch.