Deep prejudice about the deep south
I’m tired of elitist US liberals who ridicule southerners and then profess their love for Nina Simone and crawfish etouffee
I am tired of apologising. I apologised for being Muslim, post-9/11 and more recently for my Pakistani origins. Now, I apologise for being a southerner too. When an environmental catastrophe erupted in my backyard, I looked to the media to tell our stories and instead, found quotes from experts ruminating on energy policy. Where are the restaurant owners in the French Quarter who still haven’t caught their breath after Katrina swallowed their lives? What about the fishermen? While recently rubbing elbows with fellow liberals from the east and west coasts, I felt that their disdain for the lives of the south was palpable. This led to my quest: to understand why mouths drip with condescension for the south, and particularly its people.
Is it Dubya? Born in Connecticut, he was a member of Yale’s elite Skull & Bones Society. Ah, Sarah Palin? Born in Idaho, raised in Alaska. They claim Texas is imploding with rightwing conservatives: Texas has had 48 governors; six were Republicans. The former Texas governor Ann Richards once delivered the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic convention, where she famously said: "He [Bush] was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
It must be southern racism then. During my medical school interview, I was asked if I would wear a burqa and told I belonged in hell. This humiliation occurred in Chicago, not the deep south. During my Manhattan interview, I was unwelcome because I had done medical work in Gaza. Bigotry traverses the Mason-Dixon line, you see.
Perhaps then this loathing stems from our monochromatic populace, lacking diversity. Except that as a physician in Houston, home to the largest medical centre in the world, I have treated patients from Somalia, Ecuador and Egypt, among others. Our Vietnamese population blesses us with phenomenal pho and necessitates a translator 24 hours a day. Of the 82 majority-black counties in the US, all but one are in the south.
What about our so-called lack of political relevance? Did I mention that every major Texas city has a higher uninsured rate than the national rate? One in four Texans lack health insurance. In 2004, 20% of Texas children were uninsured, compared to 11% nationally. The Pew Hispanic Centre estimates that Texas alone holds 14% of all undocumented immigrants. Of the 40 babies I delivered in medical school, five mothers spoke English. Proponent of immigration reform? It starts at our borders. Want universal healthcare? We are the uninsured capital of the country.
This scorn must be because we don’t contribute to the country’s greater good then. But 35% of active-duty military come from the south. Of the US troop casualties in Afghanistan, 47% were from the south, and from Iraq, 38%.
Oddly, the same people who disparage us also have love affairs with our culture. They ridicule us and then profess their love for Nina Simone, Austin, Johnny Cash or Louisiana’s crawfish etouffee dish when it’s trendy. This brings me to my favourite specimens: cocktail party progressives. You know the type – can’t converse without referencing the New Yorker. Pretentious, self-congratulatory liberals who applaud their own humanity while mocking the south. Curiously, they feign knowledge of Hank Williams when fashionable, but their intellectual elitism forgets that Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams were southern geniuses.
I adore our southern nights and the taste of authenticity in Willie Nelson’s voice and Muddy Waters’ blues. I love that we celebrate colossally in New Orleans: Jazz Fest, Crawfish Fest, Mardi Gras, even Jazz Funerals. I was touched when kind neighbours baked us casseroles and stood by us as we endured post-9/11 racism. I am proud that Houstonians opened their homes to 250,000 New Orleans evacuees. That’s genuine southern hospitality. Southerners are not the ignorant, inbreeding, toothless rifle-owning trailer trash that my progressive colleagues paint them as. They are vibrant, passionate Americans with resolve. They have survived and flourished through the civil rights movement, disastrous hurricanes and oil spills, Enron and Halliburton scandals, the Fort Hood tragedy and their loved ones coming home in body bags.
They have epic stories. It’s time our media act as their vessels.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010