I lived in the American South most of my life–20 years actually: North Carolina, Florida, South Carolina, and now Arkansas. And I was born in Georgia. I actually consider myself a northern girl at heart. I was never taught Southern charm. Half of my family is from the Northeast. And the other half, while they also spent a considerable amount of time American South, is from the American Midwest.
There’s something about small talk irks me and not just because I’m an introvert. I never grew up eating soul food although I do like a mean mac and cheese. I know very little about the Southern Black church tradition. The other traditions of hunting and fishing are completely foreign to me. What I do know is the constant sensation of feeling out of place. Like I don’t really belong here no matter where I go.
I know how to follow the social cues: to smile and make small talk with the people around here. The Shuck and Jive if you will. I know complimenting and charming and all that great stuff, but it feels so false and it feels insincere. And it feels false and insincere coming from them too. I know the goal is to make people around you feel more comfortable but I don’t like it. If it were up to me, we’d all do like “rude” New Yorkers do: get to the point so I can move on with my day. There is nothing wrong with a conversation with a stranger–even though although my introversion (read: social anxiety) might think otherwise.
I think most people, especially people born abroad, envision America as big cities, booming businesses, modern, interesting, culturally sophisticated (at least in liberal circles anyway). A Melting Pot. I think people who grew up in big east coast or west coast cities also think this way. At least I did.
Foreigners often imagine the American population as blonde-haired, blue-eyed old-fashioned white American. And big cities and other places where I have lived–especially South Florida–are really nothing like that. However, I found that the rest of Middle America and the American South is very white– if you aren’t in an “urban” area (I know this is just a blanket statement. Not an absolute.)
If you’re moving anywhere in the American South, especially from a big northern city, here are my thoughts and recommendations.
(I haven’t experienced the worst of it all. I’m a stay-at-home mom who avoids public spaces as much as I can.)
1. Remember where you are.
The people may have 1985 values and the city might make you think it’s still 1995. My husband and I had a running joke every time we experienced something anachronistic, that we’d traveled to the past when we moved to South Carolina. Many people SC never seemed like they were interested in making any progress. Like they were comfortable with the way things were and had always been. And I don’t mean a liberal or democratic party mind state. There seemed to be little interest in trying new things at all. Eating healthier, staying fit, or exhibiting any values that Americans in progressive cities try to adopt. Or perhaps, I was excluded from areas where they did care about those things.
2. There is a lot of rural poverty
I think what struck me the most in South Carolina (Columbia and Newberry, especially) was the poverty. There were actual shacks.
I remember playing a fortune-telling game called MASH as middle schooler: The game determined whether you’d live in a mansion, apartment, shack or house. I’d never seen a shack then. In my cozy middle school life, I knew it was bad, but they weren’t real. I didn’t think they could exist in America.
Whole shack neighborhoods a step above shantytowns exist in rural parts of the American south. The last place I remember seeing similar neighborhoods was in Barbados, away from the “touristy areas.”
This is where many poor white people in America live.
Rural poverty is different from urban poverty because in urban poverty, one has physical access to things rural folks just don’t have. Without a car, you can at least walk somewhere. There are stores and businesses, and maybe even hope for a better life if you can find a job nearby. In rural poverty, that walk may be miles. No McDonalds down the street to find a job. No soup kitchens, no homeless shelters. You can read more about Rural Poverty on the PBS website.
Rural poverty shapes the way people think and determines their values. Rural poverty fosters a ton of ignorance. Rural poverty means even less exposure to outside ideas and values.
3. People who grew up in the south have a genuine pride and love of the “old south.” It was quaint, a better time, or “charming,” is the attitude among many of the caucasian folks here. One of my 8th-grade teachers was all but fangirling over Robert E. Lee. It’s uncomfortable for me to be around people who extol these values. I think, “You do know that black people existed then? And were barely considered people, right?” Not grand ol’ times for everyone.
4. Antebellum architecture is everywhere, right alongside those shacks. Big white homes with the white columns seen every slave movie ever, are still there. It’s uncomfortable to see the antebellum homes with a smaller shack on property and not think of the legacy of slavery. There are very wealthy people who still live in the south. They may have moved to the suburbs, but their big white houses still stand.
The statehouses, governors’ houses, are all antebellum. I remember my chorus class performed at some old family manor, mansion or estate on a class trip in North Carolina. Supposedly a beautiful place, the girls in my class were thinking about how it would be lovely to get married there. I was thinking that not too long ago, my ancestors weren’t welcome on property. And if they were, they entered through backdoors and worked behind the scenes: serving the inhabitants, getting beaten and raped.
5. Giant confederate flags, larger than any American flag you’ve ever seen, fly proudly off interstates, front lawns, and on pick-up trucks. There is no shame in being a rebel– even though rebel means a traitor to the United States.
When we first moved to SC, I told friends and family: “Remember when that woman–Bree Newsome–climbed the flag pole at the Statehouse and removed the confederate flag? That was just two years ago (2015). Yeah, that’s where I live, now. I pass the building every time I go to Trader Joes.”
Also, just a note: Some southern state flags are reminiscent of the confederate flag, but no one has anything to say about that. I like SC’s flag though.
6. Church culture is real. Take heed or get a woopin’ from the Bible Belt.
If you hit it off with a stranger, they will ask you where you go to church. If they find out you don’t attend, or if they find out you’re new in town, they’ll invite you to their church. I’m not an atheist, and I believe in God, but I haven’t gone to church in a long time. Be prepared for an awkward silence if you turn them down.
When I was pregnant, strangers looked at my naked ring finger. (I wore it on a string around my neck at the time due to swelling.) I can only imagine what they were thinking. And this was in Raleigh, NC by the way. Which I think has come a very long way in terms of becoming more progressive since 1999.
In South Carolina, there were more churches than gas stations. I swear there was a church on every other corner. If you are the church-going kind, there are plenty of options.
7. The people who spit on the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges are still alive–if they haven’t passed away by disease or accident, they’re still kicking it.
They probably don’t live in my neighborhood, and they probably don’t traverse any areas that I visit often. But if they haven’t left Arkansas, and if they haven’t left Little Rock, they’re still here. I can’t help but look at every older person I see and wonder what side of history they were on in the 50s and 60s.
And they have children who are my parents’ age. And grandchildren my age. As soon as three generations ago, they didn’t want us in the same space as them. Might they have taught their children and grandchildren the same thing? Sure people grow and change as they are exposed to new information and ideas, but I can’t help but wonder.
Many white people have moved into the suburbs and more rural areas. I avoid those when I can.
8. Don’t take southern racist bullsh*t lying down.
I went to Walmart to return something, and I had an uncomfortable encounter with an older man–maybe in his 60 or 70s. He was a greeter, and his job was to give me that little return sticker and direct me to the customer service counter. The man stood really close to me and his hand on my shoulder as he gave me instructions. I felt uncomfortable and didn’t like it. Hubby was mad but we pursued no further action.
A week later, I’m leaving the same store. Pulling my two-year-old out of the cart and grabbing my items that were way too big for the little Walmart bags I put them in. And our greeter friend appears out of nowhere and attempts to “help me.”
He reaches out to my daughter and places his hand on her back. No asking, “Do you need assistance?” Yes, assuming a right to our bodies based on whatever he was thinking. Assuming he had the right to help me. Assuming I needed help.
And because he’s an old white man, and because we are in Arkansas I can’t help but think he was raised in a time and place when it was an okay thing to touch a woman, a black woman or child when he felt so inclined.
Now some people are comfortable touching strangers on the arm or shoulder because they’re affectionate and it’s harmless and they mean nothing by it. But as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t know me, don’t touch me. Because it happened twice in the same week by the same person, I didn’t think it was a coincidence.
I ask myself, what would have been my reaction if he were a black man? I would have slapped him sideways… Okay, I’m not one for physical violence but I would have cussed him out. If he were an older black man I wouldn’t cuss him out but I would think he should know better. And he would instantly be labeled as a creep. I’d think twice about reporting him because I know black men have it rough. It might have to be handled based on the vibe I was getting from the guy at the time.
If it were a white woman, regardless of age I would feel disrespected and annoyed. I probably wouldn’t cuss her out but I might report her. If it were young white dude he would also be labeled a creep and reported. Since my anger would be the same across genders and all races except for a black woman like me, this greeter’s actions were reported to management.
9. Just because they’re Black, doesn’t mean they’ll take your side when it comes to white folx.
Continuing with our story from above, I reported both incidents to the manager at Walmart who happened to be directly in charge of our greeter friend. Black woman. Imagine my relief when I see her face. Obviously, she knows about microaggressions. She knows about the things that happen to people here, as in no doubt she lives here. She has a manager job at Walmart– that’s some staying power in Arkansas.
Thankfully, she didn’t dismiss what I said. And she did say she’d talk to him about it. But she also said, “I just think he’s a friendly guy.”
It makes me wonder how many times has he touched her. Touched other random customers in the store. Maybe his touch is completely innocent and is in no way a small demonstration of him exerting power over her, me or anyone else. Of course, she knows the man better than I do. Maybe she knows for a fact that he isn’t racist and he marched next to Martin Luther King, Jr. Shoot I have no idea. Maybe he feels like he has to protect black women from the dangers of walking around alone.
But I’m skeptical. If he’s really as “down” for black people as I’m making him out to be, he should know touching me without permission might be read as disrespect and an act of racism and misogyny.
And what I’ve found since I’ve been here, is people of your own race will defend these types of actions.
10. Make your own space. Find your crew. Your tribe.
This made a huge difference for me. Being around other Black women in such a white place, made me feel at home. Like I wasn’t the odd woman out, a stranger, or like I didn’t really belong. It supported my sel- esteem
In high school, the majority of my friends were white. This meant when they talked about their crushes, beach houses, and day-to-day experiences, I felt left out. They wouldn’t be able to understand me unless I had to “explain” everything. So I didn’t and kept quiet. I had no one who could explain or relate to racist microaggressions I experienced, complain about the kid who argued against affirmative action in a class presentation or even get hair ideas from. My friends didn’t “get it.”
Just remember how Black people congregating used to be illegal and how it might be perceived by the general (white) public.
11. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.
I write all these things not because I want you to prejudge anything, anyone, or any place that you may go. You may find your experience to be very different. I write because I want to share what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced. There are lots of other people who have had similar experiences, and I’m sure just as many who have different ones.
What tips and suggestions do you have for Black people moving to the South?