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No, I Don’t Find Your Hillbilly Jokes Funny

I was presenting on a panel about resistance to strip mining in Appalachia at the 2010 Baltimore Radical Book Fair, and we’d made it to the question-and-answer session. Hands in the audience bolted up to ask about community-outsider activist relations, Obama’s policies on mountaintop removal and the efficacy of civil resistance in ending this destructive form of coal mining. Each question posed its own challenge, but none were particularly unexpected. That is, until one of the presenters called on an unassuming woman in the front row.

“I regularly read the comments section on the Beckley Register-Herald site,” she told us, “From these comments, I’ve learned that these people, they like what they’re doing, they like blowing up mountains.”

I first speculated that she was towing the coal industry line, suggesting that strip-mining brings jobs to coal-producing areas and is universally welcome in those regions. If someone received all their news about mining from the rabidly pro-coal Beckley, West Virginia Register-Herald, it’s reasonable that they’d come away with those sentiments.*

“They [Appalachians living in coal-extraction areas] hate us, they hate Obama, they hate people from Baltimore, they hate black people, they hate Muslims,” she continued, troubling my earlier assumption. Her mouth was literally twisting in anger as she spoke, “You say there are people [in Appalachia] who care about what’s happening but I see no evidence of that. Why are you there helping them? We should just say fuck ‘em, they want what’s happening to them.”

My first reaction was an overwhelming desire to scream. Staring out in to the mostly receptive audience, I decided against that course of action, took a couple breaths and leaned towards the microphone.

“I think that the Beckley Register-Herald comments, which are trolled by pro-mining extremists, are a very poor place to learn about mountaintop removal’s effects on Appalachia. I know many Appalachians who are fighting for their air and water, and strip miners who view their jobs as necessary evils at best,” I replied, the words flying out furiously, “I know people who are dying of cancer and gall bladder disease from poisoned water. If you think that Appalachians deserve what’s coming to them based on comments on an Internet site, you need to revaluate where you are getting your information.”

This woman came off as an extremist, but I worry deeply about the popularity of her sentiments.

I’ve noticed that among acquaintances of mine, including radicals who claim to have firm understandings of privilege and oppression, stereotyping and making jokes about rural Appalachians is acceptable. While these same friends call people out for enacting other forms of oppression, they don’t consider making derogatory comments about hillbilly culture as part of the same paradigm of racist-classist-patriarchal-capitalist-white supremacy they are fighting against.

Do radicals and progressives engage in this kind of dialogue because they think it’s all right to make fun of a cultural group commonly assumed to be homogeneously white and racist? Is it fine for individuals from affluent, cosmopolitan areas to make fun of rural whites, who are primarily money-poor?

As an anti-mountaintop removal activist currently living outside of Appalachia, challenging mainstream cultural assumptions about the region is a critical part of my work against strip mining. Admittedly, I don’t always do this well. I’ve sometimes found myself staying quiet when hillbilly jokes are made, afraid of seeming argumentative or overly politically correct. These are poor excuses, especially because commonly held cultural assumptions about Appalachians are not harmless. They are part of what allows destructive practices like mountaintop removal, which has leveled over four hundred peaks across the region and sullies its air and water, to occur.

Let’s face it: Many Americans see Appalachian people as expendable. Consciously or not, when we stereotype them as white, poor, uneducated, backward, patriarchal and racist we are justifying our comfort (the comfort brought to us from light and heat via mountaintop removal coal) at the expense of Appalachians dying from poisoned air and water. Many Appalachian activists have suggested that if mountaintop removal were happening in more culturally important or affluent areas, it would not be tolerated.

In black feminist and native Kentuckian bell hooks’ book Belonging: A Culture of Place, she writes eloquently about the real world consequences of stereotyping backwoods folk. In one essay, hooks, who was brought up in black hillbilly culture (thus challenging the notion that all mountaineers are white) writes:

It is not difficult to see the link between the engrained stereotypes about mountain folk (hillbillies), especially those who are poor, representations that suggest that these folks are depraved, evil, ignorant, licentious, and the prevailing belief that there is nothing worth honoring, worth preserving about their habits of being, their culture … To truly create a social ethical context wherein masses of American citizens can empathize with the life experiences of Appalachians we must consistently challenge dehumanizing public representations of poverty and the poor.

Are there rural, white Appalachians who are racist and patriarchal? Certainly. Do I think it’s important to call people out on their racism/patriarchy and engage in dialogue with them about it, if possible? Of course. But these actions must be coupled with continued examination of our own prejudices. In the essay “To Be Whole & Holy,” hooks writes:

Houses in the hollows close to ours [growing up] were inhabited by poor white folk, who we were taught were rabid racists …Even if they were by chance neighborly, we were taught to mistrust their kindness …Racial hatred and the racist actions it engenders are not the exclusive domains of poor whites. Class prejudice is at the core of their belief that these white people are more likely to be free of racial prejudice …I have found white neighborhoods in all the privileged-class neighborhoods I have lived in across the United States, including Kentucky, to have as much a presence of racial prejudice as their poor counterparts.

I see racism and patriarchy among the New York City coffee shop crowd I interact with daily, and grew up with it in the suburbs of the city, where whites are struggling with their prejudices in the face of growing and vibrant black and Hispanic communities. I’d like to go so far as to suggest that, by demarcating a white other (in this case, rural Appalachians) as more racist & sexist than us (progressives/radicals living in urban, affluent areas), we avoid confronting our own prejudices. Stereotyping also carries with it an inherent classism and cultural bias that lets us privilege certain forms of knowledge, such as college degrees and careers, over traditional Appalachian skills like wild crafting, hunting, crafting and food storing. I’ve found Appalachia to have as much, if not more, cultural richness as New York City, where I live now, and the liberal arts college town that I called home for two years.

Appalachian activism, culture and values have had tremendous impacts on life in the United States. Union coal miners put their lives on the line, and sometimes lost them, for worker’s rights, and we have reaped the rewards of their legacy. The miners who fought in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor insurrection in United States history, laid the foundation for a national movement that eventually won the eight-hour day, weekends and minimum wage. Appalachians were pioneers of popular education, founding the Highlander Folk School and settlement schools, and were critical leaders and allies in the Civil Rights Movement. Appalachia gave us the olde tyme music, the liberal hipness of Asheville, North Carolina and an anarchic spirit of resistance all but dead in the contemporary United States. I am constantly awed and intimidated by the skills my friends who grew up in southern Appalachia possess– deep knowledge of the mountains, the land, traditional crafts and community history.

Appalachians are not only fighting the coal conglomerates and out-of-state landholders in their struggle to end strip mining, but are also struggling against cultural assumptions that mark them as expendable. If we are choosing to fight injustice and exploitation, whether generally or in their specific manifestations through the destruction of the globe’s most ancient mountain range, we must examine our own understandings and popular representations of hillbilly culture. To win this struggle and any other that impacts Appalachia, it is imperative that we stand in solidarity with its people and call on our comrades to do the same.

* Beckley, West Virginia is the nearest large city to the Coal River Valley, where I lived between July 2009 and August 2010. The mountains that form the crumpled borders of the valley have been assaulted by mountaintop removal, their peaks flattened and ecology destroyed to extract thin seams of coal. The area is also a hotbed of activism against strip mining: it’s the home of Coal River Mountain Watch, one of the birthplaces of Mountain Justice, and the base for civil resistance campaign Climate Ground Zero.

– w. awry, It’s Getting Hot in Here, Nov. 2010