I am not a complainer. When I was simplifying the landscaping around my house last year, I shoveled at least ten tons of gravel. I never complained that, because I am a single woman, there was no obvious man to whom I could conveniently delegate that task. Instead of complaining, I shoveled. I apply the same theory when there is snow in my very long, steep driveway. I shovel. In the past, I adopted a similar view in the workplace when I noticed a pay disparity between myself and similarly-situated men. I didn’t complain . . . much. I just kept working and tried to help younger women make their way into positions of power. I figured that a chorus of female voices would be more difficult to quell.
Sometimes, however, it is time to complain. Sometimes choosing to be silent in the face of degradation is simply not an option. That’s how I felt this morning when I read that Roger Stone had called Attorney General Jeff Sessions an “insubordinate hillbilly.” At this point, some of you are thinking, “when did Kim Reeder and Jeff Sessions become besties?” We aren’t. In fact, the mere fact that I am leaping to his defense speaks volumes about the depth of my feelings involving Stone’s pejorative use of the word “hillbilly.” I suppose that inspiration often arrives in unexpected packages.
Let’s be clear: the term “hillbilly” isn’t quaint. Merriam-Webster identifies it as having a “disparaging” and “offensive” connotation. When Roger Stone used the term “hillbilly” in connection with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the implication was that the Attorney General’s Alabama roots were synonymous with stupidity or inferiority. Certainly, Stone meant to imply that a background like his own, growing up in Connecticut and New York, was more valuable than one that might give rise to a twangy accent.
I guess I have a particular sensitivity to the word “hillbilly” because it is so often used to belittle people who live in eastern Kentucky, the place where I live. I agree with Merriam-Webster: in our everyday American vernacular, it isn’t a compliment to be called a “hillbilly.” “Hillbillies” are viewed as lazy and shiftless. If you are a “hillbilly,” you aren’t likely to be considered intelligent; stupid or ignorant are more likely monikers. “Hillbillies” engage in incestuous relationships. They are violent and unpredictable. Given this context, it is understandable that when Roger Stone wanted to use a really ugly word to describe Jeff Sessions, “hillbilly” was a great choice.
I want to be clear on another point as well: it isn’t just the Roger Stones of the world who use terms like “hillbilly” to denigrate people from my neck of the woods. I have heard some of my liberal, well-educated friends make similar comments.
Using the word “hillbilly” as a socioeconomic and regional slur is bad enough. However, my real beef is that I am sick and tired of the notion that ridiculing the white rural poor is still acceptable in 2018. I believe in the simple idea that it is always wrong to make fun of people who are vulnerable, people who have access to less societal power because of, for example, their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation – or their socioeconomic status.
I am also sick and tired of explaining this intolerance to my daughter. She is studying in Chile this semester and recently attended an orientation that assembled students from all over the United States who also would be studying in South America. During the meeting, the organizers announced the states that were represented at the meeting, including Kentucky. My daughter heard other students mocking the accent that she hears at home every day. She heard their negative comments about our state: “is Kentucky even a real place?” or “SO backwards.” These were children from families that clearly valued the experience of learning about other cultures. And even these children thought it was acceptable to show contempt for people from an underprivileged area of their own country.
I wish I could have told my daughter that her experience was unique. I wish I could have told her that I have never been called a “hillbilly.” Or “white trash.” When it happened to me, it never made it any better if the speaker laughed and assured me that it was just a joke. I am ashamed to say that sometimes I laughed too, because, at the time, I wasn’t brave enough to call that person out on his or her bigotry. It is nearly impossible to believe in your own worth when faced with clear evidence that others are doubtful that it exists.
Most of all, I guess, I am, in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Yes, children, I can confirm that Kentucky is a “real place.” I was born here. I live here. And, every day I do whatever I possibly can to help the young people that I encounter understand that they aren’t “hillbillies.” Regardless of what Roger Stone or anyone else tells them.
If you read what I’ve written here and think that it is an angry over-reaction to what was, at best, clumsy political rhetoric, I can’t deny that you may be right. In the novel Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison aptly describes the way that being made to feel inferior can create anger, anger that may be masked as pride. The narrator, Bone, describes how she feels when she is called “trash”: “I could feel a kind of heat behind my eyes that lit up everything I glanced at. It was dangerous, that heat. It wanted to pour out and burn everything up, everything they had that we didn’t have, everything that made them think they were better than us.”
Like Bone, maybe I’m just angry. Nevertheless, don’t call me, my daughter or my people “hillbillies.”