Stereotypes of Mississippians: Which Ones Have a Kernel of Truth?

photographer tourist

Just because a stereotype seems unfair to the people it depicts does not mean it is without at least a kernel of truth. Consider the popular stereotype of American tourists traveling abroad. You can picture it easily, can't you. It is a mother and father with 2 kids. They are all overweight and dressed too casually for wherever they are. The father is probably wearing a Hawaiian shirt and the kind of straw hat that would be appropriate at the beach but not in the downtown area of a major European city. The kids are almost certain to be sticky, and they are all much louder than necessary. At one point, one of the parents can be overheard asking either "Where's the goddamn McDonalds?" or "How come nobody speaks English?" They are brash, rude, and extraordinarily self-centered.

The fact that not all Americans behave like this (#NotAllAmericans) isn't really the point. Some do, and I suspect we've all observed them doing so right here in 'Murica. Most of us know people like this, and some of them do travel internationally. Thus, it shouldn't be too surprising to think that others might notice them. But yes, this is a stereotype which does not apply to all American tourists.

I have been thinking lately about the kind of stereotypes of Mississippians I have encountered. Some do seem to be rooted in reality, but many others do not. When I moved to Mississippi over a decade ago, I came with few stereotypes about the people. I hadn't been here before, didn't know more than a couple of people who had, and had been exposed to surprisingly few depictions of modern Mississippians. I did have some ideas about what the place might look like that turned out to be wrong, but those were less stereotypes and more images my mind filled in the absence of any information.

Perhaps the most common stereotype I have encountered by people outside of Mississippi of the people who live here could be summed up as "good ole boys." This carries with it things like rural, redneck, close-minded, and likely racist. The rural part definitely fits, as do many aspects of the redneck part. Since I grew up in a small down, these things are familiar to me. In fact, I don't see much difference between where I grew up on the West Coast and what I've encountered in Mississippi in these areas. As for the close-mindedness, that has been more apparent here. I'd attribute this primarily to two things: extremely conservative political views and the predominance of evangelical fundamentalist Christianity. The rural/redneck thing has a bigger chip on its shoulder here than where I grew up (which is really saying something), and this includes more hostility toward liberals, non-Christians, and "carpetbaggers" like me.

What about the racist part? I haven't seen much evidence that this is any more of a problem here than most of the other places I've lived (all of which were outside the South and outside the Bible Belt). There is a general resistance to change and an open disdain for helping those who are less fortunate, and this will be interpreted as evidence of racism by some; however, it often strikes me as less about racism and more about conservative politics combined with Christian extremism. None of this means that racism isn't an issue here; racism is an issue everywhere. It just means I don't see it as being significantly worse here than in many places outside the South.

Not surprisingly, the real standout feature of Mississippians has been the Christian extremism. This was one of those rare cases where the few stereotypes I had heard before moving here did not do justice to the reality. What I had heard about how pervasive evangelical fundamentalist Christianity was going to be nothing compared to what I encountered. The warnings had not gone nearly far enough! While not all evangelical fundamentalist Christians are Christian extremists, they provide a context in which Christian extremism flourishes, and it is painfully clear that this has been and continues to be to the detriment of Mississippi. The phrase "self-defeating" is one that often comes to mind.

Not all stereotypes are negative, so what about the positive ones? Aren't Mississippians into "Southern hospitality" and being nice? Many are, but this is a surface-level thing that quickly disappears when they discover you are not interested in accompanying them to church, don't regularly complain that the local Republican officials aren't nearly conservative enough, or weren't born in Mississippi. There often does seem to be a greater level of friendliness here, even more than what I've encountered in other rural areas. It can be nice at times. The problem is that it has a tendency to disappear abruptly as soon as one fails to pass one of the tests (e.g., politically conservative, Southern Baptist, native born).

I have met some good Mississippians, and the fact that most are politically conservative and many are Southern Baptists has not changed that. Getting along requires us to implicitly agree to set aside religion and politics as topics of discussion, and that limits the depth of any resulting relationship. No matter what I do, I will remain an outsider who is never going to be "one of us." I have good days and bad ones, like everybody else, but I think I've made progress in coming to terms with this. This is not an easy place for an outsider, and I believe that's how many of the locals prefer it.