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Although I’ve lived in the Northeastern United States for over half of my adult life, I grew up in the South - depending on who you ask. (Most folks don’t consider Florida “the South” per se; please believe me when I tell you that it’s Southern where it counts.)
I attended undergrad in upstate New York, lived and worked for ten years after college in New York City, and this October, I’ll be celebrating my third year in Philly. In many ways, the Northeast is still as magical to me as it was when my plane landed in LaGuardia all those years ago. Seasons and snow still amaze me, and they probably will until the day I die. I love it here, and I have no intention of moving any time soon.
But I’ve got something stuck in my craw - and that’s how so many of my dear Northeasterners think of and treat anything Southern. The misconceptions, prejudices and bald-faced ignorance I have encountered from friends, neighbors and colleagues is just... well, it’s not just infuriating. It’s embarrassing. So, if y’all don’t mind - some points to ponder!
1. We’re cute as all hell. We don’t generally get a lot of credit for aesthetics (thank you, "Deliverance," for this and soooooooo much more), and you know I don’t mean to boast, but in addition to charm and grace, Southerners are a pretty good looking bunch. Southern born and/or bred stars like Julia Roberts, Christina Hendricks, Megan Fox, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lawrence are perpetual fixtures on even the finickiest “most beautiful” lists. And then there’s Beyonce. Enough said.
2. “Just because I talk slow doesn’t mean I’m stupid.” The smartest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing in my life all have discernible accents. An accent, be it Southern or indicative of any of the other billions of regions on Earth, does not indicate deficient intelligence. An accent is just an accent, and we’ve all got one. So do yourself a favor, and disabuse yourself of this notion altogether. Which brings me to my next point...
3. The word “y’all” is a contraction of “you all.” It is plural. It is a real word. If you don’t know how to use the word “y’all,” PUT IT DOWN. Do not make me say this again.
4. There is tremendous regional diversity in the South. And it’s weird that I have had to explain this more often in New York City than ANYWHERE ELSE I have ever lived. In New York. Where people from the Bronx don’t sound like people from Queens, and where those same folks bristle if you get their borough wrong, I’ve had to explain that the South is not a monolith.
Well, just in case no one ever told you, you’re hearing it here. A lowcountry Carolinian is not a Savannahian is not a Knoxvillier is not a Lexingtonian is not Austinian is not a Houstonian is not an Alabamian is not a son/daughter of New Orleans. This is why all those people look, sound, cook, act - and vote - very, VERY differently. Oh, and there’s also that “individuality” thing that makes everybody different and stuff.
5. Pork is a legitimate institution. It just is. While I grew up in a pork-free household (long story), all of my extended family is culturally Southern. What that means is that by the time I was five, I knew every kind of pork product by name, sight and smell - because I wasn’t allowed to eat that stuff at family functions. Baby back ribs, sausage, chitlins, ham, bacon, fatback, hog maws, lard, bacon fat, bacon grease, and cracklins were all pieces of the same verboten (and to me, exotic and possibly delicious) animal.
Years later, navigating the palate particularities of a Cuban-American boyfriend was a breeze for me because I understood the culinary centrality of the the Almighty Pig. (Pork, incidentally, is a food group in Cuban cuisine. Trufax.) Are there Southern vegans? There are. Right? There are Southern vegans. There have to be. Probably a lot of them. I don’t know how they do it.
6. “What?” is not a polite answer to almost all inquiries. A better answer is a sweetly lilting “Yes?” Even better: “Yes, may I help you?” or something similarly courteous and solicitous. Barking “What?” in reply to a regular question just tells everyone that nobody raised you right. Your manners are terrible. They’re shaming your whole family. Cut that shit out.
7. Tabasco is not hot sauce. Hot sauce is not Tabasco. They are two different but related condiments. Hot sauce - the Louisiana variety, anyway - is heavier on vinegar. Tabasco is more concentrated heat. Hot sauce comes in a lot of different kinds of bottles. Tabasco comes in a little tiny distinct-type bottle.
You will often find them in the same establishments, and in the same kitchens. But under no circumstances are they interchangeable. Please make a note of it, and disseminate this info widely.
8. Many people of color are proud of our Southern roots. I’ve had folks in the Northeast tell me that they don’t consider me Southern. Not SO weird, since I’m from Florida, and many Southerners don’t consider Florida “the South,” but kinda unsettling to hear from... well, Yankees.*
When I’ve asked about it, I’ve found that a lot of White people don’t think of non-White people as being “from the South.” For years, I thought I was imagining this, but no, it’s the general consensus among a lot of liberal, progressive, post-racial White folks. I don’t speak with an accent, but I’m definitely - actually and generationally - Southern. Which brings me around to this next sticking point...
9. We’re not all frothing racists. I don’t usually really have this one thrown at me... mainly because I’m Black. However, I’ve asked around, and apparently it’s a common sentiment. While I can’t pretend that there aren’t plenty of contemporary instances of open racial bigotry throughout the South, I’ll also be the first to say that no region in the world has a patent on Mean-N-Stupid.
Actually, this is a point that cannot be overemphasized, so I’mma be real frank here: I’ve spent most of my adult life in the northeastern United States. In my 35 or so total years on this planet, I’ve experienced a lot of indisputably racist incidents, and of the ones that were violent and/or scary, 80 percent have occurred outside the South, and 90 percent of THOSE? All courtesy of the Empire State. Yup. New York. Horrible people know no borders, and that’s not news. So, hush.
10. Not everything we eat is fried. But we will try and fry any and everything. And what we do fry is fucking delicious. But, yeah. You know how the saying in New York is “Stand still for too long in New York, and you’ll get renovated”? Well, don’t stand still too long around a Southerner, or you’ll get deep fried. To crisp, golden perfection. And served with Tabasco. Or hot sauce. One or the other, though.
*I never say “Yankees” unless we’re talking baseball. Most Southerners I know don’t. In fact, in much of the South, the catch-all term for Northeasters, Midwesterners, and Left Coasters is “New Yorkers.” Seriously. The only people I hear use the word Yankees descriptively are from the UK or Caribbean. I’m convinced that “Yankees” is one of those archaic, nearly obsolete labels that the group it applies to uses more in self-conscious self-reference than outsiders actually do. (SEE ALSO: “Honkies.”)