Monday, May 30, 2011

White On White Crime

Photo by: J. Stephen Conn
[First Place Essay Winner - Phi Theta Kappa 2010 Regional Literary Anthology]

A Satirical Glance at Cultural Stereotyping in Rural America

Both my parents were born and raised in the mountains of a very small, rural community in Pikeville, Tennessee. I, on the other hand, had been raised predominately between the borders of poverty and the homeless on the urban streets of Los Angeles, California. Sometime during my 7th year in school, my parents decided to return to their roots and moved back to Pikeville, within the sanctuary and solace of family and familiarity. Who would of thought that a simple, unassuming move from the urban sprawl to the simplicity of country living would spawn a hard lesson in cultural stereotyping and upbringing-prejudice? I would later find out there was plenty to be concerned with, and ironically enough it wouldn’t be until I was an adult attending an English Composition class at Chattanooga State, living back in that very small country town of Pikeville, that I would realize I had been subjected to cultural stereotyping.

What does a young white male – boy – know about cultural stereotyping and prejudice? What on earth could a young white boy be worried – I wasn’t – about moving from the racial and cultural mesh of the inner city, to a small, seemingly unimposing, school that consisted entirely of “white” people just like him? After all it’s not like I was moving into a predominately ethnic rich or culturally diverse neighborhood or school, which is what I was used to. These people were just like me. In fact many would be family as my father warned, “Son, be careful which girls you kiss; they just might be your cousin.” Sure enough he was right; in some form or fashion, married kin and blood kin alike, I was related to nearly half of my classmates. This should have made for an even easier transition, so one would have thought.

It should be noted that Pikeville rests in the heart of Bledsoe County; also known by historians and locals as “Bloody Bledsoe,” due greatly in part to the loss of life and limb endured from the feuding battles between families and communities bitterly divided by Union and Confederate supporters, and by virtue of the Civil War itself. I wasn’t aware of this little known fact until after I had taken a Tennessee history lesson in the required 4H club later that same year in 7th grade. Had I been privy to this beforehand I might have been a bit more prepared for the “battles” I would experience. Oh sure, my father commonly narrated anecdotes about his childhood growing up in Pikeville, and the plethora of schoolyard scraps he used to engage in on a daily basis, but I subconsciously filed those stories away with the other seemingly exaggerated tales – more like moralized preaching’s – that always started out with, “When I was your age-” like, “I had to walk five miles to school, uphill, both ways, in the snow without socks or shoes,” and “we had no toys, we played with rocks, and we were happy to have them.”

The small mountain community of Pikeville had an even smaller school, which combined elementary and junior high in the same building, named Mary V. Wheeler Elementary School. Needless to say, there was no way I was going to just “blend in” or sink into the recesses of obscurity in a place where everyone knew everyone, and had done so since they were “knee-high to a tadpole.” I might as well had been someone with a different ethnic background or skin color, because the moment I stepped on that school bus for the first time, the moment I opened my mouth and didn’t speak with a “southern drawl,” or use words like, “ya’ll”, “fixin’”, and “yonder,” I was an outsider; a foreigner amongst people of my own race and kin. The children gawked and stared; pointed fingers with sneers and giggles. They whispered and talked amongst themselves, perhaps trying to glean some manner of understanding of what fell-creature had just entered their bus, and where “it” had came from. I imagined it was very similar to the feeling Judith Ortiz Cofer in “The Myth of the Latin Woman” described when sometimes peoples actions and words “can make you an island,” and not the pretty tropical kind, but rather more that resembling the undesirable destination of Alcatraz despite your best efforts to “belong." A few of the children even mustered up the will and courage to speak to it – me –, “Watt’s yur name?” and “Whur ya from?” some asked. When they found out that I wasn’t “from ‘round these parts,” but more importantly a “city boy,” my life became a series of tests and manly trials for the first few weeks that I will never forget.

The male bravado can be hypersensitive to change, particularly when it comes in the form of “new blood,” and I was the new blood. Coming into a situation like that, I had to prove myself. There was already a well-established pecking order amongst the boys, and they wanted to know where I stood. Brent Staples in “Black Men and Public Space” touched on this “male romance with the power to intimidate,” citing several examples of how “poor and powerless young men” have used violence to boost their own self worth, and most of those boys did indeed come from a financially challenged household, including myself. In my case, I was automatically labeled as “weak” and “soft” simply because I hadn’t grown up in the harsh environment of a country lifestyle, but what they didn’t know was growing up in the inner-city was not a pleasant stroll through easy street either.

There were three boys that stood out from the rest: Clarence, Marty and Claude. They occupied the top three ranks in the pecking order, and tested my “manhood” on a daily basis. Clarence was the undisputed top dog. More man than boy, Clarence had legs like tree trunks and arms and hands big enough to crush a man’s skull. He was thick in the middle, with broad shoulders, and was much taller then anyone else, even those in the 8th grade. I often wondered, but never had the courage to ask, whether these physical “blessings” were attributed to good genes, or simply because Clarence had been held back a time or two and really was a man amongst boys. Marty was super-lean and tough as nails. His slender frame betrayed his quasi-superhuman strength. Marty typically was the victor of any manhood test that required the endurance of pain or strength. Claude was also strong and lean, but his best attribute was his speed. When he ran, his upper body seemed to be nailed flat to a board; stiff and perfectly perpendicular to the ground. His running gait was comprised of short choppy steps, but regardless of how awkward he looked when he ran, he was blazing fast, faster than anyone in the school.

Each day I would come home with bruises, scratches, and knots on my arms and legs. These were usually the end result of punching matches, knuckle busting, wrestling, or some other conceived form of manhood test, but sometimes they were the result of fistfights as well. This went on for several weeks – it never really stopped, as there was always someone trying to move up ranks of the pecking order – until ironically enough, it wasn't my success or failure at any of these “tests”, but rather from a simple game of tackle football on the playground that propelled me from “city boy” to “one of the boys.”

By this time I had earned enough “country boy” creditability to play, but rarely did I have the ball thrown or handed to me. I was usually delegated to the menial task of blocking or hiking the ball; everyone knew those tasks were better suited for the city boy anyway. As fate would have it, someone from the opposing team fumbled the ball right in front of me. Instincts kicked in, and I picked up the ball and started running as fast as I could, but before I had even traveled a few feet, three boys from the opposing team jumped on top of me in an attempt to bring me down. This was my chance, I thought, this was my chance to prove to these country boys that I was no pansy city boy. I leaned forward and got my legs churning as fast as I could, pushing off one of the defenders in the process. Before I knew it, others had joined in, trying to bring me down with reckless abandon, but by sure will and determination I did not falter.

As the weight bearing down on me became too much to bear, my inertia stopped, and I began to drift backwards. Soon it wasn’t just my opponents trying to bring me down, but my own teammates as well, trying to get me down before I had lost too many yards. At one point there must have been at least six boys on, and around me, trying to bring me down, but I wouldn’t have any of it. I just kept chopping my feet until finally I was able to break away from the full weight of the scrum. With two boys still on my back, I jolted forward and managed to break loose from them just moments before crossing the goal line for a touchdown.

It was one of the most exhilarating and satisfying moments in my life. It’s amazing how sports will often break down social, ethnic, and cultural barriers that our society builds up, even when all other efforts fail. Much like how I was able to shed the burden of those young men off my back, I was able to shed the burden of being labeled a “city boy,” and instantly earned my place among the “country boys.”

Jack G. Shaheen’s mother summed up the attitude we all must share towards cultural tolerance best in “The Media’s Image of Arabs” when he quoted her saying, “Have compassion for all people, Jackie. Stereotypes hurt." This is true across all cultures and ethnicities, and such as it was in my case, sometimes hurt physically too. Thankfully bumps and bruises eventually fade, but emotional and psychological scars can often leave a lasting impression that can span a lifetime.

Michael A. Walker
Defying Procrastination 

What cultural stereotyping have you been exposed to? Ever move from a big city to a small town? Or, vice versa?  

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