I grew up in the South. Folks who say Orlando doesn’t qualify as a Southern town didn’t know it before Disney. I attended Robert E. Lee Jr. High, where we flew a Confederate flag under the U.S. flag. I was accustomed to spoken English drenched in y’alls and dropped syllables. I knew no African Americans other than the maids of two of my friends.
When my husband and I left the South for Chicago, I tended to base my impression of people on how they talked. I judged anyone who pronounced every syllable clearly and said ing instead of ‘in at the end of a word to be a snob. I took an immediate dislike to a young neighbor my age, obviously more intelligent than I, who enunciated her words clearly.
So today when an acquaintance said, “I don’t know why, but I can’t stand Michelle Obama,” even though I didn’t agree, I sort of knew where she was coming from. Now, I know my acquaintance to be a warm-hearted woman. I’ve witnessed the respect she shows children, frail elderly women, everyone she comes in contact with. So why would she, like many people, say she can’t stand Michelle Obama? To conclude she’s a racist is to oversimplify the matter.
As I said, growing up in the South, daughter of a construction worker and a secretary, I didn’t often hear clearly pronounced English. Neither was I accustomed to complex ideas and demonstrations of intellect. Especially if spoken by a woman. (Nearly all of my college professors were men.) Apparently I wasn’t alone. Twenty years ago people hated—yes, hated—Hillary Clinton. Not because of her ideas, I believe, but because we weren’t accustomed to hearing women with her intellect speak. Certainly not publicly. Today she’s one of the most admired women in America.
Then onto the scene came Michelle Obama, not just an intelligent woman but an African-American. Now my intent here is not to sway anyone’s political stance, but to make the case that our feelings of less than (less articulate, less intelligent, less sophisticated) often lead us to make negative judgments about people. Especially when they are different from us in gender, skin color, or education.
My Chicago neighbor? Yes, she had a Yankee accent. Certainly in terms of intellect, I was less than. But neither quality ended up standing in the way of our friendship.