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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

The South is not a lost cause. I am not a lost cause.

Whether or not it is wholly acknowledged, identity plays an integral role in our interactions with both society and ourselves. Seeking to ascribe definite messages to the intangible aspects of personhood and identity cannot be ignored; it must be reckoned with. However, the manner in which this internal and external recognition is accomplished is not simple. By definition alone, identity — combining social, emotional, cultural and biological understandings into one person — is complex! To mitigate this complexity, society has developed schemas — oftentimes using unfair stereotypes —to categorize individuals. 

At this point, most of us should have learned that stereotypes are extremely harmful. Stereotypes are used to marginalize both collective histories and cultures, as well as personal experiences, into one singularity, giving no room for people to differ from an unfounded paradigm. These notions are damaging, leading to misunderstandings and, at worst, motivated violence.

While not necessarily obvious, there is a troubling amount of anti-Southern rhetoric both throughout America and on campus. As a resident of Louisiana, I have seen this continual perpetuation of negative stereotypes minimize the experience of marginalized groups in the South — people of color, women and people of lower socioeconomic status — and lead to further inequality for those that need protection.

Before I begin, I ask you to pinpoint one word that comes to mind when thinking of the South. Got it? In a poll, I asked my non-Southern, Notre Dame Instagram followers this very question in order to see their perspectives. The possibilities were endless, but somehow, a majority of the responses focused on the social or political aspects of the region, notably using the words “white,” “conservative” and “racist.” Sure, there were a few opinions that underscored the “misunderstood” nature of the South, but the vast majority centered their opinions solely on the stereotypical Southern composition. No responses had an overwhelmingly positive connotation. 

Given the way media can diminish Southern politics, the modern origins of these stereotypes are not surprising. Regardless, the wide-reaching effects of these normalized, negative sentiments toward Southerners can lead to a warped sense of self in a place so far from home. I hope my experiences here at Notre Dame may allow for a greater understanding of these detrimental consequences.

For reference, I have lived my entire life in the South, but I spent most of my childhood in Moss Bluff, Louisiana, a town known for its oil refineries, high school baseball and many, many hurricanes. Growing up with an ever-important emphasis on hospitality, there was internal pressure to stay within the community and raise your children the “right way” — whatever that means. Considering there was minimal outside influence due to our relative rurality, there arose a sense of stagnation that enveloped my town, preventing new ideas from developing for fear of breaking comfortable norms. That’s not to say people did not try, but there was a nuanced fear of social ostracism. What you gained in community, you lost in the variability of thought. You gained camaraderie, but you lost yourself. 

While I had a few experiences that shook my preconceived notions, such as the American Exchange Project, it was not until coming to Notre Dame that I received a truly global educational perspective. Coming from a predominantly low-income public school in Southwest Louisiana, I had never been exposed to so many new thought processes at once. It was like someone flipped a switch, enlightening me to a whole new world. Yet, this bursting of my metaphorical bubble was informative for negative reasons, as well. 

Growing up in a culturally homogenous town, I had never received backlash for my upbringing, but I was now being called “uneducated” and “shockingly smart,” due to my Southern speech patterns and sympathy for LSU football (even after Brian Kelly). I knew there was privilege in attaining a private education, but it was drilled into me that hard work could surmount all obstacles. Nonetheless, I was not aware that the education gap between myself and my peers at Notre Dame was uncharacteristically wide, due to Louisiana’s #48 ranking in public education. 

Even though I was working as hard as possible, I could not manage to recreate the academic success that had come so naturally in high school. Combining this with the subtle yet pointed jabs at my intelligence, I developed imposter syndrome so horrible that I completed a “Separation from the University” form. These words — these harmful stereotypes — have concrete consequences. 

While I acknowledge that my experience is extreme, I am not the only person to have encountered the negative effects of this stigmatizing rhetoric. In the same Instagram poll, people have been told that they “don’t act like they’re Southern,” as well as been told that it is “unbelievable” for a Southerner to attend a school like Notre Dame. 

But to be honest, it is somewhat unbelievable. Coming from a state that is ranked #46 in health care, #47 in economy, #48 in opportunity, #2 in inequality and #1 in imprisonment rate per 100,000 people, I acknowledge my privilege and honestly, my luck to be here. I had to work against societal norms and inequalities to attend Notre Dame, but regardless of my origins, I — and other Southern students — deserve respect and to exist on this campus without having stereotypical insults haphazardly hurled at us.

Both on campus and beyond, this rhetoric affects everyone, but it has an overwhelming impact on marginalized groups, such as the 56% of Black Americans that call the South home. In making stereotypical commentary on the state of Southern affairs using dangerous rhetoric, marginalized groups — as well as those who seek to affect change — are pinned against baseless disparagements that do not allow for positive change, expectant only of a regression toward an imaginary mean. 

Simply put, the Southern identity has many attributes. Yes, it is warm, it is hospitable and we will, indeed, say “Bless your heart.” However, even when considering its faults, the South is not a lost cause. 

I am not a lost cause. 

Ben Martin, residing in St. Edward’s Hall and hailing from Lake Charles, Louisiana, is a sophomore member of BridgeND studying political science, French and art history. As a Glynn Scholar and a Hesburgh Democracy Fellow, his research interests include autocratic influences in democratic backsliding and the relationship between art and politics.

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets bi-weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in Duncan Student Center Meeting Room 1, South W106 to learn about and discuss current political issues and can be reached at bridgend@nd.edu or on Twitter @bridge_ND.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.