The Hillbilly Divide

The following thread comes from Appalnet, the Appalachian Studies listserv (slightly edited), May, 2014:

Colleagues, if you read the following on your institutional discussion board in reference to a complaint about a barefoot student, how would you respond to the professor?

“My approach would be to assure this student that going barefoot is not against the rules because the assumption is that by the time they reach college, students are expected to understand why wearing shoes is expected on campus. If s/he disrespects his or her peers and the college community enough to (un)dress like a hillbilly here, I would say, then s/he should be prepared to be dismissed as one, in whatever pursuits s/he favors, in the preference of someone more attuned to proper decorum and respectful behavior.”


Spit on their car.


Perhaps by pointing out in the same forum that “proper decorum and respectful behavior” generally includes avoiding demeaning language and derogatory terms directed at ethnic, regional and social groups. And I’d probably work it into a class session about making convincing arguments as an example of how easy it can be to undermine your own argument.


Although I can think of a thousand guerrilla tactics that I might enjoy–and though I am thinking of them right now–I think the idea above might be more effective. I might make the discussion about demeaning language and derogatory terms as public as possible, and I might correlate the term “hillbilly” to other terms demeaning other groups of people.  I might even make a handy chart.


I can’t disagree. However we might also gain by shedding some light on this crap (my sarcastic aside– except for car spitting).

This situation is different from the Sterling character in the NBA who has been in the news, but I suspect he (and maybe the rancher out West) have let loose the negative stereotypes about African Americans for years.

At what point do you call someone out publicly?

At what point would the Anti Defamation League or the NAACP speak out?

At what point should we?


My thought is that by responding in the same forum in which the original comment was made — and by bringing it into the classroom — you are calling the person out in the “public” that matters most.


Oh my gosh! When I got to college (25+ years ago), and my fellow students found out where I was from, they literally said “I’m surprised you wear shoes!” I guess those same fools went on to be college profs. No, in fact I’m sure of it, because that stereotype is freely repeated, in the classroom, with no fear of reprisal, at my university today.


Yes. One of the reasons I wrote my latest book was hearing fellow faculty in New York City, from all sorts of races, classes, sexes, sexual orientations and more speak so blithely an ignorantly of Appalachians. It made me realize that, to a certain degree, I am living in an alien land. [That’s my contribution to the thread.]


Although this goes back 30 years or so… I grew up in Nashville, and went to SUNY-Binghamton.  Among other things I was asked… “When did you start wearing shoes?”  So it is regional as much as it is Appalachian.

Interesting is the way that the stereotype has been marketed… I have noted souvenir towels with pictures of a hillbilly kicking back in a chair with a jug of moonshine for sale at shops along I-24… and the rest area/visitors center coming into Tennessee is a reproduction of a cabin in the mountains.


My mom tells the story of showing some out-of-town ladies the town of Abingdon, VA, where she was born (and I was born, and we were all born), and them driving by my sister and my cousin walking to the drugstore barefoot.  The ladies said, “oh, how quaint!”  Also my father’s painting teacher at VCU (whatever it was called back then; I’m blanking on that right now) called him “mountain man.”  It was not a compliment.

So these offenses run deep.


Aaron – this kind of stereotyping is also rampant at Virginia Tech.


The story works either way.  Such people might have found their wearing shoes quaint!


I am struck in this thread at the persistence of stereotyping of Appalachians.  It almost seems to fill a need in those who engage in it. I wonder if it’s going to take more than education to end it.

Appalachians. We are, speaking loosely, the descendants of the Scots-Irish from the border between England and Scotland who, after a century on Ulster Plantation, made their ways to the colonies in the 18th century. Unwelcomed by the older British colonists in North America, they made their way past them, to the backcountry. Some stayed, their descendants becoming today’s Appalachian-Americans. Others spearheaded the movement west, becoming the bedrock of small-town America.

Never accepted by the secular-humanist culture that evolved through the Enlightenment on the coast, their irascible and independent nature led to the War of the Regulation in the Carolinas in the late 1760s and to the Whiskey Rebellion shortly after the Revolution. They horrified “cultured” Americans in the 1820s when one of their own, Andrew Jackson, was elected president, his followers soiling Washington, DC with their muddy boots and streams of tobacco spit.

Instead of demolishing them, the attitudes of those who saw the Scots-Irish Borderer culture as backward contributed to the culture’s survival and, eventually, once more to their political domination. Starting with the Reagan era, this revival has shifted the entire American political debate far to the right.

Dismissing people as “hillbillies” and “rednecks” clearly doesn’t work. It only turns them into an opposition—and a powerful one even in their days in the “wilderness” after the Barry Goldwater disaster. Resentment against the “east coast elite” led them back to a power that conservatives had lacked since 1932. It may have waned a bit recently, but it still defines American political debate.

The reality of the “hillbilly” is too strong a cultural presence, even when it is converted into parody, for it ever to be defeated. It is an element of all American lives, whether they love to hate it, hate to love it, or just plain love it. “The hillbilly,” writes J.W. Williamson “lives not only in hills but on the rough edge of the economy, wherever that happens to land him…. He’s the shadow of our doubt.”

The hillbilly is the repository for all the negative attitudes in sophisticated quarters for that “other,” the Red State right. Yet he has also become the Borderer thumb in the eye to the coastal elites. He is the image of the defeated “worst” of America as well as the symbol of their rise from the ashes. The Confederate soldier in a soiled and torn uniform on license plates in the 1960s south over the words “Forget, Hell” was more than just a statement on a century-old war. It was a challenge, one that seemed forlorn at the time, to the secular-liberal culture that then seemed on the verge of dominating every aspect of American life.

It is dangerous to dismiss the Borderer as hillbilly, and not simply because he figuratively (and literally) hangs around the edges. The hillbilly is no simpleton, no bumpkin. David “Mudcat” Saunders, a smart and liberal political activist from Virginia sleeps under a Confederate battle flag. The hillbilly image is worn, by Saunders and many others, as much as a rebuke to the East Coast elites as that Rebel license plate of 50 years ago. They wear it with pride and as a much more sophisticated statement than those it is aimed at often realize. Their “hillbilly” is the other side of the modern individualist coin, the tail to the head that is shown in contemporary media. Instead of the person who rises above the crowd, the hillbilly deliberately falls below it. Both individualist and hillbilly are proud, but the stereotype of the former is of a principled person while the latter, to those without insider knowledge, appears depraved.

Rodger Cunningham notes that “Mountaineers have been categorized by the dominant culture as ‘contemporary ancestors,’ as noble or ignoble savages. … In this disconfirmation, the dominator implicitly denies the dominated an inner self and an ability to think and act on one’s own behalf.” In part, today’s hillbilly is a rebuke to these attitudes through the taking on the negative aspects as badges of pride. Though the elite have long claimed to want to “help” the poor of the Borderers, the words they use for them make one suspicious of their motives. Just think of the words today’s liberals use to disparage their conservative, small-town opponents: knuckle-draggers, rednecks, know-nothings (harkening back to an older time), and, of course, hillbillies.

It’s no wonder our political divides are so wide.

Except for that taken from the Appalnet thread, this is adapted (loosely) from my book The Cult of Individualism, pages 144-148.


8 thoughts on “The Hillbilly Divide

  1. I associate going barefoot more with Californian culture than Appalachian. In fact, I went barefoot myself during much of my grad school years at Stanford, and even into some of my years as a professor. (Nowadays I wear sandals, because the soles of my feet have gotten soft, and I’m too lazy to toughen them up again.)

    • Having moved from West Virginia to NYC, I have experienced this same untamed prejudice. I created the following digital story about my experience. I provide the link below – in case it is interesting to some.
      [video src="" /]

  2. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto

  3. Pingback: Academia Admits Prejudice Against White Rural Students |

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