Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Xenophobia


“You ain’t from around here, are you?” How many times I have heard that question? Usually I hear this whenever I have the audacity to suggest that Haywood County is not a reincarnation of the Garden of Eden, and that its native population is not necessarily the most brilliant, the best educated, the most articulate or the most polite people on earth.

Not long back, the editor of a local newspaper wrote an editorial defending the opinions expressed by a high school student. This student questioned the use of mascot symbols deemed offensive by some racial and ethnic groups. The editor was defending the right of this student to express her opinions. Letters immediately besieged him, shrilly demanding that he go back to whereever his origins. The consensus of the vocal minority seems to be that anyone who disagrees with the established norms must be from somewhere else, and should return there.

Who actually determines these norms of thought and actions? Apparently this same vocal minority! I have often heard the statement “If you don’t like the way we do things then go back where you came from.” Who is this ‘we,’ this elite group that makes the rules?

From what I can determine, to be a member of this group means you have to be a ‘local’ someone born in Haywood County. Now you didn’t have to actually be born in the county. A hospital in Asheville counts, so long as your parents lived in the county. The only exception to this rule seems to be that if your father was in the military, and you had the misfortune to enter this world in some heathen place like California or Texas Of course if you were born in Florida you don’t tell anyone.

More recently a letter to the Editor of the Asheville Citizens-Times dared to suggest something different. Immediately there was another letter demanding that this writer should immediately return to some other place. The amusing thing about all this was that the original writer is a native of Haywood County, second generation. But because he dared to suggest something different, the immediate ‘knee-jerk’ reaction was that he must be from someplace else. I wonder if the natives ever realize how much they are putting down their own birthplace. Their assumption seems to be that no native could ever possibly suggest a new idea. This sounds to me like they are insulting themselves.

The really amusing thing about all this is that the only true ‘locals’ were the Cherokee Indians and their predecessors, but they don’t count in the great hierarchy of local royalty.

I have lived in Waynesville for twenty-seven years, but I will never be a ‘local.’ Not only was I not born here, I also don’t meet the second criteria. I ain’t got no kin here! This amazes the locals. They just can’t imagine anyone living anyplace where they don’t have relatives. Actually I am rather self-sufficient, and have lived in nine states, and two foreign countries without the benefit of having relatives around.

Whence came this belligerent attitude? My researches have not been extensive, but I have uncovered two possible theories. First, this area was settled mostly by a people known as the “Scots-Irish.” Historically, they came from a society where occupation, domicile and marriage were all determined by the rules of their clan. As these people settled into the coves and hollows of the mountains, they settled in family groups, for mutual protection against possible hostile natives, and for companionship. Over time, the extended families took over the place of the clan. The isolation of their environment created a sense of self-dependence, where they had little need of the outside world. They became very distrustful of anyone not from their immediate family, which also meant not from their particular cove.

The interesting rebuttal to this thesis concerns settlement in the Western territories. Here, many of the early settlers were from the same origins; they faced even more hostile native Indian tribes and climatic conditions much more severe than in these mountains. Yet the group sociology in the West developed in the opposite manner. Outsiders were welcomed with open arms. There was never the feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ only all of us against the harsh environment. Perhaps it was the vastness of the western territories that made any neighbor welcome.

Another theory says that this is the result of the Civil War and reconstruction. Prior to the war, the culture of the South was dominated by a small minority of slave holding plantation owners. This elite group painted a picture of their world that was as idyllic as that of “Tara” or “Five Oaks” from Gone with the Wind. This was pure fiction, as any realistic history of the South shows, but it was a fiction to which all poor, grubbing subsistence farmers yearned to achieve. Then came the war, and suddenly those leaders of society became masters without slaves, and plantation owners without land. To add insult to injury, there was an invasion of foreigners, Yankees from ‘up North’, who were telling them what to do. These outsiders could not possibly understand the rules of that wonderful but imaginary society, which had been destroyed by the war.

Either these theories can account for the extreme distrust of anyone not considered a ‘local.’ But one local pundit suggested a more simple explanation. He reported that in the early days of Haywood County, there was only one cobbler, and that cobbler only had one last, so all his shoes were one size. Therefore, most of the settlers went about their work with shoes that didn’t fit, and this just naturally made them cranky.

3 comments:

WNCRod said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I've lived in Haywood County only about 5 1/2 years, and that's been enough for me. I'm ready to move. The people here are too small-minded. Not everyone, but enough people to make this beautiful area an "ugly" place all the same.

Anonymous said...

I listed you blog on the Netwest blog roll tonight and looks like you might stir up some controversy with this one.