Friday, July 2, 2010

Southern fried stereotypes

This post is long overdue. Consider it for every "southern belle" out there who's been judged based on her southern drawl ...

Since entering the professional world about 7 years ago, I found that I'd have more success dealing with interviewers, associates, bosses, etc. if I removed all the drawl from my voice. The perceived lack of sophistication, motivation and education that comes with a southern accent is a simple thing that can cause a lot of damage to those of us who are trying to make it in the professional world.

Seriously. We don't all drink sweet tea, listen to country music and go bass fishing on the weekends... and even if we did, would it really matter? Does liking grits and livermush keep me from doing my job? I think not.


Regardless of how qualified you are, many folks will see you as an ignorant hick if you draw out your vowels. Yes, I'm a southern lady. I was brought up in a conservative Southern Baptist home with manners and sweet tea. There is a moonshine still in the woods behind the house I grew up in. My dad owns a beat up pickup truck. I'll admit I grew up at a leisurely pace in a community that placed value on God and family rather than education and high-figure incomes....

I believe that when I stepped out of that world and went to college I was able to combine my strong sense of values and community with a work ethic that is rare in most 18-year-old kids. Yes, I went to NC State which isn't exactly Ivy League, but their design school is ranked as one of the top 5 in the country, which should probably impress you. I got in against the odds, worked my ass off while I was there, and graduated hungry and ready to start carving out my own place in the professional world.

I quickly discovered that I had two things working against me that had nothing to do with my merit as a professional graphic designer.

In my very first job interview out of college, the man I interviewed with actually told me that I was going to have a hard time getting hired because of how pretty I am. He also told me that I needed to project more toughness and neutralize my accent in order to be taken seriously. He called me sweetie! Now, do you think he'd have said that to a male applicant? How about someone of a different ethnicity? Of course not. But saying it to a sweet-as-honey southern belle is ok. I mean, it's only a matter of months before I give up on this silly career notion, get married and start popping out babies, right? No matter what my work looks like, or the time and effort I'm willing to put in, people are going to see me and hear me and judge based on my demeanor and appearance.

So what did I do? I adapted to the prejudice. I bought an interview outfit with pants instead of a skirt. I spoke more boldly and injected some of the harshness of a northern way of speaking into my voice. I walked faster and smiled less. I changed a part of what made me who I am in order to be taken seriously. Did I change my portfolio? My resume? No. My work was and has always been very good - but in many ways my work didn't matter. People were going to offer me a job based on the impression I left them with.


I know I'm not the only one who's sick of adapting to safeguard myself from becoming a victim to this stupid prejudice. It's exhausting. The "live and let live" southern way of thinking is a beautiful way to look at the world. If I were to compare Charlotte or Atlanta to say, New York or Chicago it would be like night and day. I feel like in New York everyone is out for themselves - the back-breaking pace, stress and sense of urgency is enough to give anyone a heart attack by the time they hit 35. The more a city like Charlotte tries to hang with the big cities, the more I see that paradigm creeping in. I was raised on the notion that teamwork is the way to go and that there is enough success out there for everyone. As that mentality goes the way of the dodo, I find myself falling deeper into the rabbit hole of selfish and cutthroat thinking. Where will it end and when it does, what will I have become?

Speaking with a twang doesn't make anyone an idiot. Judging someone based on their accent does though. I remove all traces of accent from my voice when dealing with people, especially my associates in New York, because if I don't, I get treated like a dumbass or a child. From a fellow professional, that is appalling. Excuse me for coming from a place where people are actually nice to each other and treat each other with respect and tolerance. I was raised my entire life to treat people as equals no matter what they look or sound like - and to appreciate diversity of all kinds because that is one of the things that makes this country beautiful.

There is enough ignorance and stupidity in this world. Do all us southern folk a favor and don't add to it.

Here's a stereotype for you - any barbecue north of the Mason-Dixon Line tastes like sawdust. How about that?