A Complete Guide to All the Kinds of Racist Southerners


In a lot of commentary over the Paula Deen workplace harassment suit, I’ve noticed a common refrain: Why is anyone surprised that Paula Deen is racist? She’s an old white lady from the South! The assumption that the South is full of racist people like her is insulting to all the people from Dixie who managed to grow up dipped in racism lard and yet are somehow not reflexive haters of minorities. Nonetheless, the point is not without merit: There are definitely a lot of racists there. They just aren’t all like Paula Deen.

DISCLAIMER: I grew up in the South and left, so I won’t be offered any jobs as a spokesperson for the region, and never made the cut as a Daughter of the Confederacy (that scholarship money could have really helped, y’all). I was born in Atlanta, raised in Tennessee, and am exceptionally well-traveled in what I call “the rogue states,” you know, the lowest-ranked places to get an education, the places you might, say, find an inordinately high number of deadbeat dads hiding out from child support payments. I have heard “Sweet Home Alabama” play while actually in Alabama.

And let me tell you Yankees, yes, the South is, without a doubt, home to as many racist people as it is delightful meat-and-threes, rolling hills and big yards. Southern racists are really good at hiding it — they are often the picture of manners when everyone is watching. It’s the rest of the time you have to wonder about. And as a region, the South is really good at holding onto the old attitudes, especially when, historically speaking, the attitudes are all that’s left.

But what people often misunderstand about the South is that it’s not racist everywhere: There are loads of forward-thinking, lovely, tolerant people who read books, know about pressed juice and quinoa, and aren’t terrible homophobic bigots, though they do tend to concentrate more in the cities. But not all countryfolk are racist, either! Just because it wears overalls and says yer damn straight does not mean it is a boorish, backwards-thinking redneck.

The thing about racism in the South you have to realize is that, like anywhere, racism must be taught, but — and this is KEY — not teaching anything to someone doesn’t automatically instill in them a reflexive disregardfor anything different. In other words, not all uneducated hicks are racists. And not all racists are uneducated.

But even if racism isn’t handed down directly to you alongside your first green-bean-picking outing, you can still pick it up on account of the region being lousy with it.

To wit:

Dumb White Supremacists

Angry violent white dudes, usually young, usually uneducated by what you might consider the approved curriculum, but well read in racist literature. Obsessed with guns, the old KKK, neo-Nazism, militias, training for the chance for a Civil War do-over. It’s fringe, but it’s there. Usually out in the sticks holed up at some weird training compound that you are terrified to ever drive past. Mouth-breathers.

Dumb, Openly Racist

They use the n word freely, make disparaging remarks about any and all minorities who are seen as the usual clichéd threats to jobs, a purer America, general decency. Sometimes doesn’t even know the correct racial slur to use, but combines a bunch to cover all the bases. Usually likes hip-hop.

The Good Ol’ Boy

Nice as hell. Polite. Gentlemanly. Racist.

The Political Racist

This can either refer to the Tea Party racist — here‘s a funny breakdown of the five types of racists found within the Tea Partiers — but it’s basically a rightwing neo-con. The South has a long tradition of fiery Southern liberals, but that’s in opposition to the sea of red. Found bottom-dwelling there is this breed of fratty mouth breather who is a small-minded, racist conservative fearmonger who blames all the country’s ills on minorities and immigrants.

Should he or she get elected to office, they immediately try to preserve or reinstate the Old Ways by twisting racist logic into modern, common sense, pro-American values. When I lived in Nashville that person was Eric Crafton, an overgrown toddler whose claim to racist fame was introducing an English-only bill that sought to limit all government business communication to English, in a city where 1 in 10 residents are foreign-born. (Luckily, the measure was crushed in a huge show of solidarity by the city, proof of the ever-present tension in the South between the old and the new.) Note: Loves pleated khakis.

The Privately Nasty Racist

Knows better than to say anything racist out loud at their job or in mixed company, but will unleash a torrent of truly disturbing vitriolic racist rage around “friends.” Warning: Often leaks out when drunk.

The Privately Well-Intentioned Racist

Expresses racism in a more indirect way among likeminded folks — often in comments disguised as bless-your-heart style sympathy, which is Southern code for you poor, pathetic piece of shit. It’s less angry and more nonchalant, the they-can’t-help-but-steal-because-they’re-black kind of reasoning. Very common among rich or “proper” Southern people.

The Good Old-Fashioned Racists

These are the grandpas and grandmas of many white Southerners who must be tolerated at family events and in churches when they mutter something about the coloreds or the housekeeper stealing. They grew up with Jim Crow still in effect, eventually got around to accepting that “mixing the races” was now going to be How Things Are. To many younger Southern people, this is considered the most benign kind of racism there is because it is ultimately powerless and near-extinct — if you can, indeed, call any form of racism benign — because it is so clearly on its way out, and must only be ignored until the last of the Olds are dead, which is literally any minute now. Often unintelligible anyway.

The Unintentional/Accidental Racist

Popularized recently by Brad Paisley in his song “The Accidental Racist,” this could also be called the Doesn’t Even Know They Are Racist type of racist. It’s when you either think that racism is something in the past that no longer exists, refuse to acknowledge its impact, or that the things you say or do don’t contribute to racism or reflect racist thinking. In Paisley’s case, it was song lyrics about not being free to wear the Confederate flag on a T-shirt without a potentially racist association.

These folks might never use the n word, and don’t think they are racist at all — and even have black friends — but often commit crimes in reasoning that betray them. I’m recalling the countless arguments I had with white guys in high school and college who swear they aren’t racist, it’s just OK to say that black people are more likely to rob you because, duh, more black men are in prison. Usually reluctant to leave the South.

Type 2 Racism

Props to the Daily Show for calling Deen’s racism out for what it is: Type 2.

As [correspondent Jessica] Williams explained using pitch-perfect faux-medical jargon, “Type 1 racism” is an inherited condition and “there is reason to believe that Deen’s ancestors had a strong strand of the racism gene.” Cue footage of Deen on NBC’s genealogy program, “Who Do You Think You Are,” noting that her family owned “a lot” of slaves — 35, to be exact.
“You know what else is a lot? One. One slave is a lot, Paula Deen,” Williams exclaimed, prompting boisterous applause from the audience.
“If her family owned slaves, that is pretty strong evidence that her racism is Type 1?” Oliver wondered.
Not so fast: Williams claimed it was still possible that Deen was afflicted by “Type 2 racism,” an adult-onset form of the illness developed “after years of clogging your brains with pure, saturated Dixie nostalgia.”

If there’s anything you can say about a region of the country still grappling with the legacy of slavery and so long devoted to keeping it real (homogenous), it’s that the racism spectrum to be found there is a multicolored as the rainbow flags you also won’t see most Southern people embracing. (Kidding! Sorta. Their overall record on accepting gay people is pretty bad, too.)

But there’s one last thing I have to clarify about the surprised reactions to Paula Deen’s casual racism. In an interesting perspective over at Salon called “Deen’s Racism Isn’t Shocking at All,” Roxanne Gay admits she has “certain ideas about the South” and says “I’m actually baffled by how much play this story is getting in the news, where everyone seems shocked that an older white woman from the Deep South is racist and harbors a nostalgia for the antebellum era.”

As someone who TOTALLY has Southern friends, allow me to help. I asked one genuinely surprised friend, a musician and writer in Nashville, Jeff Zentner, why Deen’s big reveal as a racist was so shocking. He said:

I thought Paula Deen was one of the “Benevolent Old Southerners,” who came from a generation where people said the n word but you could never imagine it darkening their tongues. So, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash. I would have thought that Paula’s appreciation for soul food would have been roughly analogous to Benevolent Old Southerners like Gregg Allman who loved blues. But you know, fried shit.

Unfortunately, there’s more than one kind of fried shit, here — in this case, the kind that’s not just going into Paula Deen, but also coming out.

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