A Reckoning Toward Greater Integrity

An Excerpt from “Hillbilly Quaker – Pendle Hill Pamphlet #475”

By Jennifer Elam

In Pendle Hill Pamplet #475, Jennifer writes her experiences encountering and discussing stererotypes about people from Appalachia within the Quaker community. She also contemplates the effect it had on her.

A few years ago, I was attending a Quaker meeting where I felt dearly loved. A member of the meeting hosted a gathering for several of the women and I was pleased to be invited. As we sat in the circle sharing about our lives, the hostess talked about having difficulty with her son. He had strayed from her wishes that he embrace the upper middle-class lifestyle she enjoyed. Her words were, “He lives like one of those hillbillies in Appalachia with a washing machine on their front porch.” As a person from Kentucky, I had encountered stereotypes about Appalachia in most every form imaginable, but had never really paid attention to them. I was teased or seen as dumb because I was from Kentucky and spoke with a southern accent. I had a hard time being proud of where I was from. But I had succeeded in letting the bias, prejudice, and stereotypes roll off my back. Even though I had let them roll off my back for decades, it does not mean I liked being put down or having my opportunities threatened because of where I came from. Somehow, this day with those Quaker women was different. For the first time in my life, I responded. What came out of my mouth was, “You know, when I was growing up in Appalachia, I often wished we had enough money to afford a washing machine for our front porch.” The room fell silent. At that time I thought her reference to washing machines was a scornful stereotype, but over time I realized the problem was even worse. It seemed she wasn’t even aware it was a stereotype at all.

A view of Julian Price Lake and the mountain beyond, framed by trees in the foreground. Fall colors abound.
Julian Price Lake Image by Tony Glenn from Pixabay

That women’s gathering was a turning point in my life as a person from Appalachia. From that day I realized most Quakers were not deliberately overlooking these stereotypes, which is what I’d thought. I realized that in many parts of the country, there is an ignorance of Appalachia. People are not aware they’re talking in stereotypes. Sometimes stereotypes, biases, and prejudices are so acceptable they aren’t even recognized. Stereotypes about hillbillies from Appalachia appear to be so acceptable to most people that they are invisible, even among Quakers who profess equality and put great effort into social justice for many groups of people. That moment at the women’s gathering was the beginning of a call to embrace my own heritage. Letting the comments roll off me had served me, but it wasn’t serving me now. This social justice issue needed to be recognized. The reckoning toward greater integrity had begun within me.

… I learned in [another] conversation that the grounding of the work had to start at a more basic level than I had realized. I had been assuming that others saw the prejudice or bias related to Appalachian and southern people and just chose to look away. In this conversation, I realized that many loving, well-meaning people simply had no concept of their prejudice or bias against Appalachians.

“I was a social worker for decades. I was trained many times in how best to work with people of many cultures. Never was Appalachian culture included in that training. I never before even thought of the need to acknowledge this bias we have and these stereotypes we use, even among Quakers. But now I see it clearly.”

Pat Austin, Quaker social worker, personal communication

For many years, I often had this certain feeling in the presence of some people. When they spoke to me, I wanted to—and often did—look around to see who they were talking to. Recently, I’ve figured out what that feeling was. I felt invisible. That is how it feels when I am being spoken to not as the person I am, but the person others see as a result of stereotypes. I am being seen as a projection rather than who I am. That feeling of being invisible is horrible. How does a whole group of people respond to that phenomenon? How might it feel to them? Might the people in a whole area of the country also feel invisible?

– Excerpt from “Hillbilly Quaker – Pendle Hill Pamphlet #475”

A woman examining herself. Her eyes were Photoshopped out of her headshot, flipped, and are looking back at the rest of her head.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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