By Kathleen Parker
WASHINGTON — After writing close to 3,000 columns, I’ve learned that people sometimes read what they’re looking for, often as a result of a headline, rather than what I wrote.
Same words, different prisms.
The same is true of the spoken word. What did she just say?
Listener 1: “She said all Southerners are stupid.”
Listener 2: “No, she didn’t. She was saying that whenever political operatives or the media need to show someone who is confused or clueless, they always find somebody with a Southern accent. Parker’s been writing about this for years. Besides, she is a Southerner.”
Let’s hear it for Listener Number 2!
This exchange might have taken place after I recently appeared on “Meet the Press,” where I made a comment about Southerners and an ad attacking the Affordable Care Act. Apparently, at least one person with a laptop was offended and social media took it from there. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
To recap, NBC host David Gregory showed a clip I hadn’t seen before in which a fellow expresses how confusing he found Obamacare. He said he felt like he was in a “haze.” The clip followed my comment that the greatest challenge to Democrats in the midterm elections is the broad understanding that those who passed Obamacare had no idea what they were doing.
Rather than continuing this thread, I reacted to something that has irked me for years — the media stereotype of the Southerner as a befuddled hayseed — and that has been a theme throughout my body of work.
In the moment, my gut got the better of my brain. I said surely they could have found someone without a Southern accent to express confusion about Obamacare. My follow-up was that there are plenty of other people (who might be considered smarter and more sophisticated by certain folks) who were also perplexed by the law.
Alas, people unfamiliar with my work had no context for the remark and took offense. Herewith, the rest of the story.
First, I would never intentionally insult Southerners or the South. Although I was born in Florida, owing in part to my mother’s poor health (she needed a mild climate but died young anyway), South Carolina has been home to my maternal family since 1670.
In fact, my mother was the only family member to leave the state up to that point, except for the men who left, some for eternity, to fight in various wars. Her other reason for leaving was because she committed the unpardonable sin of marrying a Yankee pilot during World War II. My father said he couldn’t have found work in South Carolina back then.
My Southern resume otherwise includes the fact that my permanent address is still South Carolina, my first job was at The Charleston Evening Post, and I’m married to a native son whose bona fides are not in question.
To those angry emailers who pointed out that I’m no smarter than people with Southern accents, I would add only, “Amen, sister.” I have one of those accents myself, but adapt as circumstances require. Catch me on NBC and I probably sound like the Midwesterner my father was. Catch me on SC Highway 97, and you won’t know me from any other local.
My grandfather was one of those authentic Southerners whom reporters always hope to find — a farmer who plucked food from the ground a couple of hours before we sat down to say grace, told ghost stories from a rocking chair on the front porch and took us to Turkey Creek to fish and to scavenge for arrowheads. There was nothing dumb about Mr. John B, as everyone called him. If there were a way to capture the smell of him — a combination of leather, tobacco, soil and Old Spice — I’d give it away as tonic to help city children fall asleep at night.
My own yearning for the smells and sounds of the motherland brought me back to South Carolina after years of roaming and writing for several newspapers here and there. The reporter in me began to notice the way Southerners were portrayed by the media as ignorant yokels. The Scots-Irish Southerner in me burned with ancient rage.
It was with this mindset that I watched the ad and commented. I sure meant no offense and do wish I had chosen my words more carefully. Even so, knowing Southerners as I do, I also know they’re as quick to forgive as to convict if treated respectfully, which was my intent all along.
Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.