Of Paranoia and Xenophobia | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Of Paranoia and Xenophobia

See related blog thread.

Clarion-Ledger columnist Orley Hood did us proud last Sunday when he took on the much-ballyhooed "Mississippi Believe It!" ad campaign. "It is, I suppose, all well and good, defending our territory, talking up our heritage of great writers while ignoring our heritage of illiteracy," Hood wrote. "As polished and professional as the campaign is, there's just that little bit of paranoia and xenophobia that shows through when we so vigorously stand up to what we see as unfair criticism from outsiders."

I've been complaining about this well-meaning ad campaign, devised by Rick Looser of the Cirlot Agency, for months now. I hated it the first time I saw the ads, designed to convince the world that Mississippi is not what they think we are. "Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write" is the phrase that opens the ad showing off some of great writers.

My favorite: "Monster Trucks? No. Hog Callin'? No. Tractor Pulls? No. World-Class Entertainers? Yes!" No monster trucks or hog callin' in Mississippi? Have they been to Pearl?

Then there are direct answers to the racial stereotypes that "outsiders" have about our state: "No Black. No White. Just The Blues." And: "Meet a Few of Our New 'Good Ole Boys.'" (Over photos of a variety of elected officials, both women and men of color.)

I hate stereotypes of Mississippians with the next gal, but these ads grate my last nerve. It is superficial PR, trumpeting our strengths while whitewashing our weaknesses. And, as Orley said, it is paranoid and xenophobic.

The campaign reeks of those attitudes that so many of us have dodged for years—that we're past all our racial problems, now we're all equal, the playing field is level, the "race problem" is behind us. I would love such an ad campaign—if it were true. But it's not. Have we made progress? Absolutely. Have we progressed to the place that it's "no black, no white?" Clearly not. Just look at our re-segregated schools, our separate churches, our neighborhoods that white people won't drive into because black people live there. And, sure, we have new folks in power, but we still have some stinker "good ole boys" up at the Capitol blocking progress and sowing racial distrust and southern strategizing for the racist vote.

It ain't over 'til it's over, folks.

There's no need to keep looking backward, or apologizing, the apologists tell us.

To those people, I always ask: So, how many times have you apologized for our brutal race history, and the results of it? Inevitably, they treat it as a rhetorical question that they don't need to actually answer.

Mr. Looser says on the "Believe It" Web site that he started the campaign because a 12-year-old Connecticut boy on a plane asked him if he "still saw the KKK on the streets every day" and whether or not he "hates all black people." He called the questions a "stunning revelation" and a "catalyst" for him to fight "erroneous stereotypes that plague Mississippi."

Every Mississippian I know—of all races—complains and jokes about the way "outsiders" stereotype us. We all know that the rest of the world thinks we're a racist cesspool. It isn't exactly a "stunning revelation."

But had that kid said such a thing to me, I would have seen it as a teachable moment. I would have tried to strike up an honest conversation with him about race in Mississippi—yes, we had the most lynchings; yes, the Klan was very strong here; yes, every level of our government and society was in on the Jim Crow conspiracy until recently. Yes, we have lingering problems—from the profiling of "thugs" to re-segregation of schools to that damn symbol of terrorism imbedded in our state flag.

No, not every white person in Mississippi is racist. Many of us are working with people of other races to face the past and reverse the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Yes, we want to bring the state flag down, but more education is necessary for people to understand what it truly symbolizes. No, we don't have many Klansmen anymore. Yes, we have racists. So does Connecticut—but that doesn't change a single thing that we need to do here.

I had such a conversation two weeks ago, sitting on the porch of my friend JoAnne Prichard Morris with her and assistant editor Natalie Collier by my side—three generations of Mississippi women, black and white. We were speaking to a group of 18 teenagers on a ministry trip to Mississippi to help rebuild Katrina-ravaged homes. Their leader had heard me interviewed on NPR after the indictment of James Ford Seale about the JFP's role, and had called and asked me to talk to the group about race while they were here.

Talk we did. Honest we were. They heard about JoAnne's experiences teaching in the Delta during the early days of integration and her time as an Ole Miss student during the Meredith battle. They heard Natalie talk about being caught in the middle of black and white worlds and the last time somebody called her "nigger." They heard my stories of being scolded my entire life for "bringing up the past" and of being called a "nigger lover" while in elementary school because I questioned racist comments of adults around me.

They also heard about our progress and how much we love the state and how much we hate the stereotypes people have about us. They heard about how much the state flag pains us and it is the worst PR symbol our state could ever hope for—one a slick, defensive campaign could not possibly negate.

They also talked about their state's problems—how the Oregon constitution limited the number of black people who could live in the state, until recently. They talked about efforts at a human-relations commission in their town, and a beautiful blonde sophomore with fire in her eyes and a beret on her head described challenging racist comments by her friends at school. They asked me to come talk to a larger group when I'm in Portland this summer, to help facilitate a needed discussion—a ministry, you could call it—between people in different parts of our country.

When I read about the 12-year-old from Connecticut who inspired an ad campaign that tries to hide our warts—and our monster trucks—I couldn't help but wish that the boy and Mr. Looser had been with us on the porch that day. Honest dialogue goes a whole lot further than trademarked catchphrases.

Previous Comments

ID
74729
Comment

Honest dialogue goes a whole lot further than trademarked catchphrases. Very true. Unfortunately, I think a lot of folks dodge that kind of dialogue for fear of being wrong, getting angry, feeling guilt and/or offending someone. I believe there was an old blues song that said "you gotta hurt before you heal". You don't get rid of a malignant tumor by ignoring it. You go under the knife and get it removed. Mississippi needs some serious surgery.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2007-04-04T19:50:03-06:00
ID
74730
Comment

Donna wrote: Honest dialogue goes a whole lot further than trademarked catchphrases. Indeed. I sometimes get tired of the same old schtick.

Author
Ex
Date
2007-04-04T19:53:58-06:00
ID
74731
Comment

How about these? Mississippi--Can you believe it? Mississippi? Are you serious? MISSISSIPPI--Why the hell not?! Mississippi. Can you beat it? Mississippi. Do you have the balls? Mississippi. Believe it or not! Mississippi. You may be surprised! Mississippi. Have you missed it? Mississippi. Don't miss it. Mississippi. Dont believe it till you see it.

Author
jasp
Date
2007-04-05T00:08:13-06:00
ID
74732
Comment

No monster trucks or hog callin' in Mississippi? Have they been to Pearl? I hate stereotypes of Mississippians with the next gal... Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but aren't you at least a little bit guilty of stereotyping yourself? I haven't really noticed any glut of monster trucks in Pearl, and I'm pretty sure they wait until they are outside the city limits before calling their hogs...

Author
Rico
Date
2007-04-05T07:50:45-06:00
ID
74733
Comment

Mississippi. Dont believe it till you see it. I really like that one.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2007-04-05T08:12:26-06:00
ID
74734
Comment

That was a bit o' stereotype humor.And, remember, we're not talking a "glut," Rico. We're talking about one. He said we don't have monster trucks atall.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2007-04-05T08:53:39-06:00
ID
74735
Comment

Pearl has city limits? don't that require being a city in the first place?

Author
Kingfish
Date
2007-04-05T08:55:57-06:00
ID
74736
Comment

Here's what I thought today, and why honest discussion had been hard for me before. White chick in North Mississippi....anything I was toldvabout the Civil Rights Movement was that it was "overblown," and it pretty much was relayed to me like it's some urban legend that didn't really happen and others just inflated it. We were NOT taught Civil Rights in schools unless we had a good teacher who made sure to educate us a little more. Now that Mississippi requires it be taught, I'm assured a bit more that we can be honest about it. My parents, as their parents, were most likely victims of the Sovreignty Commission, their own learned racism, etc. So when I learned the truth of the era, things that really happened, in a non-glamorized (aka Gone With the Wind) way, I was shocked. Shocked. Shocked. I learned the realities of racism and segregation as a young teacher, just out of school and from students who I was vested in. I learned from kids who lived in de facto segregation who had sick family members, poverty and very little job opportunity within walking distance. I learned the blunt truth from kids who respected me, despite having family members who were killed. Despite NO WHITE PEOPLE going to their school because it's the "black school." Despite the fact that they were still called "nigger" out of moving vehicles and such when the were outside in town. It gave me compassion. I can apologize. By saying "I'm sorry," I'm NOT saying I'm the one who personally hurt you. I'm saying I'm sorry your life is harder than it should or could be, I'm sorry you are still verbally abused by anonymous strangers, I'm sorry that your family members have shorter life spans due to lack of medical care...I can go on and on. I will always admire those students who did not judge my ignorance. I admire that they were patient with me as I learned more and more. I had the opportunity to meet folks (lots of history at Rust College) who were THERE and stood strong for their beliefs and rights, but still had the hearts for this little white girl who didn't know any better, and they taught me better. I think that's why it's so hard to have an honest discussion about race in Mississippi. Outsiders were given full information regarding the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow laws, etc... (I'm surprised at how much more my California educated husband knows than I do...), so I think they have the hearts to discuss it. I think that those who can't discuss it may not have a real idea of what truly happened and how it truly affected the culture and families of black people. As a white person, if you've ever passed along a racist email instead of learning more about our history, I do think you should be sorry. No, you personally did not lynch anyone, yell the n word at anyone, but you did encourage a stereotype, you did make light of a history of bloody hands and I do find that a sorry thing to do. All that said to say, I love the Loosers with all my heart, and I would never put their efforts to build Mississippi up to put them down personally. I think we can like the campaign AND have honest discussions about race.

Author
emilyb
Date
2007-04-05T15:23:24-06:00
ID
74737
Comment

Oh, and I DID hear KKK. I had one white girl (the only one) who came to school one morning after crosses were burning in her yard because her mom was married to a black man. And I will not comment on Pearl. I will not comment on Pearl. (that one's hard for me to resist though)

Author
emilyb
Date
2007-04-05T15:26:04-06:00
ID
74738
Comment

Nice post, Em. Understand that this isn't personal against the Loosers, but they have gone and gotten themselves a big stage to kind of speak on our behalfs. Therefore, they should be prepared for honest, constructive criticism. It seems clear that they mean well, but sometimes meaning well just isn't good enough.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2007-04-05T15:27:36-06:00
ID
74739
Comment

I get that. But I also think meaning well is better than doing nothing. One of our biggest problems here are folks who take no ownership at'all in our stereotypes. And you know, if it gets Orly talking about what all we need to talk about...it may not be enough, but it is better than we had before. I mean, Orly's been whooping my ass for years as best columnist, and that there HAD gotten personal ;) (not really in case folks can't read the humor) He did earn some redemption. Maybe the campaign and the reactions will help create the conversations we need.

Author
emilyb
Date
2007-04-05T16:02:58-06:00
ID
74740
Comment

I get that. But I also think meaning well is better than doing nothing. Well, unless it translates into "doing nothing." From where I sit, this campaign doesn't do anything, and could even encourage more people to think, as Mr. Looser, does that we shouldn't have to keep apologizing for the past. (He called me early on to ask for coverage, and we talked for a quite a while about what I didn't like about the campaign.) I personally do not believe Mississippi needs one more person spreading the myth that our race issues are behind us. We've heard that crap all our lives, and it's a bit part of the reason that our race issues aren't behind us. I also think it makes us look paranoid and xenophobic, or Orley put it, and I don't see how that will help with economic development. I can just hear someone considering opening a business here saying, "Well, they say all their race issues are behind them, but they still have a Confederate flag above the Capitol. A lot of my employees are going to be offended by that. Let's go to Georgia." Maybe the campaign and the reactions will help create the conversations we need. I do agree with that. Sometimes misguided efforts lead to what we need, despite themselves, due to the conversation and though they create. One reason I keep talking about this campaign is to get people thinking about this beyond the surface.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2007-04-05T16:33:49-06:00
ID
74741
Comment

My perspective is a bit different. There are so many people in our state who are worth celebrating, that I find it offensive when I visit other states and they laugh,"Oh you're wearing shoes!" I was a bit refreshed to see a campaign that focused on our positives a bit more because folks ARE talking bad about us. I don't think the burden of getting folks to talk inside this state falls on one agency/person. I do think the campaign was embraced more because it is what it is....an ad. No one is going to put ads up that highlight the negative. I think it's OUR fault that we aren't talking enough. It's OUR fault if we miss a night of racial reconciliation like MPB hosted in the fall, a lynchig exhibit at JSU, etc. I'm not sure what we need to motivate our people inside the state, but I don't think the campaign's objective, nor should it be at this stage, was to snap everyone into perfection. I completely understand the mindsight that's the "misguided" part hear. I would blame talk radio stations that taut the hell out of this campaign and then trash talk our state the rest of the morning. If there was money spent by our state to support this, where there may have been with the Economic Development folks, I believe that money should have been allocated somewhere else. However, from what I understand, the agency ate the cost of creation and made it free to download/reprint/etc. The hype was not a creation of the Cirlot Agency. The hype is a mindset our collective whole carries, and I can see where that can be misguided. Like when the "breaking news" for the night is that Jackson is the #5 worst driving city in the nation. But they AREN'T breaking that it was compared to these other cities. Then folks in the burbs can say, "Drivers are bad in Jackson" when they've never considered that Jackson was never compared to the burbs in that study, so we can't say Jackson are worse drivers than, say, Pearl :P There's just too much unresolved history for an ad agency to resolve, and the burden is on us as a collective. They can't help it if their strengths as an agency is to find the best and promote it. That's what ads do. They catch your eye. If that campaign gets eyes here, then it's EVERYONE's burden that the eyes are on a flag that turn people away. Our strength as a people is to engage others towards a better Mississippi. From where I sit, with one of the posters in my office with Miss Eudora and Faulkner and Willie and Jill, this poster inspires me to keep going. If I were a child, it would inspire me to stay in this state instead of leaving for a "better" place. I do see good there. I don't see it as nothing. But I stuck around for Clyde Frog anyway.

Author
emilyb
Date
2007-04-05T17:04:42-06:00
ID
74742
Comment

I think an ad campaign about our strengths (and those photos) could work great—if they would lose the defensive lines (and the "not black, not white" hooey). Celebrate our great figures and talk about what's great about us without the goofy defensive lines. Those kill the potential of the campaign reaching where it needs to reach. We're not going to motivate people to do that stuff—like go to the lynching exhibit—if they don't think there is a reason to—if they think it's all "behind us." Also, when I saw the reasoning on the Web site for the campaign (the kid from Connecticut asking about the Klan), I realized that this campaign came *exactly* from that race-defensive place; he told us that. It's not like it came from somewhere else (and, if it did, it wouldn't use defensive language about race in it). The campaign is in serious need of a good editor. ;-) No one is going to put ads up that highlight the negative. But these ads *do* highlight the negative. They bring up our race history, and they promote the most negative thing we have going for us: denial of our own history and current status. The biggest problem with the ads is that they *do not* promote our best—at least to people who don't think well about us already. They send a message of paranoia and xenophobia (and denial) to anybody who already thinks that we are behind the times. That's its ultimate failure: It only speaks to a choir, and misses the mark of getting to the people we actually need to get our message to. And, as I've said, it delivers a negative message to those folks. I don't think an ad agency can resolve it; I just don't think they should make it worse. They run a serious risk of hurting our image with this campaign—even though I'm very confident that they meant well.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2007-04-05T17:23:21-06:00
ID
74743
Comment

Like when the "breaking news" for the night is that Jackson is the #5 worst driving city in the nation. But they AREN'T breaking that it was compared to these other cities. Then folks in the burbs can say, "Drivers are bad in Jackson" when they've never considered that Jackson was never compared to the burbs in that study, so we can't say Jackson are worse drivers than, say, Pearl :P They ranked 100 cities, so I'm sure there are a lot of little no-driving towns we don't know about. But I stuck around for Clyde Frog anyway. Ooooooh, I loooooved Clyde Frog. That show made me want to be a puppeteer.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2007-04-05T18:18:19-06:00
ID
74744
Comment

Right. Jackson is the scapegoat, and it keeps others from looking with a critical eye at their own communities. Like other, especially northern, states who have their own race issues to focus on, but always can say that Mississippi is the racist.

Author
emilyb
Date
2007-04-05T19:22:38-06:00
ID
74745
Comment

Or, for that matter, like the United States of America focusing on other nation's faluts instead of our own problems. A lot easier to slam others for their problems than it is to actually have to spend energy to think critically about how to solve our own. Could that be one of history's driving engines - the rise and fall of nations? Something Jesus said about specks, logs and eyes unless I miss my guess.

Author
Philip
Date
2007-04-05T19:28:10-06:00
ID
74746
Comment

Could that be one of history's driving engines - the rise and fall of nations? Something Jesus said about specks, logs and eyes unless I miss my guess. Yep. How can you say something about the speck of sawdust in my eye when you have a 2x4 hanging out of yours? Like the old song says, sweep around your own front door before you try to sweep around mine. :-P

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2007-04-05T22:10:07-06:00
ID
74747
Comment

I think I will leave this thread with this post. enjoy. paranoia

Author
Kingfish
Date
2007-04-05T22:15:34-06:00
ID
74748
Comment

Well I love Mississippi and I'm happy for just about anything that tells the world that we do have world class writers here, one of which was a Nobel winner. I'm glad we have at least SOMETHING that is preaching some of the good things about Mississippi. I'm also glad that instead of criticism, something, no matter how trivial, is projecting what is right about this state, instead JUST FOCUSING on what is negative about this state. Any place is this great country has bad things and terrible skeletons in the closet. Believe it or not, Mississippi is not Pure Evil. So just to put on a sunny smile on this glorious Good Friday, I'm happy someone here in this Great State is touting our virtues, heroes, and legends. Its just my opinion, which probably doesn't go far with many people on these boards, but instead of flagellating myself and prostrating myself, I'm happy today about Mississippi. Believe it.

Author
Ole Miss Alum
Date
2007-04-06T14:21:22-06:00
ID
74749
Comment

Also, Happy Good Friday to everyone and I hope you all have a glorious Easter.

Author
Ole Miss Alum
Date
2007-04-06T14:21:59-06:00

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