We all hold perceptions, right or wrong, of places we’ve been and places we haven’t. Often these perceptions morph into stereotypes that do more harm than good.
“I had friends that actually, who experienced a kind of anger because they thought by moving to Alabama I was supporting some old, racist regime. And these are educated people!”
Jamie White and her husband Dr. Janusz Kabarowski were living in Los Angeles when they announced to friends that Kabarowski had taken a research job at UAB. White says while she shared some of her friends concerns that Alabama was a less-than progressive place, it wasn’t enough to keep her from moving here.
“I just know, you know, from life experience, that every place is a lot more complicated and people tend to be interesting no matter where you are.”
Kabarowksi says he was also a little concerned about making the move.
“I did feel that my views wouldn’t be particularly welcome here and that’s kind of difficult for me because I’m used to sitting in a pub on a Friday night and talking to all manner of people and having very passionate political discussions and everything else.”
Kabarowksi is originally from Birmingham, England, and says many of the reservations he held about moving to the Heart of Dixie stemmed from what he knew of the state’s role in the Civil Rights Movement as well as its place in the Bible Belt.
“I expected to come here and those embers would still be glowing, somewhat. And what I’ve found is, certainly in Birmingham I haven’t found that to be the case. What I’ve found is that Birmingham is no different from any other American city I’ve visited.”
While Kabarowski may think Birmingham’s not much different from any other American city, you’d be hard pressed to convince many outsiders of that … in large part because of those images from the ’60’s and the legacy of one man in particular.
“When you have one state that has been dominated for so long, as Alabama has, by one man, George Wallace, that perception carries over.”
Michael Bitzer is a political scientist at Catawba College in South Carolina and specializes in Southern Issues.
“I think Alabama is very much an example of a state of contradiction. On the one hand you have that Old South, genteel, Gone with the Wind impression. But then you have the impressions, and images often speak more powerfully than words, and that plays into the culture and the legacy of racism.”
And it’s not just the past that Bitzer says hurts the state’s image. If you do an Internet news search of stories on Alabama, among the requisite football stories are pieces on lawmakers passing a ban on gay marriage, voters rejecting an amendment to remove segregationist language from the constitution and, of course, a little something about Judge Roy Moore. Some say that, because all these stories come from Alabama they help perpetuate the mythology of the state as a backward, bigoted place.
“These are the attention catching things…”
Fred Hobson is a humanities professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Tell about the South, the Southern Rage to Explain. He’s says it’s unfortunate that some people choose to judge the state based on these stories alone, still …
“I would say there is a base of reality behind that, to a certain extent; that isn’t all together unrepresentative, it’s a little unrepresentative but there is a base of reality, I think, underneath the image.”
“The perception that the media misportrays is a straw man. There’s some accuracy to that, but it’s not the cause. The media will portray what is there.”
Earle Holland left Alabama in 1978 to take a job at Ohio State University.
“It’s easier for us to perceive people as they fulfill our stereotypes or preconceived notions and it takes more energy and effort to go beyond those. Sadly, I think many people, whether it’s in Alabama or Ohio or some other place are just reticent to expend that energy.”
That reticence to get to know a place isn’t just an image issue, it’s an economic one as well.
Alabama watched for years as Atlanta and Charlotte began to grow, luring in big name companies. Part of the reason for Alabama’s lag? Georgia and Charlotte were able to overcome people’s perceptions of what life in those states is like. Alabama Economic Development Director Neal Wade says Alabama’s had a tougher time doing that.
“When we started back in the 1990’s to market the state in a more aggressive way, that was the biggest issue that we tried to address, people’s preconceptions about Alabama. What people thought of the state and we tried to put out information that would counter some of those stereotypical views that people had of the state.”
Wade says the state’s marketing campaign consisted of a quarterly magazine that’s, basically, a series of testimonials about the quality of homegrown Alabama businesses. Wade says those testimonials helped lure Mercedes Benz to locate here in the 90’s.
“They were hearing some of the same things from some of their own folks inside the company: You sure we want to move to Alabama? So we had to deal with that issue even in the courting of Mercedes.”
Catawba College Political Scientist Michael Bitzer says the fact that companies like Mercedes and Honda are willing to locate here is helping change the state’s image, at least economically.
“I think Alabama has worked to correct that image and the idea of a backward state when you have Mercedes Benz coming in for example signifies that something is going on, that the climate has changed in Alabama and I think others are realizing that as well, indeed, throughout the south.”
Again, Alabama Economic Development Director Neal Wade.
“From an economic development standpoint, we are able to compete for every project that comes looking in the Southeast, that’s not something we could say fifteen years ago. Other issues, from a race standpoint, from a backwoods standpoint, we still have miles to go, but we are moving in the right direction.”
That may be the case in the corporate world, but the state still has its work cut out to change its image with everyday people. BBC reporter Bernadette Kearney considers herself well-educated, but her image of the state isn’t much different from anyone else’s.
“Not to be too unkind about it, but a slightly backward looking, country hick, not quite as hip as the big cities like New York or San Francisco, kind of stuck in the middle there, in a country sort of way.”
Kearney, who is based in Birmingham, England, says her impressions come from what she sees on television. Also, one very famous song.
“The obvious thing is if you said to most people what does Alabama mean to you, you know that song with the chorus that goes, ‘O Susanna, don’t you cry for me, cause I’m off to Alabama with a banjo on my knee…’ Sorry.”
While outsiders hold their own, often differing perceptions of what Alabama’s like, the one thing that’s remained consistent over the years is how Alabamians react to those perceptions. We explore that issue in the second part of our series, “Outside Inside”.