Rural White Stereotyping

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Rural White Stereotyping





Certain poor rural southern people who are seen as white, yet well apart from mainstream white America, are often referred to by several stereotyping terms, most notably hillbilly. The term has been applied primarily to people living in mountainous or otherwise marginalized locations, particularly in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. Their geographical situation has been presumed to have kept them genetically and culturally isolated, a presumption that at times has been the basis for defining them as a biological category separate from mainstream white America. The term, when used by those in the mainstream, is generally strikingly derogatory. However, the term has been embraced by some rural southerners who apply it to themselves, and to their families and communities, as a form of ethnic identity or to emphasize their social distance from what they consider to be corporate-controlled, northern-dominated, oppressive, mainstream white culture. In the early twenty-first century hillbilly is used in mainstream culture to refer to white people of rural origins who continue to resist assimilation into mainstream middle-class culture, maintaining what is seen by the mainstream as an insufficient respect for the values of consumerism, an insufficient respect for authority and for getting ahead, a closed-minded or antagonistic attitude toward the values of a multicultural society, and an irrational resistance to education and “progress.”


The mountain people who are seen as the original hillbillies lived on land that was unsuited for intensive cash cropping in areas in the rural South that historically were dominated by slave-holding elites, and later by land-owning elites who managed sharecropping and segregation. Inaccurate ideas of American history perpetuate the belief that, unlike “white trash,” who lived among the elites, they were a rural people isolated and independent of the larger stratified society. This version of history implies the existence of a male-centered all-white classless society of small-scale self-sufficient homesteaders, hunters, moonshiners, and craftsmen, hidden away and protected from the outside world by the inaccessibility of their deep mountain valleys and rugged mountain tops. The term hillbilly implies that this isolation has produced people who are different from other white people and that this difference lives on in their descendants who have migrated out into the larger, stratified society. The belief in the reality of this genetically or culturally separate race has taken on almost mythic proportions both among outsiders and among some who have embraced the term in reference to themselves.

Supposedly scientific work has lent itself directly or indirectly to the belief that cultural characteristics such as poverty and resistance to what is presumed to be progress are in fact genetic and thus potentially racial. Examples of such “scientific” findings have been frequent over the past two centuries. They include such work as that of Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s and the ensuing four decades of eugenic family studies, purporting to show that traits such as lack of intelligence, criminality, and poverty are biological and inheritable, and also prevalent among mountain families. At the end of the twentieth century, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray claimed in The Bell Curve (1994) that economic failure results from bad genes, most often passed on by overly fertile mothers of low IQ. Such racialization is common when the political and economic power of elite groups depends on legitimizing the creation of a new category of people available for serious exploitation. Like other groups that have been racialized, mountain people and, more generally, marginalized rural white southerners, have been defined as “Other,” so inferior that their very humanity can be called into question. The exploitation of hillbillies is then defined as “benevolence” to the very people being exploited—as providing a civilizing influence, teaching the value of hard work, and protecting women and girls from the violent sexual proclivities of their male relatives.

The belief in the existence of hillbillies has been critical to the definition of whiteness in the United States. At times they were seen as white, and therefore a genetic pool worth mining to offset the pernicious influence of immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as in Berea College president William Frost’s 1899 description of mountain people as “our [Anglo-Saxon] contemporary ancestors.” At other times they have served to prove the superiority of “civilized” Americans, as when the historian Arnold Toynbee (in A Study of History [1934]) said that Appalachian people were no better than the“white barbarians of the Old-World, the Rifis and Kurds and the Hairy Ainu” (p. 149). Like the Irish and the Jews, the “white barbarians” he listed were regarded as not-quite-white in the eyes of mainstream white America. By turns comic, pathetic, or frightening, but straddling the boundary of whiteness, the hillbilly stereotype, like a number of other race-related stereotypes, helped delineate what “real” whites should be and should not be. Hillbillies were an “Other” close enough to mainstream whites themselves to make comparison meaningful, allowing them to fine-tune their measurements of their own superiority.


Appalachia, contrary to popular belief, never was home to an isolated, classless, all-white society. Even the most rugged mountains of eastern Kentucky were socially stratified from the earliest days of European settlement. Large landowners, both white and, in some areas, Cherokee, owned slaves. Many poor white families were tenants, not independent landowners and hunters. They bore the brunt of the dangers of the conquest of Native American land, and were evicted by their elite landlords as soon as the land they cleared was safe for plantation agriculture. They became the instruments of Thomas Jefferson’s strategy for depriving Native Americans of their land. They were equally involved in the partial fulfillment of Jefferson’s plan for the construction of a society of small white landowners who would accept elite control of the economic and political system. Wilma Dunaway has shown—in The First American Frontier (1996)—that by the mid-1800s large sections of Appalachia were engaged in commercial agriculture, and that large-scale industry, mainly coal mining, lumbering, and textiles, shaped the destiny of much of the area. Despite historical reality, the belief in rugged, independent settlers has persisted, spurred on by both elementary school mythology and a popular culture that claims, for instance, that Davy Crockett (according to a well-known song) was born in the “land of the free,” implying that

the “mountaintops of Tennessee” housed a free people within a slave society, or even that slavery did not exist and that Native Americans had never been driven out.

The origins of the term hillbilly are obscure, but several theories link it to a Scottish background; according to Anthony Harkins (2003, p. 48), one likely explanation is that billie refers to a “fellow” or “companion.” The term apparently was in use by the end of the 1800s, and it became common in print during the first decades of the twentieth century. This was a time of intense class strife between rural people of European descent and the large national corporations that were coming to dominate more localized southern economies. The People’s Party, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the Tobacco Wars (or Black Patch War) in Kentucky and Tennessee all signaled an uprising of farmers against the major corporations that controlled the conditions of their lives. Miners’ revolts in the Appalachians likewise underlined the exploitation carried out by corporations and the wealthy elites associated with them.

It was during this time (the decades around the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century) that two already existing stereotypes, one about “mountaineers” and another about poor white people more generally, came together and blossomed into the hillbilly—the lazy, feuding, drunken, bearded, bare-footed, overalls-clad, incest-prone, independent, patriarchal male equipped with an overdose of testosterone and a hair-trigger temper in defense of his honor, and the hard-working, child-producing, brow-beaten woman. A shortage of intelligence and rationality supposedly left them bound helplessly to despicable cultural traditions. The national press largely assumed that the stereotypes represented reality. Such stereotypes served effectively to explain to the rest of the country why these irrational hillbillies would resist the supposedly obvious benefits of dependent development or internal colonialism brought to them by corporations that took away their land. They were converted from diversified subsistence farming into a male labor force dependent for their livelihood on inadequate wages, often in the form of scrip paid by coal companies, under conditions where their lives were dependent upon the inadequate safety measures in the mines. Similar reporting in the national press during the Tobacco Wars, in the early years of the twentieth century, made irrationality and backwardness seem to be the real explanation of why tobacco farmers rose up against the monopolistic American Tobacco Company and the starvation prices it paid for tobacco. The stereotypes, then, did double duty in the local press by explaining why many of the poorer tobacco farmers did not follow the lead of their betters, the big planters who headed the boycott against the company. They were called hillbillies and portrayed as irrational and improvident, obscuring the fact that many were so poor they could not afford to withhold their crop from the market. The stereotype then did triple duty, explaining why it was necessary for the state militia to put down the violence-prone boycotters by force of arms to protect American Tobacco Company property.

Parts of the hillbilly stereotype merged with aspects of the “poor white trash” stereotype in national press reports on the Tobacco Wars. The poor white trash category was clearly part of the South’stratified society—and it was itself, to some degree, racialized. Their poverty was seen as a result of genetic inferiority or sometimes of racial mixing—by the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was claiming that such people, like Catholics and Eastern European immigrants, were not “100% Americans.” One of the defining characteristics of the poor white trash stereotype was a supposedly inherent malevolent racism that led to racist violence in the segregated South. This violence was believed to contrast with the supposed benevolent attitude of racial superiority of their more genteel betters, who claimed to take seriously their duty to care for their supposedly childlike black servants and sharecroppers.

Middle- and upper-class readers and writers of reports on the Tobacco Wars in Kentucky and Tennessee associated the violence of “feuding, gun-happy hillbillies” resisting progress in the mountains with the violence of “white trash” resisting progress as represented by the American Tobacco Company. Consequently, the hillbilly stereotype, when used by the middle and upper classes, now often included racism. In fact, vicious racism did play a part in the Tobacco Wars. Nightriders eventually targeted black farmers for violent attacks and lynchings, driving hundreds of black families from the region in an attempt to reduce the supply of tobacco and thus raise the price American Tobacco would pay the remaining white farmers. Many nightriders probably were poor people. However, this racist violence was not specific to poor whites or to hillbillies; most of the leaders, and apparently many of the masked nightriders themselves, were members of the local elite. And the actual “hillbillies” in the region were targets of violence themselves for refusing to participate in the boycott.

These stereotypes quickly became generic, whether or not the term hillbilly was used. This was the lens through which outsiders perceived the poorer Euro-Americans in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia. That lens applied also to the Ozarks, always part of the hillbilly stereotype, but later gaining greater prominence, particularly with the advent of the television show The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–1971).


Hillbilly jokes, movies such as Deliverance, television programs such as The Beverly Hillbillies, cartoons such as L’il Abner, the comedy of performers such as Minnie Pearl and Jeff Foxworthy, tales about the Hatfields and the McCoys, historical and sociological analyses such as Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1963), experiences related by missionaries to Appalachia, documentaries such as American Hollow (1999) and the proposed reality show The Real Beverly Hillbillies, all demonstrate the continuing relevance of the supposed existence of people who fit the hillbilly stereotype. They feature, in varying combinations and in varying tones of voice, implications of hillbilly backwardness, stupidity, slovenliness, barbarism, a propensity for addiction, the mistreatment of women, genetic deficiencies, and inbreeding. The inaccuracies of this portrayal of people living in the Appalachian mountains or the Ozarks have been completely irrelevant to the continuing production of the stereotypes. It is important to note that these stereotyping movies, jokes, TV programs, documentaries, and missionary expeditions are produced by people in the mainstream, often with the backing of corporations and of people wielding considerable power; they depict people with very little power who nevertheless seem to refuse to buy into the values of corporate America.

These warped versions of history and of the reality of the lives of poor rural southerners carry a heavy ideological freight. Upper-class exploiters have used them to justify their own use of child labor and the poor wages and lack of safe work environments of miners and textile workers. They use them to explain the continuing high unemployment and low wages of southern workers generally and to justify paying low wages when southerners go north looking for better jobs. This same warped vision keeps the middle class from recognizing this exploitation and, therefore, from questioning the legitimacy of the elite.

For the country in general, racialization of the hillbilly, whether by the new cultural or the old biological version of racism, has played a critical role at various points in the legitimation of the continuously evolving system of race, class, ethnic, gender, and sexual-identity inequalities in the United States. It has been an important ingredient in the racial wedge used to divide and rule the working class, causing black and white members to define each other as the enemy. Equally important, the racialization of hillbillies has been an ingredient in the smokescreen that disguises class in the United States. Hillbilly identity, rather than class, can be invoked to explain ongoing poverty wages for those who are employed, high levels of unemployment, and inequities in health and educational opportunities in Appalachia and the Ozarks among people of European descent. The myth that the United States provides a level playing field, at least for whites, is thus left intact.

The hillbilly stereotype continues to provide white America with both a mirror in which to judge itself and a scapegoat for its failings. Along with stereotypes about rednecks and white trash, it allows middle-class people (through comparison) to perpetuate an inaccurate perception of themselves as free of racism, sexism, and homophobia, as people who are open-minded, progressive, and civilized. If the country continues to have problems with racism, for instance, those problems can often be laid at the door of poor southern whites whose culture or genetics supposedly predisposes them to intolerance and violence. The violence committed or orchestrated by elites can thus be ignored. Presumably, “civilized” elites would not use race to justify the disproportionate jailing of black, Latino, and Native American people, nor would they use a racialized version of religion to justify war. Neither would they beat their wives or discriminate against women in hiring. The persistence of the production of the hillbilly stereotype, and the willingness of the reading and television- and movie-viewing public to consume that stereotype, indicates that it continues to fulfill an ideological need in the lives of people dealing with the inequalities of life in the United States.

SEE ALSO Galton, Francis.


Appalshop Films. Strangers and Kin: A History of the Hillbilly Image. 1984. Produced by Dee Alvin Davis III and directed by Herb Smith. Videocassette.

Buck, Pem Davidson. 2001. Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power, and Privilege in Kentucky. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Campbell, Tracy. 1993. The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Caudill, Harry M. 1962. Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. Boston: Little, Brown.

Corbin, David. 1981. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880–1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Dunaway, Wilma. 1996. The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Frost, William. 1899. “Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains.” Atlantic Monthly 83 (March): 311–319.

Harkins, Anthony. 2003. Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hartigan, John Jr. 1999. Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Herrnstein, Richard A., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: The Free Press.

Newitz, Annalee, and Matt Wray. 1997. “Introduction.” In White Trash: Race and Class in America, edited by Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, 1–12. New York: Routledge.

Obermiller, Phillip, and Michael Maloney, eds. 2002. Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present, 4th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

Pudup, Mary Beth, Dwight Billings, and Altina Waller, eds. 1995. Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Shapiro, Henry. 1978. Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Toynbee, Arnold. 1947 (1934). A Study of History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Waller, Altina. 1988. Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860–1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Williamson, Jerry W. 1995. Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Pem Davidson Buck