By KIP BURKE news editor of the News-Reporter
It's amazing how blind some people are to their own inborn prejudices, but I got a chance to open one or two women's eyes last Fourth of July.
Three women were visiting Athens from Connecticut, and happened upon our fair city with about 10,000 other people for our annual Independence Day celebration. I was volunteering at the Chamber of Commerce's Welcome Center, helping visitors with questions on where to eat, what to do, and how to spend their money in town.
The three Connecticut women came in to cool off, sit a spell, and complain to me about the heat as if I had arranged it personally for them. They were educators, they said, which are like teachers only better paid, apparently.
While we were talking, a handful of local kids came in to use the restrooms, and they chattered away while they waited. To my eyes, they were bright and smart, a fine crosssection of our local kids, our pride and joy.
The Connecticut educators, however, saw and heard something far different. "My Gahhhdddddd," one woman said through clenched teeth. "The schools here must be terrible! Listen to those little… I can't understand a word they're saying with that hideous accent. Can't the schools teach them to speak correctly? Are the teachers as ignorant as they are?"
And it went on, the three of them mocking the schools and the teachers who would allow children to speak with the rural Southern accent that these precious children were born to. I admit I got pretty angry, which is rare. When it happens, The Ancient Burke comes forth, the spirit of 390 years of my Southern ancestry.
The Ancient Burke spoke the truth, and hoped it would hurt.
"I am absolutely shocked," I said quietly. "."
They all gasped and went wideeyed and pale. I could tell that tolerance and diversity were gods to them, at least in theory. Certainly they'd always thought they worshipped at the altar of tolerance and diversity, but I'd just caught them being very intolerant of our children's rural Southern diversity. And they knew it.
So, of course, I twisted the blade a bit. God forgive me, I enjoyed it.
I looked down my nose and asked them, "Do you really think it's acceptable for teachers to express such ugly intolerance against children with diverse linguistic backgrounds?"
"Oh, no, we're not really…" they began to babble, suddenly realizing what they'd said.
"Surely you don't teach your students that your way of speaking is the only one that's good, that it's perfectly fine to discriminate against minority accents because they don't sound just like you?"
I could tell that one hit bone. One woman broke into tears, then another, and they got up to leave, blubbering apologies and swearing that they weren't really intolerant, "We're just, just …"
"Hypocrites?" I suggested. "Blind to your own intolerance? Seems to me that you think discrimination against rural Southerners is the last acceptable prejudice in America. You came here, guests in our community, and mocked our children as hopeless and stupid little rednecks and back-country black kids, simply because you're so prejudiced you think that being Southern means being backward and ignorant."
I held the door open for them. "We appreciate visitors who come here with open hearts and open minds, but some folks make it clear that they just don't belong here. In the words of the great Georgia philosopher Lewis Grizzard, 'Delta is ready when you are.' Good day."