And even though West Virginians often complain they are stereotyped by the rest of the nation, many West Virginians stereotype people from McDowell County.
Poverty and unemployment are widespread there. Health problems are significant, and drug abuse is tearing at the fabric of the community. Even the local public school system was under state control for more than a decade. Southern West Virginia native and documentary maker Elaine McMillion has captured the struggles as highlighted by the New York Times: West Virginia Still Home.
I have to constantly check my own assumptions, presumptions and stereotypes, and I can only imagine what people who haven’t experienced Appalachian culture think.
At least I have the privilege of knowing people from McDowell County.
Just this weekend, I had the opportunity to ride with my neighbor’s best friend since childhood, a woman who never left McDowell County.
We were headed to a late-night cast get together following a local performance of the musical Annie, and I was driving on what I considered to be empty streets. Because the growth in our community exceeded the infrastructure, traffic is usually heavy. But on Saturday night just after 11:00 pm, it was extremely light.
Then my passenger said something that surprised me.
“My husband would go absolutely crazy driving around here,” she said. “There’s just too much traffic.”
I laughed. “Too much traffic? Really? This is nothing. I can see getting freaked out in Washington D.C. traffic, but not in Martinsburg, West Virginia.”
She gave me a pointed look and simply said “it’s too busy for him.”
With that simple statement and with absolutely no malice, she put me in my place. I thought about all the times I’ve been completely overwhelmed driving in Washington D.C. traffic. Yet, thousands of people drive there every day and think nothing of it. I certainly wouldn’t want them laughing at me for my inexperience.
And yet, that’s basically what I had done to her husband, and I felt horrible.
We’ve all made the mistake of judging the rest of the world through the eyes of our own expectations and experiences, but that’s not an excuse for behaving as though our way of life sets the standard for normal.
To me, the only standard for normal should be acceptance and respect for our differences with a willingness to understand them.
Unfortunately, we are still a long way from normal.