Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

What the hell does “The South” even mean?

Illustration by Meg Richards.

There are some Northeastern liberals, particularly of the wealthy and white disposition, who think their Northern-ness absolves them of any accountability, and that they have nothing left to learn… News flash! The North is prejudiced. Moreover, if you perpetuate the stereotype that “Southern equals uneducated,” then you’re not as woke as you think you are.

This idea is what makes me cringe when I ask someone where they’re from, and they give me an answer like “LA”, “NYC”, or somewhere in New England. By no means am I saying that anything is inherently wrong with these places. I just assume (often, correctly) that we don’t have a lot of common ground. After all, how much can someone from a somewhat conservative, somewhat rural area have in common with someone whose high school received adequate funding or has never met a Republican in their lives?

That is, until I met Ella. Ella is from Rangeley, Maine, which might be the most Southern place outside of the South to ever exist, despite being one of the northernmost points in the U.S. The more we trade stories about our relatives, high schools, and hometowns, the more we find in common with one another. This completely shattered all preconceived notions I had about Northerners. Sometimes I think I have more in common with her than other people from Virginia (depending on the town). This begged the question—what does it truly mean to be a Southerner?

Certain things I have used to distinguish myself from the upbringings of non-Southerners are things Ella relates to as well—listening to country music, going to bonfires instead of house parties, tight-knit social networks where everybody knows everybody because the town is so small, and rural countryside stretch for miles. But these things are clearly not exclusive to the South, evidently because Ella is from Maine and can easily relate to all these trademarks of my Southern experience.

Other things, however, are exclusive to me and my counterparts from South Carolina, Kentucky, and Texas who I’ve met at this school. Sweet tea, Waffle House, warm weather (not exclusive to the south, I know this), and “bless your heart.” This begs the question—which of these similarities and differences are arbitrary? Is the regional identity of being a Southerner obsolete in the face of shared geopolitical and economic experiences that stretch across regional lines?

Sometimes, I can relate more with a native Maine resident—about underfunding in our school system, the political makeup of our community, and knowing the true meaning of working class—than, say, someone from an affluent area in Florida or Texas who hasn’t experienced these things firsthand. 

Even the idea of “Southern hospitality” becomes trivial when compared to the shared values of hospitality in other small towns in the U.S that may be found in the Delaware Valley, New England, the Midwest, or the Pacific Northwest. 

In that case, what truly distinguishes the South from the rest of the country, if others in other regions have a shared experience with Southerners?

After all, if at the core of my connection to Southern identity occurs from the classism I experience, then my friend from Maine is just as much a Southern as I, if not more. 

What I learned is that the Southern experience is not homogenous. There may be much bigger implications for distinctions between Southerners and non-Southerners for people of color, trans people, immigrants, or other groups that I do not fit into. This is simply an account of my experience, with all the identities I hold—implied and not implied in The Resilience of the Southern Identity by Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts, of which inspired this article, sums this idea up perfectly at the end of chapter one:

“A complete understanding of the South and of southern identity must therefore embrace southern cultures, rather than forcing all southerners into a single, monolithic southern culture.”


“Although it originally began as a politically defined region, the South today has morphed into what can best be considered a vernacular region—with fuzzy (and often-debated) boundaries.”

While the book does go on to point to shared cultures, foods, and politics that southerners share, I’ve learned that I, too, could learn to be more inclusive and less judgemental. My perception of Northerners or folks who hail from LA was an idyllic one, informed by lack of exposure. I often looked at my counterparts who shared these identities and longed to live a life like theirs—comfortable, and sheltered from the plights that riddled the town I grew up in, like Republicans winning every district election, rampant gun violence, underfunding, and a lack of infrastructure—for everything from the education system to access to drinking water that doesn’t cause more kidney stones for Virginians and North Carolinians.

But I learned two things: One, it is possible for people from vastly different areas to relate to me in these experiences, and two, these aren’t the things that characterize the south, nor should they. 

While these are issues that disproportionately trouble rural and low income communities, of which are overwhelmingly located in the South, I personally regard Southern identity with fondness because of the strong values of community and hospitality—something someone from Maine can identify with too.

In that case, maybe the identity of being a Southerner is not something you’re automatically born into based on your geographic location. Perhaps it is best defined by the content of your character.

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About the Contributor
Meg Richards
Meg Richards, Staff Writer
Meg Richards is a first-year student from Richmond, Virginia. She has a double major in journalism and political communications. She mainly writes for the Opinion section, though she dabbles in News and Living Arts.

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