This post has been a long time in the making. Like 10+ years. It’s been rattling around in my brain and influencing every step along my path. Sometimes it’s a deep sense quietly pointing the way and sometimes it’s frustration boiling up from just under the surface. In the past week, with the recent passage of some disheartening bills in the WV House of Delegates, it’s been more of the latter, and at the risk of getting “political,” it’s time for these thoughts to have a voice. Because for WV and her citizens (past, present, and future), it’s so much bigger than politics.
There is an unfortunate stereotype that haunts West Virginians. We’re supposed to be toothless, barefoot, dirty, poor, ignorant, racist, inbreeding hillbillies. That’s quite an image to overcome. I’m reminded of this stereotype every time I tell someone I’m from WV (once we’ve gotten past the fact that yes I do mean the state of West Virginia – which has been separate from the state of Virginia for a few years now) and am met with a puzzled look and something along the lines of, “But you don’t look/talk/act like you’re from West Virginia.” To which I typically reply, “Tell me what you mean by that” (I am a psychologist, after all) and then politely educate the person about the variety of sub-cultures that exists within the state. West Virginians are used to this. It’s almost like a rite of passage. I suppose I could let the comments and the jokes slide by, but after so many years of hearing them, that just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do anymore because to brush them off would be to silently accept and cement this dangerous stereotype.
A few years ago, someone sent me a link to a brilliant TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story.” It was in relation to an HIV project I was working with at the time, but her thoughts resonated with me at a much more personal level. As a person from WV, I live with the single story of West Virginia and so every day, I push back against that story. Others are, too, – Jason Headley in his beautifully written essays (State of Confusion and Dear West Virginia) that bring a tear to my eye each time I read them and Tijah Bumgarner with her documentary. Then there’s the recent scientific discoveries made by WVU professors – from uncovering the Volkswagen scandal to the confirmation of Einstein’s theory about gravitational waves. Collectively, these challenge the single story of the WV hillbilly.
Unfortunately, the WV House of Delegates has done as much to unravel this progress in the past few weeks as the years of work it took to make it. With the passage of bills that allow individuals to carry concealed weapons without a permit, require people receiving welfare to pass drug tests, and permit outright discrimination on the basis of “religious freedom,” these lawmakers have confirmed the WV stereotype in one fell swoop. I’m not going to touch the concealed carry issue. (Despite what many politicians say, I think this is a more nuanced issue with no easy answer and which requires more thoughtful discussion.) The welfare issue is slightly more bothersome, not least of all because of the failed track record in several other states that have piloted welfare drug testing programs. Is it really prudent for a state with the limited economic resources of WV to be spending money on a program with few apparent benefits? Not to mention that the substance use treatment programs to which offenders are supposed to be referred are in short supply. In a state grappling with substance use and mental health problems (particularly the epidemic of opiate addiction), why waste precious resources trying to catch a few people when that focus could be on improving access to treatment? The most disheartening was the proposal, let alone passage, of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Again, recent history is not on the side of this type of bill, as seen in Indiana. Appealing to a business sensibility, a report on the economic impact of tourism in WV over the past 10 years shows how little the state can afford to lose in tourism dollars were companies and individuals to boycott WV business as they did in Indiana. On a humanistic level, this bill does not represent the spirit of acceptance and equality that I and many people I know were raised to follow.
West Virginians do not cast each other aside. West Virginians bond together and look out for one another, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s part of the shared experience of living with the single story of WV, of being the outcasts and the underdogs, that makes us closer. This bill does not uphold the WV value that “Mountaineers are always free.” This bill affirms the stupid, single story of WV. Several delegates spoke out against the bill and some municipalities throughout the state already have passed ordinances in opposition of it. I hope that the WV Senate does the right thing and votes it down.
I’m still a proud Mountaineer. I’m grateful for having the chance to grow up in WV, to weave together my stories. I hope that others will get to experience all that WV has to offer, and I hope that West Virginians will allow everyone to explore all of her beautiful stories. I urge West Virginians everywhere to work to make our home state better, not drive it backward. Show the welcoming spirit for which we have become known.
Artwork by Jessica Kennedy