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Prejudice, Discrimination, Exclusion in Mississippi -- Sound Familiar?

By Angela C. Stuesse, Postdoctorate Fellow, Kirwan Institute “Miss. Lesbian Student’s Prom Night Falls Short,” read yesterday’s leading headline in Mississippi’s largest newspaper, the  It’s the latest development in a weeks-long story about personal prejudice, institutional discrimination, and systemic exclusion unfolding in a rural county in Mississippi.  Sound familiar?  It should, as this lens has been used to represent Mississippi in national discourse for decades, thus conferring upon the state a place of “symbolic importance …in the national imagination.”[i] Only this time the controversy is not about race, but about sexual orientation. For those who need a refresher, the Itawamba County School District canceled prom upon learning that high school senior Constance McMillan wanted to wear a tuxedo and take her girlfriend as her date to the dance.  McMillan contested the decision, and the Mississippi ACLU filed a legal complaint to have prom reinstated and to allow McMillan to attend in a tux and with a same-sex date.  Upon review, a Mississippi Judge denied the request for a preliminary injunction. While his opinion stated that McMillan’s first amendment rights had been violated (a victory for McMillan, the ACLU, and equal rights activists across the country), it did not require the school board to reinstate prom.  His rationale:  “A parent sponsored prom which is open to allIAHS students has been planned and is scheduled for April 2.” Therefore, requiring the school district to step back into a sponsorship role “would be disruptive to the efforts of the community and would not be in the public’s interest.”[ii] The “solution” of organizing a parent-organized alternative to publicly-supported education or social events is firmly rooted in southern history, and has continued into the present.  In Mississippi and other parts of the South, as school districts lost their court battles against federally-mandated racial desegregation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, private schools were founded in a matter of weeks.[iii] White parents moved their children into the schools they had organized, and public schools became de factoblack schools.  This pattern persists in many southern locales today.  In districts that maintained or gradually returned to a more racially diverse student body, separate black and white proms proliferated, and have persisted (though in declining numbers) into the present. Since school districts couldn’t legally sponsor segregated proms, parents stepped in to privately fund and plan them.  Having been raised in the Midwest, I was shocked to learn when I moved to Mississippi that my neighbor (who, like me, graduated from high school in 1994) had attended a racially segregated prom.  Both the black and the white proms, each with its own king and queen were documented in her high school yearbook.  In 1997 Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, a Mississippi native, returned to his hometown and offered to finance the prom as an incentive for its racial integration.  The school district declined.  In 2008 he made the offer again, and this time it was accepted (and documented in the film Prom Night in Mississippi). So, with a bit of historical context we can better understand how it happened that, upon McMillan’s request to bring a same-sex date to the prom, the school district in Itawamba County canceled the event altogether to make way for parents to organize and hold a privately-sponsored one, liberated from some of the anti-discrimination and constitutional legalities governing officially-sanctioned events. This week’s news, which surprised many, was that the dance’s location was withheld from McMillan, and that over the weekend she, her date, and several differently-abled students were sent to a “fake prom” while everyone else attended the “real” (private) prom at the country club.   (It’s worth noting that across the U.S. country clubs have long been safe havens for discrimination, so it should come as no surprise that the prom from which McMillan was excluded was held at one.  In 2004, when my aforementioned neighbor and her former classmates contacted the local country club about the possibility of holding their ten-year reunion there, they were advised that they were welcome, but it would be open to whites only.) In response to this week’s media coverage sympathetic to McMillan’s story, some students from her school created a Facebook page called “Constance quit yer cryin’,” where they ridiculed McMillan and posted photos from their prom.  The national public quickly got wind of the page thanks to a post on celebrity blog, and overnight its following ballooned to over 1,500 “fans.”  Most, however, were not supporters, but people whose comments expressed outrage.  Paralleling today’s commonly-expressed public opinion surrounding Mississippi’s record of racial inequality, many of these responses branded the state as culturally, biologically, spatially, and temporally foreign:
Maybe they don't know it's 2010 in Mississippi. Jim Crow Laws ended in 1965 but maybe you didn't get the memo. You guys are the sickest bunch of Southerners ever... GROW THE ---- UP AND START LIVING IN THE NOW AND NOT BACK IN THE 1300s. Mississippi has the lowest IQ of any state in the nation. …Bigots like you are the reason the rest of the world hates America. Stop ruining our country. It bothers me that parents in that town are passing this bigot retard gene on to their kids. Way to go Mississippi. My's just that Mississippi isn't even TRYING to appear even the slightest bit evolved. Constance, get the out ---- of Mississippi and away from your nauseating inbred trailer trash class mates. Find yourself a real city, with real people who ...have better things to do with their life. Run on back to your pathetic, dinky little farms and enjoy the rest of your lives in Hicksville, Mississippi. People like the creators of this group are... a warning for mothers everywhere not to drink while pregnant with their brother's baby. If an armpit can have an armpit, it's Mississippi. And if the armpit of an armpit can have an armpit, it's Fulton, Mississippi.
As an activist anthropologist who has worked extensively on issues of race, immigration, and worker organizing in Mississippi over the last decade, I find comments such as these dangerously problematic.  Apart from the very real offense, frustration, and embarrassment these enduring stereotypes evoke in many southerners, as individuals invested in the ideals of equal rights and social justice, all of us should feel unease when systemic discrimination like that which is unfolding in Fulton, Mississippi is explained away as an aberrance of a culturally backwater South that is genetically inferior and stuck in a time warp. When most Americans think of Mississippi, they conjure up visions of entrenched poverty, stifling oppression, and racial inequality.  While obviously not without merit, invoking these stereotypes ad nauseum has enabled us to view Mississippi as exceptional, representing the most repressive social hierarchies in the country, to which the rest of us can point as proof that we have surmounted the social and economic relations of the past; wearen’t racists/homophobes/fill-in-the-blanks. This approach makes it possible for us to relegate racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression to (not so) far off  places we deem as “other,” and it blunts our attention to and analysis of the ways in which we perpetuate and benefit from structures of social inequality in places we deem closer to home. What if, instead, we were to invert the national narrative about the Deep South, understanding Mississippi as anything but exceptional?  We might then view its social relations and inequalities as a mirror—perhaps magnifying, but reflective nonetheless—to better understand these dynamics, or their parallels, in our own communities. Instead of hurling insults that make us feel better about our own social/moral/geographical positions, we might begin to understand and appreciate Mississippi’s struggles as our own, turning speculation and judgment into action.  Indeed, Constance McMillan’s struggle for LGBTQ equal rights is our struggle on a national scale, one that’s playing out in courtrooms and the court of public opinion from California to Massachusetts, Mississippi to Washington, DC. As for action, Candace Gingrich-Jones wrote a poignant blog entry in yesterday’s Huffington Post, in which she offers us several suggestions—from disseminating materials for teaching tolerance in schools and families, to supporting new federal anti-discrimination legislation, to calling out our colleagues and loved ones when they perpetuate stereotypes and hate speech. This morning I gained new hope when I saw a few comments amid the facebook madness that raised concern over the spirit of the page’s “conversation,” and others calling upon readers to write letters to the Itawamba County School Board, sign petitions, and otherwise learn from and act upon McMillan’s story. Indeed, we can all play a role—and should strive to recognize our mutual self-interest—in ensuring that people who are seen as “different,” whether in Mississippi or across the U.S. and the world—don’t suffer the discrimination that McMillan and so many before and among us have courageously fought to end.  And end I will, with this quote that I’ve seen framed on the walls of several homes throughout Mississippi and which always makes me smile:  “I’m not from the South, but I got here as fast as I could.”
[i] Lipsitz, George.  1998.  The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. (p. 219) [ii] McMillen v. Itawamba County Sch. Dist., No. 1:10 CV 61-D-D, slip op. at 11 (N.D. Miss., Mar. 23, 2010). [iii] Stuesse, Angela C.  2008.  Globalization "Southern Style": Transnational Migration, the Poultry Industry, and Implications for Organizing Workers across Difference, Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin.  (p. 88-89) Angela C. Stuesse is an activist anthropologist and holds a Postdoctoral Research fellowship at the Kirwan Institute. She studies issues of race, globalization, immigration, identity, and power in the U.S., Latin America, and Central West Africa.  Angela received her PhD in anthropology and her MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and her BA in anthropology from the University of Florida.  Her forthcoming book,Globalization “Southern Style”,tells the story of new Latino immigrants working and organizing alongside African Americans in rural Mississippi's chicken processing plants.  While conducting this politically engaged research, she was a co-founding collaborator of the worker center MPOWER (Mississippi Poultry Workers for Equality and Respect) and developed its program for cross-racial relationship building.