Meadville Tribune

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Opinion

August 28, 2012

Slate: What 'Honey Boo Boo' says about American culture

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

The practices are different, of course, and no, I'm not wild about the caffeine and sugar thing, either. Alana's little-girl grandiosity must become exhausting when experienced in more than 30-minute increments. But the people raising her are clearly aware of your disdain. Shannon can be delightfully funny when she self-consciously plays with her hillbilly image, warning the audience that she's about to "scratch her bugs," or speaking of her beauty routine: "Granted, I ain't the most beautimous out the box, but a little paint on this barn, shine it back to its original condition. 'Cause it shines up like it's brand new."

That's not to say the humor is always comfortable or even funny. Alana's trademark phrases and mannerisms — "a dollar makes me holler," a particular head swivel she does — are informed by racist stereotypes of black women.

This ambiguous borrowing from black culture has always been part of the hillbilly trope as well. Early commercial country music borrowed liberally from black folk music. (Hank Williams learned to play guitar, he said, from a black street performer.) And this borrowing often turned into racist mimicry: The Grand Ole Opry included minstrelsy shows in the 1920s and 1930s. Interestingly, the term "white trash" may have been coined by black slaves in the early 19th century to describe poor white people in the South; American attitudes toward poor white people have long been tangled up with "the race problem."

And hillbilly stereotypes have always made it easier for middle-class whites to presume that racism is the exclusive province of "that kind" of person. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, "It is comforting to think of racism as species of misanthropy, or akin to child molestation, thus exonerating all those who bear no real hatred in their heart. It's much more troubling to think of it as it's always been — a means of political organization and power distribution."

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