Tuesday, January 3, 2017

"Inbred" Reputation Unfair to West Virginia

Author's note: I must confess to initially believing in the stereotype when the owners of the company I worked for in Chula Vista, Ca, approached me about moving here to assist in the startup and operation of a second manufacturing facility. "West Virginia??? WTF????? A land of bubbas, goobers and knuckle-dragging cousin humpers?????"



Dick Cheney, vice president under George W. Bush, once noted that his maternal grandmother was descended from someone named Cheney, then quipped, "So we had Cheneys on both sides of the family -- and we don't even live in West Virginia."

In response, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia railed against the veep, accusing him of "astounding ignorance toward his own countrymen."

Exactly how did the Mountain State earn a reputation as a place of inbred, slack-jawed yokels? Mostly because of exaggeration-prone outsiders.

In the 1880s and 1890s, many writers traveled across Appalachia, looking for "local color," and overstated the degree to which mountain populations lived in isolation. During the same time period, missionaries reported pervasive ignorance and poverty, with large families living together in ramshackle cabins.

The notion of widespread inbreeding was at least in part the result of crude assumptions about how these isolated communities might have been perpetuating their population base. However, a 1980 study concluded that inbreeding levels in Appalachia were neither unique nor common to the region.

When Eleanor Roosevelt visited West Virginia mining towns in the 1930s, national newspapers ran pictures of rundown shacks and barefoot kids in rags, which left a lasting negative impression of the state. West Virginians became the prototypical hillbillies, and incest served as a (rather poor) explanation for their downtrodden social condition.

This stereotype persists even in modern times. The 2003 film Wrong Turn, set in West Virginia, featured cannibalistic mountain men, horribly disfigured from generations of incest. In 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch released a T-shirt emblazoned with a state map and the words "It's all relative in West Virginia."

For the record, West Virginia has very strict anti-incest laws. Only adopted cousins are allowed to marry, while in Vermont, Virginia, and many other states, first cousins can tie the knot.

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