CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
It is the kind of wisdom that is simultaneously inspiring and infuriating, as it delivers both power and responsibility to the injured party.
In West Virginia, we often consider ourselves the injured party and we have understandable cause to feel that way. The kinds of mean-spirited comments natives endure throughout their lives can take a heavy toll; truly, how many times can you hear the toothbrush joke before you knock the teeth out of the boor who tells it? ("Why do they use toothbrushes in West Virginia? Because they don't need a teethbrush.")
Yet in every stereotype there rests a granule of truth. I find my pain over these stereotypes rests more in their reference to an obstinate reality than in the ways they are unfair and sweeping. The young man who sold me my Christmas tree this year was cheerful and kind, yet several of his top teeth were gone and he was only in his early 20s. Yes, people all over the world lack health care, and people all over the world deal with a lack of education and with substance abuse, racism and poverty. The problem is that somehow West Virginia has managed to aggregate these problems and more at an unsettling level. Every step of the way here is well-documented. The way out is less so.
To knee-jerk every time a stereotype appears is subtly to offer reinforcement for that perception. People don't tend to overreact to jokes about things that are blatantly ridiculous. We get our hackles up when a joke comes too close to laughing at our reality. I spent several years in the South, and if any place is rife with stereotypes and weak jokes, it's the American South. What I learned from well over a decade there is how to smile, sip a julep, and own the issue.
Owning your issues rather than denying their existence is how things get better.
When someone picks on West Virginia, or simply shines a light on some of our Appalachian weirdness, I like to smile. I like to offer them a cold one from Blackwater Brewing Company. I like to make eye contact, and I like to say, "Oh, that old joke is based on a long history of dynamics we are working to overcome. It's really a long road. You should come visit, we have a lot of great things going on, too. We'd love to have your help."
Mrs. Roosevelt also said, "When you know to laugh and when to look upon things as too absurd to take seriously, the other person is ashamed to carry through even if he was serious about it."
Gaucher, of Charleston, is the managing partner of Longridge Editors LLC and a graduate student at West Virginia Wesleyan College.