This is a story about two people.

The first has a violent past, and he spent a memorable part of his life committing hate crimes. Described as uneducated and insensitive, maybe his hateful actions are directly linked to the low opinion he has of himself.

While his friends are making strides, he always seems to be in poor health, psychologically and physically. He lives in poverty, and finding a job that offers economic security has been challenging. He is slow to evolve, and many people have chosen to keep their distance because he is divisive.

Some of his actions have made all who have known and associated with him look bad. They won’t forgive him because they believe he deserves misery. Maybe it will teach him a lesson.

They might be more generous if he demonstrated a desire to change, but he remains largely unapologetic. It seems like as soon as those who love him believe he’s on the right path, another event happens to make them ashamed again.

He is often offended when others object to his actions. He rejects progressive ideas that would help him advance. Therefore, he remains stagnant and stuck, decaying in a wasteland or modern dystopia with images of his defiant past flashing before his eyes in an inescapable bubble that provides no room for original thought or self growth.

The second person is a natural beauty with a calm, gracious demeanor. She is polite and generous and frequently complimented for these attributes. She often stands out in a crowd because her heart is giving, and she genuinely loves you.

You feel that love deep in your soul when she talks to you, welcomes you and invites you inside. Sometimes, when you visit her, you don’t want to leave because she is so comfortable. She feels like home. She smells like home. And being near her makes you realize nothing will ever feel as much like home as she does.

She takes pride in her manners and etiquette. She was traditionally taught to say “please” and “thank you,” and it’s beautiful how she goes out of her way to include people of every race and creed, offering love to anyone she encounters.

She was taught to love as a child before she could walk – taught we should all love everyone equally because everyone is our brother and sister, and we should never hate another person, because we are commanded to love others.

Because those lessons were placed in her heart early on, she smiles and waves at people she doesn’t even know. It’s easy to be her friend. She’s one of those people who would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it, and people tell her they have never met anyone who cares as much about them as she does.

You love being with her, because when you walk down gravel roads and see beautiful trees, green grass and hills for miles – when you see snow white cotton growing in fertile fields – when you go camping, sailing, and drink sweet tea on a sticky afternoon – she is so peaceful.

She smells like magnolias, gardenias and honeysuckles. She is cultured, artistic, musical and literary, with so many talents, but she is also humble. Despite her humility, she has quietly influenced an entire nation with her gifts, some passed down through generations from ancestors on other continents.

She’s also one of the best cooks you’ll ever meet. Come to her house, and she’ll serve you fried chicken, cornbread, neckbones, greens, chitterlings, crawfish, shrimp, fresh berries from the woods, freshly-made peach cobbler and homemade ice-cream.

Through her, you learn more about yourself and grow. She is respectful of other people. She knows what it’s like to work hard, because nothing has ever been handed to her. Hard work is an ethic and a principle. She is resilient. She is timeless and evolving. She is simple and complex.

Would your perception about person #1 change if I told you he was once one of the richest men in America?

Would your perception about person #2 change if I told you she was beautifully bi-racial, 38 percent African American?

What would you say if I told you both were descriptions of the same person … or place?

Both are how people have described Mississippi.

These Mississippi descriptions were taken directly from a project one class of University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media mass communications students completed this semester about Mississippi. The project has been called MISS. UNDERSTOOD.

When you hear the word “misunderstood” attached to the state of Mississippi, does it evoke a certain feeling or emotion?

Does the word “misunderstood” cause you to empathize with Mississippi because you feel it is not understood by the rest of the country?

Or do you dismiss it because the term seems too sympathetic for a place historically known for racism, educational problems and poverty?

Words are powerful.

They are also subjective.

The title MISS. UNDERSTOOD and project are designed to prompt discussion and understanding about our state with hopes that honesty and dialogue will nudge state leaders and citizens to think of innovative new ways to help the state rise in the rankings.

We are tired of being last.

As humans, when we are criticized for something, we sometimes become defensive and reject the idea. But after taking some time to consider a criticism, we often choose to change, adapt and grow based on that feedback.

This project is about trying to better understand the perceptions of Mississippi internally and externally, considering positive and negative assessments that lead to evolution.

While some students who submitted projects preferred to highlight good things about Mississippi, others clearly expressed state obstacles and included outside perceptions. In most student projects, I think you will find a mix of the state’s good and bad attributes acknowledged, demonstrating its complexity.

Let’s pause for a moment. What is your perception of Africa?

Before you read any further, think of three words you would use to describe Africa.

The inspiration for this project was an NPR audio story featuring University of Mississippi  School of Journalism and New Media student Terrence Johnson. The piece is called A Student’s Perspective on Mississippi: Beautiful, Engulfing and Sometimes Enraging.

It was also inspired by a TED Talk video featuring novelist Chimamanda Adichie called The Danger of a Single Story.

In it, Adichie discusses her life in Africa before coming to America and discovering that her homeland, the largest continent in the world – diverse, complex and multi-layered – had been reduced to a single story in the United States.

A single story, she explains, is when someone creates a narrative or attaches a stereotype to a person or place, and that eventually becomes the narrow way it is defined and viewed by others. Adichie said she realized the rest of world had a single story about Africa as a place of poverty, strife, hunger, sickness and death.

Did you choose any of those words earlier when you were asked to describe Africa?

Adichie knew Africa was much more than the single story she heard others perpetuate, and her video warns about the dangers of stereotypes, misconceptions, judgments and prejudices.

The TED Talk reminded me of Mississippi, another multilayered, complex place often reduced to a single story by others. I sometimes wonder if people who stereotype Mississippi realize their single story impacts every member of our state, including 38 percent of Mississippians who are African American.

During one of the earlier mass communications classes, I handed out notecards and asked each student to write one word that describes Mississippi on the card. Here’s what they wrote: Beautiful, traditional, contentious, conservative, Southern, boring, underestimated, humid, controversial, serene, character, empty, genuine, secluded, family-oriented, bare, faithful, complex, racist, potential, rural, home, hospitality, unique, different, quiet, green, old-fashioned, spacious, country, redneck, prideful, welcoming, farming, improving, diverse, stuck.

This diverse group of Mississippians had many beautiful things to say about their state. If you read their projects, I think you’ll find honesty that includes positives, negatives, perceptions, stereotypes and the single stories they have heard about Mississippi.

The project was an enlightening exercise in diversity, and I want to continue using it in classes to help others understand what it’s like to be a member a group that is prejudged, and how those steretoypes and single stories can negatively affect us. It is also a unifying project for Mississippi students who begin to think a little more deeply about their state, what it means to them, and the small, positive changes they can make within it by moving the conversation forward.

I also think it’s also important to encourage others to break stereotypes – to evolve, grow, learn, adapt, consider new ideas and elevate themselves.

On December 10, 1817, Mississippi was officially recognized as the 20th state in the United States of America. As we approach the bicentennial anniversary this year, we have become more reflective about the state’s past and future.

Like some students said in their projects, I would like to see Mississippi leaders creatively address our biggest problems and for Mississippians to rise together and defy those who share a single story about our state.

Instead of being last in poverty, let’s become the state with the lowest poverty rate and best schools in the country. Let’s lead this country in education, social tolerance and equality.

As the Hospitality State that usually ranks Number 1 in giving and generosity based on per capita donations, let’s wear that description with pride, but rethink that word so “hospitality” means much more.

Let’s prove them wrong and strive to be more inclusive, tolerant, loving, welcoming, accepting and kinder than any other state.

Let’s make it loud and clear.

We don’t want to be MISS. UNDERSTOOD.

By LaReeca Rucker


If you are interested in participating in the MISS. UNDERSTOOD project and having your work or the work of your students featured on our site, email LaReeca Rucker, support journalism instructor at the University of Mississippi, at ldrucker@olemiss.edu for more information.

BACKGROUND: Mississippi is a state that some perceive negatively because of its past and present. Mississippi often ranks 50th in many categories, and many Mississippians have a love/hate relationship with the state for this reason. But Mississippi is not one-dimensional, and neither are its people. There are many layers, and some are positive, beautiful and unique.

CHALLENGE: You’ve just been hired as the new head marketing director for the State of Mississippi. You are asked to come up with new ideas and create a small marketing campaign designed to present the state in a new light, reveal something about it that others may not know, or re-imagine what the word “Mississippi” means. What suggestions would you offer your boss, and what steps would you take to launch this campaign?

DIRECTIONS: Students are asked to write a three-page, double-spaced paper. Each of the following steps should be one page.

STEP 1: Write about your own perceptions of Mississippi. We listened to a TED Talk about the idea of a “single story” and a NPR story in class during which one University of Mississippi student shared his thoughts about the state. What are your thoughts? How do you think the state is perceived by others including your friends and strangers who live elsewhere? Have you ever had any personal experiences that relate to Mississippi’s perceptions? How do you think the media portrays Mississippi? Is it accurate? Inaccurate? What are your thoughts?

STEP 2: Research your topic. Google “marketing campaigns” as a first step to get ideas. Ask others about their perceptions of Mississippi? What did they say? Ask others their thoughts about what you could do for your campaign to get input from others. Come up with an idea that you could do for your marketing campaign. What is the campaign’s name? What is its purpose? How will you execute it? Will you use social media, write a press release, write a news story, make a video, speak to classes and groups, create a website? Be creative.

STEP 3: Results. What were the results of your campaign? Even if they were small, tell us what they were? Did you get any response or feedback? Do you feel like you got your message across? In retrospect, what would you have done differently? If you had more time, how would you suggest developing your campaign to reach others statewide? What are some of your ideas? And as a final question, what did you learn about state perceptions from the project?


Mississippi in a New Light: By Noah Scannell

To be completely honest, I was a little nervous when I moved to Oxford in 2014. I didn’t know if life was going to be drastically different here or if I would fit in. The stereotypes about Mississippians were not in my head, I was just nervous. I quickly discovered Mississippi is really no different than Kentucky. Everyone was so nice, and I felt like I was back at home. I felt like I was welcomed into the University of Mississippi with open arms.

The Mississippi Rebirth: By Madison McGrath

As I asked friends from other schools in different states who have never stepped over the state line what they though of Mississippi, I received a plethora of responses that did not surprise me, such as “hick, racist, uneducated, wide spaces, conservative, country/rustic, and Southern.”

Just Visit: By Amanda Haley

The “racist” comment is usually fueled by someone unaware of the changes the South has made since the Civil War era. Just like several other states, Mississippi’s past seems to not be forgotten. I think this is because those who are educated outside of the state are not taught anything about Mississippi except several important historical events. The strength of the era that divided the races was so effective in Mississippi, there is an automatic link to that part of history. People fail to realize the beauty and change that has been made, instead assuming it is still the same.

Mississippi Soul: By Isaac Harrelson

Today, I walk outside, and I am astonished at the beauty of this place, the kindness of the community, especially the black community. All of these people I have gotten to meet treat me like family, even though they owe me nothing. Each time I sit down for a cup of coffee or stop by their places, I hear stories of legendary musicians, writers, potters, and indie artists from the state. It’s funny, when my friends back home hear me talk about the state, they are unable to look past the stereotypes, some to the point that they refuse to visit.

The Coca-Cola American Dream Campaign: By Shanleigh Roberts

I have experienced the direct effects of Mississippi’s stereotypes through my mother, a kindergarten teacher at Olive Branch Elementary School, who has been trying to secure a teaching job in Tampa, Florida. Although she is overqualified, has high test scores, has worked in special education, and has earned a master’s degree, she has had difficulties getting a teaching job. Florida schools boast higher educational standards than those in Mississippi, and school officials are hesitant to take a Mississippi teacher due to stereotypes.

Adapt Mississippi: By Arien Canales

The summer before I attended Ole Miss, I watched “Mississippi Burning” for the first time, and immediately felt horribly inside. I had a bad outlook on the state I had so willingly wanted to live in for four years. However, the first few weeks of college showed me history is important, but it doesn’t mean history repeats itself. I grew up in a college town, and the University of Mississippi is far more diverse and inclusive than the university I lived a few miles away from in Texas.

My Mississippi Favorite: By Morgan Feeny

This campaign will be a new Netflix series called “My Mississippi Favorite.” Every episode will show the viewer the journey of one actor to his favorite local restaurants throughout Mississippi. Viewers will want to experience the amazing cultural food only found in Mississippi.

Moving Mississippi Forward: By Rex Ravita

I love the beach, the Southern hospitality, and the small town feel that comes with nearly any city you visit. While I do love certain aspects of living here, I am dying to get out. This is a common occurrence, being raised in Mississippi. If you don’t fit in or agree with everyone around you, they tell you to leave, so naturally that’s what you want to do.

MSconceptions: By Reagan Pepper

Unfortunately, this perpetual grudge is furthered and worsened by statistics. Mississippi has the highest childhood obesity rate in the nation, the second highest adult obesity rate in the nation, the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, receives the largest amount of federal aid and always ranks the highest in polls regarding the “stupidity” of states.

Mending the Heart: Destiny Walsh

Even though Mississippi has an abundance of land, there are still cities and suburbs in the state. It is sometimes difficult not having a mall five minutes away and hundreds of food options, but I would not change it for the world. I personally love the fact that there are not huge cities and buildings everywhere you go. It’s refreshing to drive and see beautiful trees and hills for miles.

The REAL Mississippi: By Carter Loeb

I remember hearing about how good sweet tea tasted on a sticky Dixie afternoon. I remember hearing about the gorgeous magnolia trees that could be found all over Mississippi, and how their waxy leaves glistened in the hot windy air. I also remember hearing about how hospitable the people were here. Even people you did not know were always smiling, waving, like a friend.

Education is Key: By Lexi McCoy

I think every state has the problems Mississippi has, and I can see why Mississippians are hurt by these accusations. A few people don’t make up an entire state, and the poor choices and decisions of others should not reflect the entire state as a whole.

Fun Bucks: By Kedrick Smith

When I say I love Mississippi, I must first start with the food. I feel as if Mississippi is the only state where you can eat neckbones, greens, chitterlings, crawfish and shrimp, all in one day. You can suck on honeysuckles while walking up the road, or maybe you are in the mood to pick some fresh berries. It doesn’t matter; it’s all in the same woods.

Focus on Technology: By Hannah Humphreys

First, I will research all new technological advances our state has had through engineering, medical, farming and other fields. Highlighting these through a series of press releases and social media stories will break the barrier of the “hick town, redneck” stereotype. I would also host a campaign that brings all innovators together for a dinner or possibly a convention inviting all Mississippi residents to view the latest achievements.

50 Shades of Mississippi: By Brandon Hardaway

There are so many different faces in Mississippi, you’ll never get the same response. Some said Mississippi is still considered one of the most prejudiced states around, while others feel Mississippi is slowly evolving into something better for all.

Magnolia Good Grade Money: By Patrick Chacone

Driving across the country from Southern California, I had serious contemplations regarding the Magnolia State. It’s a racist, stagnant, conservative, poorly educated, underfunded wasteland.

Made in Mississippi Foundation: By Thomas Mooney

My campaign will create a non-profit foundation that will raise money and awareness for the educational system in Mississippi. The foundation will rely on the generosity of people who want to improve Mississippi. It will be called the Made in Mississippi Foundation.

Proving Them Wrong: By Eoin McKenna

During the next school year, sixth grade, my teacher introduced the class to the civil rights movement. In this unit, I saw horrific imagery of the South. The events of the Little Rock Nine, the Birmingham Bombing, and the Ole Miss Riot of 1962 stood out. These images were now my perception of the South, especially Mississippi. I now understood the state as a place of violence and racism.

Modern Mississippi: By William Nash

If additional time was allocated, I would include more eco-tourism opportunities. State parks, such as the Natchez Trail, Roosevelt State Park, and countless others, offer pristine forests that cannot be matched anywhere else in the nation.

#MyMississippi: By Annie Johnson

When my oldest brother first asked my parents to tour Oxford for college, my parents were baffled that he even considered attending a college in “the middle of nowhere” Mississippi. Now, I am very thankful that my brother attended toured Ole Miss, because my family and I might not have discovered this wonderful small town.

Mississippi Video Series: By Mackenzie Brinson

Mississippi is a place I have called home for 18 plus years. It is a place that has shown me love, and I show it love. It has shaped my beliefs, advanced my understanding of music, and taught me how to enjoy Southern cooking and value relationships and hospitality.

It Feels Like Coming Home: By Mary Elizabeth High

Because of Mississippi’s current portrayal in the media, a campaign to encourage tourism in the state will not look like an advertisement to visit a beautiful, culturally-rich state, it will look more like a desperate cry: Why visit a backwards, racist, bigoted, XYZ-phobic, Deep Southern State?

Helping and Hospitality: By Jon Matrick

In contrast to the stereotypes, Mississippi has ranked #1 in generosity per capita. Mississippians give millions in donations to hurricane victims, tornado victims, and victims of other tragedies across the country, and this should be remembered.

#MyMississippi: By Ansley Stephenson

I was directly influenced by this approach while visiting and applying to UM. My family simply could not understand how a state whose education system was the subject of jokes could possibly be the location of a university that’s out-of-state tuition is upwards of $20,000 annually. My family was even more confused when I told them it was a university I was desperate to attend.

Ole’ways Miss-Represented: Samantha Stephans

Here’s where my freshman experience was different than most students. I never truly gave the university a chance. Don’t get me wrong. I loved college, but I was never satisfied because of my negative attitude about Mississippi. My one-sided opinion didn’t change because I refused to see anything else.

We’ve Got Every Green Imaginable: By Abby Vance

While on their trip, my parents met a woman who asked where they were from. They replied, “Mississippi.” When my parents said this, the woman said, “Oh! You mean the state with every color green imaginable?” We had never thought about Mississippi that way — until then. Now, my eyes are constantly open to the different shades of green we have spanned across our beautiful Magnolia State.

The New ‘Sip in Mississippi: By River Childers

Being from Louisiana, another state viewed as an unsuccessful place, I can relate to Mississippi residents to a certain extent. The only thing people give Louisiana attention about is the city of New Orleans, but I grew up in a city five hours from New Orleans and have only visited the city a few times in my life.

An HBO or Neflix Series: By Brantley Meaders

Growing up in Mississippi has made it my home. I’m attached by sentimental familiarity as well as childhood nostalgia. Although the stark reality of our state’s history has manifested inside me as cynicism and doubt, as it has for everyone from here, I have the necessary perspective to remain optimistic and recognize the fruit bearing potential of reform.

Stop the Stereotypes: By Elliott Suddoth

I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, a place many might call an inescapable bubble that provides no room for original thought or self growth. Of course statements like this are only made by people who have no knowledge of the art of simplicity, the kind of simplicity that is accurately celebrated and drenched in the moral values of its Mississippi Delta inhabitants.

Creative Culture TV: By Kimberleigh Forbes

The media portrays Mississippi as this extremely rural, hot, poor, backwards place that is only beneficial for white families with old money. In almost every movie I have seen about the state, that has been the narrative. Living here three years has shown me that there is more to the state than its negative reputation. Though there are some truths to these stereotypes, it is not by any means the whole story.

The Mississippi Meaning: By Hannah Gambrell

Mississippi is a second home for me. It is a place where I have slowly begun making new friends. It’s where I paid my first bills. It’s where my husband and I share our first apartment together. This is a place where I have learned more about myself and grown as an individual.

Education Campaign: By Grayson Baird

My friends never understood my love for the Magnolia State, because to them, Mississippi is a poor state covered in plantations stuck back in time. Their views were not completely wrong. Mississippi did have all of these characteristics, but there was much more to the state.

Living Happy: By Nicole Henderson

In high-school, I learned about Emmett Till. He was a teenager who was lynched in Mississippi. After watching that documentary, I made the decision that I would never step foot in the state of Mississippi.

Shed A Light Mississippi: By Emily Reynolds

People tend to believe Mississippians, especially Ole Miss and Mississippi State students, only care about football, beer, partying and Jesus. Don’t worry, if that made you laugh a little; me too. Ironically, yes, those aspects can easily be said for any Southern state, but Mississippi is known as one of the most Southern.

Lower Taxation for Better Representation: By Ashtin Riad

I can attest that may of these rankings are accurate. I say this because, growing up, I would compare the work I did in school with the work that my cousins in other states did, and their level of work was so much harder than mine.

Mississippi is Home: By Jyesha Johnson

Even though I consider Mississippi home, I don’t appreciate Mississippi’s ugly past that is the blame for the perception many have of Mississippi. Mississippi has been unable to have a place in what some call “post racial America.” The university has experienced firsthand how hard it is to leave a racist past behind.

Making it in Mississippi: By Kate Downes

Creating a blog where potential Ole Miss students can read posts from students who are from all over the country could help increase enrollment at the university. I want to share my experiences of coming from New York and moving to Mississippi to help other students step outside their comfort zone and try something educationally new.

A Home for All: By Cece Kizer

Since no one from home typically visits Mississippi, they rely on the state’s past to stereotype its people. So because the state is known for being racist, having snobby attitudes, and not producing people of high intelligence, that’s how strangers perceive it.

The Magic Behind Mississippi: By Nicole Lavery

Mississippi is often criticized and judged based on people’s assumptions, rather than giving the state the recognition it deserves. After living and going to school in the state for almost a year, Mississippi holds a special place in my heart and has become a place I will call home and defend for the rest of my life because of its unique past and culture, which have made me fall in love with this place.

Magnolia State Strong: By Margaret Wallace

I reached out to friends and family from all over the U.S. to collect their thoughts on Mississippi, and the main theme was that Mississippi is impoverished and has a poor educational system. This is what inspired my campaign Magnolia State Strong.

Mississippi Music App: By McKaylan Gray

Mississippi is historical. Mississippi is beautiful. Mississippi is hospitable. Mississippi has some of the greenest, winding roads you’ve ever seen. Mississippi has the best football celebrations. Mississippi is constantly put down. Mississippi is a curse and a blessing.

Overhauling Mississippi Heritage: By Christian Johnson

His words are echoed by many others. Though maybe not in the state of Mississippi itself, others feel that if the state made even the smallest changes (changing the state flag and overhauling how it views and handles the long past Civil War), then it’s image in the country would skyrocket. Mississippi could be remembered for its vast wildlife reserves, beautiful scenery, great diversity, and musical culture, but instead, it is linked to days of slavery, discrimination, and disenfranchisement.

GoMiss: By Emma Gaddy

As citizens of Mississippi, it is imperative that we address the flaws of our state, begin the conversation about the state’s positive qualities, and begin to initiate change where change is needed. The American public needs to see a different view of Mississippi. They need to see the Oxford view.

Small State, Big Heart: By Tyler Evans

Mississippi has something special about it that drew me in. I always heard the stereotypes, saying how dumb the people were, how everyone was obese, and worst of all, how “racist” people in Mississippi can be. Once I moved here, I quickly learned it’s not like it’s portrayed to people who don’t live in Mississippi.

Remove Confederate Symbols: By Matthew Thompson

For what it’s worth, this controversial legacy is not exclusive to Mississippi, because Confederate-related memorials are found in 31 states equaling in excess of 1,500 sites. Virginia, particularly, has the greatest number of memorabilia with over 200. But diminishing the nostalgia attached to such commemorations appears challenging for Mississippi.

Mission Mississippi: Seth Mohundro

Sometimes a person dressed in dirty coveralls works 40-50 hours a week to barely pay their bills, while others do not have to exert as much time, energy, and effort to make six figures. Appearances can be deceiving. Someone in jeans and an old T-shirt can be more polite and well-mannered than some corporate genius in a suit and tie.

The Mississippi Project: By Brandon Hancock

A simple montage of all the things I just mentioned, along with other state accomplishments, would speak volumes about what the state has done for this country. With a nice background melody, the video would open with an interesting fact, and it would list several amazing things before revealing at the end that it is all linked to Mississippi.

Miss Represented: By Jack Danaher

By Jack Danaher Mississippi is different than the rest of the states. It is the poorest and most obese state in the country, and was once part of a controversial time. Since being here, I see a state that is full of people who always have a great attitude, even if things aren’t going as …

How Much do You Really Know?: By Caleb Brown

Personally, I do not plan on establishing myself in Mississippi after college. This is not because I hate living here. I just know there is more opportunity beyond Mississippi, and that is what I want. Mississippi is a great place to move back to when you are retired and are looking to settle down in a nice, simple environment.

Mississippi For Real: By Alexa Bortles

It is nearly impossible to sugarcoat the perception of Mississippi among my friends and people who live elsewhere. Mississippi is viewed as a state full of farms and little civilization where the only source of entertainment comes from driving tractors, farming, hunting, fishing and many other stereotypical redneck festivities.


We will be posting updates about the MISS. UNDERSTOOD project here. Check back soon!