By Seth Mohundro
Having lived in Mississippi my entire life, I have seen and heard several different perceptions about Southerners, Mississippians in particular. Some may even say there are specific stereotypes stapled to people who live here.
Most of them are not very appealing or true. What I find somewhat odd is that I never hear of any other state with the amount of negative labels stuck to it.
I can’t speak for all Mississippians, but that bothers me just a little. It gets under my skin, because I know most of these labels and perceptions are overblown, or not true at all in many cases.
My personal perceptions of Mississippi are that the majority of Mississippians are hospitable, beautiful, unique in many ways, generous people, religious, warm and comfortable. As I will highlight later on, a few of the insights I collected from a few people who live here are pretty similar to those I have just outlined.
One thing I always hear about Mississippi is that its education system is the “bottom of the barrel.” This is a popular one that I have heard no matter where I go. Also, this perception is one I cannot argue with because statistics back that up. We are irrefutably at the bottom of almost every educational category.
Have I mentioned that I really get agitated when I hear these things? However, to counter that is the fact that our education system does not receive enough funding or resources it desperately needs to give students the best chance to learn and succeed in the classroom.
Teachers are underpaid everywhere, but in states such as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, they spend more per student than most other states. That means their teachers are making more money than those who spend less on their students.
Mississippi is 46th nationally in the amount of money spent on education. That is a problem based on how much our local and state governments value the students who come through the education system.
However, there are bright perceptions of Mississippi and the people therein. Almost every time my family goes on vacation to other states, we get complimented as being the most polite and generous people. In places that are big tourist attractions, most of the workers we, and others, have encountered have told us that we are some of the nicest folks they have ever waited on or talked to. I think that Mississippians take pride in our manners and etiquette.
There is an old saying, “Perception is everything.” In today’s world with an unlimited amount of information at our fingertips, this quote cannot be more true. When people can see that a hotel has an average of 2.5 stars out of 5, that gives the perception something is not right.
It is the same with states. When others see that Mississippi is dead last, or close to it, in a bevy of categories such as education and health, that gives the state a bad perception. When I asked others about their own perceptions of Mississippi, I received some very interesting answers.
I asked one person what she thought about when she hears the word “Mississippi.” She replied, “There are no jobs and our number one export is our best and brightest minds. We need to be more progressive.”
I do not think all of the brightest minds are leaving, but there are many who are venturing elsewhere to get jobs in bigger markets.
Another person interviewed said, “Every Hollywood picture made about Mississippi depicts them as backwards, inbred, and uneducated. They portray every white man as an affiliate of the KKK ready at any moment to burn a cross in somebody’s yard.”
I decided I want to make it a mission to shed a positive light on this state. So, I laid out a campaign called Mission Mississippi. This is personal to me, and if I can be the one to enlighten others that this state is one of caring, generosity, and warm hearts, I will do my best to accomplish this.
The main purpose of this is to put all the information out there that you do not hear from news stations and reporters. That is why the creation of www.missionmississipp.org will be a huge part of this campaign.
The contents of this website will include a list of must-see places, historical landmarks that show the history of this great state, stories written by non-Mississippi citizens about their experiences when they visited the state, a list of the most famous people to come from Mississippi, and a donation option to which the proceeds will go towards education, bringing more jobs to the state.
I have also created an Instagram and Twitter account with the same name to update progress the state makes in the areas of most concern. I will encourage journalists and reporters to seek stories from older citizens who have been around and seen things others my age cannot imagine.
The purpose of these stories is to show how far this state and its people have come since the racism-fueled 1950s and 1960s, for example.
Whenever someone really draws your attention to something, you start to look at it a little differently. Get to know the people of the state before stating opinions about them.
If someone has no idea about baseball, they are probably going to make something up. That is what I am essentially asking everyone to refrain from doing. If we are to successfully work together, we all need to have open minds about each other. Don’t jump to conclusions.
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.
I encourage every reporter, journalist or person in general to reach out to your local and state government officials to talk respectfully about ideas to improve the education system. Also voice your concerns and needs about getting more jobs to this great state so well-educated individuals will have job opportunities awaiting them after graduation.
The main thing I learned about state perceptions is we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on criteria and statistics comparing every state. Every state is different in its own special way.