Defining What’s a “Real Southerner”

Some people asked what I meant by “real southerner.” I’m simply pointing out that there are people out there who are very interested in defining who is and who is not a southerner for reasons sometimes connected with issues of heritage.  Sometimes I’ve been told that I need to understand what a “real southerner” is.

So I turn to all of you: how do you define “southerner”? Does the term “real southerner” have any utility?

You tell me.

52 thoughts on “Defining What’s a “Real Southerner”

  1. Joshism May 8, 2015 / 7:04 pm

    I feel like any attempt to define a “real Southerner” runs a serious, possibly unavoidable, risk of falling into “no true Scotsman” fallacy territory.

  2. Charles Lovejoy May 8, 2015 / 8:44 pm

    Someone who was born in and loves in the south? Then it gets diverse from there.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2015 / 1:24 pm

      Could one be a southerner by birth who is highly critical of a region out of love for what it could be but falls short of that promise?

      How important is birthplace to geographical identity?

      • Charles Lovejoy May 9, 2015 / 5:10 pm

        I use southern identity because of my geographic birthplace and place of domicile. Also my deep roots in southern art ,music and culture. I like BBQ, blues/jazz, salt marshes pine forest , Cajan food, Cajan music, things of that nature. I also love New Orleans, Charleston and a lot of southern cities. Just like a person born in New York likes the culture referring to themselves as a New Yorker. A birthplace in my opinion is an important part of geographical identity. I like NYC, think it’s a great place, but I wasn’t born there of live there, so I wouldn’t call myself a New Yorker. Geographical identity is used as a convent term in most cases.

          • Charles Lovejoy May 10, 2015 / 12:25 pm

            I also believe the greatest American music came out of the Mississippi Delta and Southern Louisiana, yep guess am a real southerner 🙂

      • Joshism May 10, 2015 / 2:21 pm

        Could one be an American (i.e. USA citizen) by birth who is highly critical of a region out of love for what it could be but falls short of that promise, and still be a Real American?

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 11, 2015 / 12:10 am

          Carl Schurz would say yes, but he was an immigrant. So some might claim he wasn’t a real American.

          • Joshism May 11, 2015 / 6:06 pm

            If Pat Cleburne was a Real Southerner then Carl Schurz was a Real American.

  3. bob carey May 8, 2015 / 10:54 pm

    Anyone born below the Mason Dixon line Anybody who resides or has resided below that line. Atlanta Braves Fans. I’m from NY and I cannot define a northerner, except that Red Sox fans are not true Northerners’ they should have a separate classification altogether.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2015 / 1:26 pm

      New Englanders could respond that New York Yankee is a contradiction in terms. New York Knicks or New York Islanders … okay. Bronx Bombers? Better for the pinstripers.

      • Buck Buchanan May 11, 2015 / 11:58 am

        MR Carey….and just what is wrong with us Red Sox fans?

          • Buck Buchanan May 12, 2015 / 11:50 am

            If you had a LIKE button, I’d mash the hell out of it!!!

            His name is on my license plate.

          • bob carey May 14, 2015 / 3:02 pm

            Mr. Buchanan
            I did not mean to imply that there is something wrong about being a Red Sox fan. They just insist that there is something called a Red Sox Nation somewhere. Therefore they deserve their own distinct classification. I happen to like Yaz , didn’t he pop out to Nettles to end the Bucky Dent game?

  4. T F Smith May 9, 2015 / 7:35 am

    One of the interesting issues at play in this sort of tribalism is that the population of the U.S. South have always been fairly diverse (in context) and have become increasingly so, census by census, since 1970. Even with the obvious but generally unacknowledged divides (by the “true southerner” types) between white and black southerners whose ancestry in the region reaches the antebellum period, and the equally obvious but generally unacknowledged divides among white southerners during and after the war, there are the populations of native, mixed ethnicity, immigrant, creole and Cajun, Tejano, etc.

    Then add the reality of the internal migration of native-born Americans (white, black, and other) to and from and back to the Sunbelt in the past half-century, and the significant immigration to the region by first-generation migrants from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia, and one really sees the sociological foundation of the in- and out-group identities for the “true southerner” self-identifiers.

    One suspects a majority of the current “southern” population does not care, especially some of the most dynamic population groups.

    Which puts the question into perspective, generationally and demographically, as I am sure our host knows full well.:)


    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2015 / 1:29 pm

      Many of the southerners I know (who are indeed native to the region) do not see the Confederacy as something to be proud of … including those who honor Confederate ancestors. At Wofford I noted that the Confederacy was not a touchstone of southern identity for most of my students, who overwhelmingly came from the region. It certainly was not for non-white students.

      • TF Smith May 9, 2015 / 2:46 pm

        Yep; one of the interesting developments I noticed the last time I was in Georgia is that Stone Mountain is 75 percent or more “non-true Southerner” in the sense most often meant by the true Southrons (TM). Says a lot, actually.


      • Leo May 9, 2015 / 4:20 pm

        I agree 100%.

    • Joshism May 10, 2015 / 2:26 pm

      I’m pretty sure self-proclaimed Real Southerners (and certainly self-proclaimed Florida Crackers) consider Sunbelt Yankee transplants and Latino immigrants to be Not Real Southerners. All the post-WW2 Northern transplants to Florida are single-handledly responsible for ruining the state, especially the small towns. Or so the long-time residents usually tell me.

  5. James F. Epperson May 9, 2015 / 9:02 am

    The difficulty is the word “true,” as I am sure you are aware. There will be lots of definitions offered based on different interpretations of that adjective. I suspect a certain resident of West Florida, like many others, would require some notion of fealty to the memory of the Confederacy.

      • James F. Epperson May 9, 2015 / 11:55 am

        I don’t use the phrase “true Southerner,” frankly, so I don’t have a ready-for-use definition. If you were to metaphorically put a gun to my head and insist I give you one, I’d have to give you two definitions: (a) mine; and (b) what I think certain others commonly use.

        (a) Someone from the South who holds a fondness for Southern history, food, and culture, but who understands and does not shy away from acknowledging the dark spots in Southern history and culture.

        (b) Someone from the South who holds a fondness for Southern history, food, and culture, as well as a special reverence for the Confederacy and its legacies.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2015 / 1:19 pm

          You will recall that the post asked people to define “southerner.” The title simply draws attention to the question. “Real southerner,” to my mind, is a term one would inject to exclude people to do not fit one’s own narrower definition.

          I think it is useful to define the terms we use in everyday discourse so that we can say that we know what we mean.

          • Indian Joe September 8, 2018 / 11:04 pm

            I will make it simple fot you. A true southerner is someone who’s heritage has been in the South since before 1860, period. Does not matter if you were born in the South or not. After 1860 you are either a carpetbeggar, descendent of, or a transplant or descendent of, period

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2015 / 1:32 pm

          Ms. Chastain has announced on this blog that one can be a southerner without cherishing the Confederate experiment. Now watch her parse this by saying she didn’t use this word or that phrase in an effort to seek cover among her avid supporters. It’s all part of the Chastain strategy of claiming she doesn’t mean what she says, which is a really bad thing for a writer to say … but then she doesn’t make her living by writing, right? 🙂

  6. Charles Lovejoy May 9, 2015 / 9:32 am

    What about a person who was born in the south, had antebellum ancestors but their direct civil war era ancestors were to old or young to be in the Confederate army?

      • Charles Lovejoy May 9, 2015 / 4:52 pm

        They would be a “Real Southerner” , Confederate ancestry doesn’t make someone a “Real Southerner” no more than Union Solder ancestry makes a person a real Northerner.

  7. John Foskett May 9, 2015 / 1:18 pm

    The term is a meaningless label. It’s a fossil from an era long since past, when regional boundaries may have defined a culture and when those boundaries were not frequently crossed. Anyone who visits places like Atlanta, Charlotte, the Triangle, etc. today will encounter a whole lot of residents whose extended roots are northern or other. Forget Virginia or Tennessee. Today the term is used by groups who fondly recall an exclusionary, isolated South so that they, too, can exclude. Next up – “true Coloradan”. Good luck with that one.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2015 / 1:21 pm

      But we all know who comes from Boston or New York … although my oldest daughter, born in Arizona, roots for New York teams (Yankees, Giants, Islanders). I don’t know how that happened.

      • Pat Young May 9, 2015 / 1:27 pm

        I am often mistaken for a New Yorker, although I am a Long Islander. Not sure how to distinguish folks from Jersey, Ct. NY, and Pa.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 9, 2015 / 1:33 pm

          Shhh. You’ll spoil it for us Long Islanders. That’s why the Isles’ moving to Brooklyn is an interesting debate about identity.

          • John Foskett May 9, 2015 / 1:44 pm

            Hey, technically it’s still Long Island. And I’m guessing visiting teams won’t miss having to put up in that Motel 6 across from the Mausoleum.

        • Joshism May 10, 2015 / 2:31 pm

          “I am often mistaken for a New Yorker, although I am a Long Islander.”

          Down here in South Florida we don’t distinguish between Long Island NYers and NYC NYers; we only draw a distinction between NYers and upstate NYers.

          Which may underline a thorny issue with Real Southerners: how a New Yorker (of any variety) defines a Real Southerner may be rather different from how a Florida Cracker defines a Real Southerner.

      • John Foskett May 9, 2015 / 1:42 pm

        If you can find a Boston accent downtown these days, make an audio recording for posterity. 🙂

        • Buck Buchanan May 11, 2015 / 12:02 pm

          Agreed…the accents are all in Southie, Quincy, Revere, Peabody, etc, etc.

  8. Pat Young May 9, 2015 / 1:25 pm

    I think we would begin by saying that there are certain states that are in the South. Once we agree on those states, then anyone who is a resident of those states would be a Southerner. Any other definition is likely based on racism or xenophobia.

    Listening to Ed Ayers he makes the point that after the Civil War white Mississippians yearned for the old Southern ways of the state. Problem was that the state had only filled up with white people three decades before the Civil War, so there was not “Old” there. He said that most shopping malls today are longer established than many parts of Mississippi were in 1860.

    • Joshism May 10, 2015 / 2:33 pm

      “Once we agree on those states, then anyone who is a resident of those states would be a Southerner.”

      But we’re not debating who is a Southerner; we’re trying to pin down a definition of Real Southerner.

      Perhaps like “feminist” a Real Southerner is anyone who defines themselves as such, in which case the term would indeed be meaningless just as self-described feminists today cover such a broad range of beliefs that the term is almost meaningless.

      • Pat Young May 11, 2015 / 11:06 am

        Real Southerners would be actual people v fictional characters.

  9. Buck Buchanan May 11, 2015 / 12:05 pm

    As with everything, it has a lot to do with context.

    To someone from Montreal a person from Albany is a Real Southerner.

    It’s kind of what I say for defining a Yankee.

    To the world a Yankee is an American.

    To an American, a Yankee is Northerner

    To a Northerner a Yankee is a New Englander

    To a New Englander a Yankee is a Vermonter

    To a Vermonter a Yankee is someone who still uses an outhouse.

  10. Connie Chastain May 13, 2015 / 2:04 am

    “Any other definition is likely based on racism or xenophobia.”

    People are defined by more than their geographic location. They’re defined by culture, by family/roots,by shared history, by group membership (snidely called “tribalism” by some) and many other things.that contribute to “identity.” If they aren’t there’s no such thing as diversity.

    • Rob Baker May 14, 2015 / 10:57 am

      Connie is right. That is why the Deep South area usually has a cultural baggage which traces back to the Barbados colonists who were entrenched in slavery.

  11. Rob Baker May 14, 2015 / 10:56 am

    To say Southerner usually refers to someone who is culturally deep South, Appalachian, or Tidewater. So which form of Southerner are we talking about?

    BTW, this is the issue I have with Eric Foner and Andrew Johnson. He ain’t no deep South Democrat by God, he’s an Appalachian!

  12. T F Smith May 14, 2015 / 5:56 pm

    The interesting element in this is the absence of “westerner,” “easterner,” or “northerner” tribal identities in the United States. The vast majority of US citizens simply identify as American; only a certain subset of the majority population see a need to identify as “true Southrons” (TM).

  13. Sandi Saunders May 22, 2015 / 7:13 am

    When a Southerner is not trying to defend the indefensible (slavery, secession and anti-government sentiments), it is still hard sometimes to describe the deep abiding love of place that many Southerners share. It also does not suppose that Northerners, Mid-Westerners, and Coastal regions do not also have that feeling about their own region and roots.

    We honor our deep roots. We study and preserve them. From the heritage we keep alive, like gardening then preserving, hunting then preserving, vast swaths of public lands for preserving, to our recipes and food “events” we call meals, our work ethic, our music, our faith, manners and value of things preserved by passing them down and keeping them with us, we do consider our past to be honorable, just as the United States does, in spite of wrongs, mistakes and lapses. In the South, you can go home again, and if you look hard, you will find yourself there.

    We do not honor the Confederacy for the defense of the despicable practice of slavery, or the bigotry and Jim Crow that grew from it, but for the ancestors who believed it was their duty to rise to the defense of their state. Fighting for a lost cause or even a wrong does not make your service itself dishonorable. If it did, what does that say of those who fought in Vietnam? Iraq? What does it say of those who decided to drop bombs on civilians in Japan? I am as liberal as a person can get and I am proud to be from the South. A racist is not honoring the South, they are hiding behind it.

    We fall on our face, collect ourselves and walk gracefully from the room with regal bearing. That is the South in a nutshell. Laugh if you like, but that backbone has sustained us for many generations and will continue to do so.

  14. Sherree May 24, 2015 / 12:16 pm

    A real Southerner: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    The South that I knew and that I experienced was one in which a deep sense of place existed, alongside a deep sense of responsibility for the past.

    I remember first hand accounts of the Jim Crow era from my father, who sat in the balcony of the theater with the black community. I remember the look on my mother’s best friend’s face when she told the story of how she almost lost her twins when the white hospital would not admit her, until one doctor insisted that she be admitted. I remember the names I, myself, was called when I confronted racists–the ugliness of it, the hatred, the division.

    The past of the South is inescapable and still relevant. It won’t do to gloss over it and to attempt to rehabilitate it. It is what it is. When you descend from the cultural group that gave the world the KKK, it would be incumbent upon you, it would seem, to encourage everyone to smile upon their brothers (and sisters) and to try to love one another. Right now.

  15. Indian Joe September 8, 2018 / 11:23 pm

    Something the folks of the northern heritage seem to skirt around is the fact that there was slavery and racism in the north as well. Prisoner’s of wars in England were sold as slaves to the early colonists in the early 1600’s. It would be civil of you to not sweep facts under the rug.

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