What Does ‘Southerner’ Mean Today?

What does the word “Southerner” mean in the 21st century? It’s an interesting question to ask in a public university with students and faculty from around the world. To answer it, I caught up with UF faculty and students and asked them to weigh in on the modern connotations of the title.

Dr. William Link

UF Department of History

From New Jersey

“Well, first of all, I think you can’t really understand it unless you know it historically because the South is a historical creation and it is the product of a number of factors, I think, that are distinctive to the South, that are different than the rest of the country. So things like poverty, and things like race, and things like defeat. Up until Vietnam, at least, Americans had never lost a war and Southerners lost a war — the Civil War. So, all those things. In popular culture, I think it has something of a negative connation. I think people hear a Southern accent sometimes they assume the person is slow witted or not informed. There is a prejudice against that, I think. I think it’s amazing you got this very persistent regional identity compared to other places. New England has it too to some extent, but I think probably of any region the South is the most stubbornly attached to its sense of who they are.”

Layla Slate

UF Political Science student

From Saint Augustine, Florida

“I’m just from Saint Augustine, Florida. That’s where I’ve lived most of my life. I don’t personally really identify with the word ‘cause I feel like there’s cultural connotations to it and it’s not really a cultural experience that I identify with or practice certain aspects of, so it’s just not something that’s part of my identity really. And if I were to describe someone else with that, I think it has to do with if you come from a family that lived here for generations. Maybe that has more cultural significance to you, where you have certain practices and maybe more religious aspects of culture, certain foods or certain language, certain activities that you practice. My family came from up north and moved down here, and I’ve always just kind of observed both and never really identified with either.”

Dr. Sean Patrick Adams

Hyatt and Cici Brown Department of History

From West Virginia

“You know, growing up in West Virginia, it’s been interesting to me to move to Florida and see the similarities even though Florida is much more Southern than West Virginia. Both states share this kind of strange relationship with being Southern. West Virginia was created in the Civil War out of Virginia, so traditionally it is the South and there are certainly Southern things about West Virginia that I noticed growing up but also very Northern things. It’s a border state. In a strange way, I think Florida’s also a border state. My students often have much stronger connections, for example, to the Northeast because they have family up there. They go over there over the summer and so forth. So, then of course Florida is a border state also because of its Latin American connections. A lot of students come in and don’t have any kind of connection with an American identity at all.”

Samuel Cadenhead

UF Political Science student

From Saint Augustine, Florida

“I’d say, in like a modern sense, you’re generally calling someone uneducated, or old fashioned, traditional, sometimes even racist. I don’t think I really think about it. Often, it’s like a fantasy character at most. I mean, I guess I’d say like farming, nostalgia, lassoing, all these kind of almost Wild West stuff but yieldman farming, you know, that old-fashioned idea. Definitely negative connotations like traditional, hating technology, stupid. There are some positive stuff like nostalgia, family values, somewhat of a conservative word.”

Maya Kelly

UF Agricultural Education and Communication student

From Crawfordville, Florida

“I feel like, depending on who uses it … it depends on the connotation. A lot of people say Southerner like “oh, I’m a Southerner” as like it’s more prideful, like they’re very proud of where they’re from and their roots and the things that are associated with it. Whereas other people, who are from different backgrounds who may not have as positive of an experience with Southerners, will be like, “oh, you’re a Southerner,” and it’s kind of meant as an insult, so I feel like it’s definitely the connotation and the perspective as well as the context of it being used. And then you said things associated with it, right? Yeah, I don’t know, like sweet tea and accent, maybe hunting in some aspects of a Southerner depending on where you are, I know a lot of Southerners are typically Republican or conservative in thoughts and ideals.”

Dr. Jon F. Sensbach

Department of History

From multiple states in the Southeast

“Well, sure, I use the term, I use it in my writing as I write about the South. I write about historical connotations of what the South means, so I think about this quite a lot. I think that the term Southerner means generally someone who’s from the South — okay, simple enough, or so it would seem. Does it mean somebody who is from the South now, but whose family might have been from somewhere else? Does it mean somebody who has long-standing ancestral relations to the South? Does it mean somebody who moved to the South yesterday? Does it mean somebody whose family moved to the South 400 years ago? There are many different ways in which we can think about the term Southerner.”