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Jokes and stereotypes can cause real damage

May 02, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

How many West Virginia jokes have you heard this week?

Even one is too many, said 400 young people interviewed last month by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc., which is exploring the reason that so many people between 18 and 34 leave the state.

In interviews in The Huntington-Herald Dispatch, one of three media outlets that commissioned the poll, young career people said the old image of the uneducated barefoot hillbilly is more than a joke. It's a stereotype unrelated to reality that's holding back the West Virginia its residents.

Those interviewed said this is true in part because many teachers encourage students to leave the state because higher-paying jobs are available elsewhere and because there' a perception that nothing will change if they stay.

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So what's the solution to this problem? True change must occur, as outlined in "A Vision Shared," the West Virginia Roundtable's recently announced plan for progress.

But those interviewed by The Dispatch said that the state also needs to celebrate and publicize the success stories that presently exist. Just as West Virginia has successfully marketed itself as a vacation destination, it also must make an effort to show off the achievements of its citizens, they said.

It sounds like an interesting advertising campaign, but a one tough for the state to fund when it's facing a $100 million deficit next year. This may have to be a privately funded effort instead, an option that might make it an even better campaign.

If businesses and young professionals kick in a few bucks toward the state's image makeover, they'll be more involved. And the tag line on the ads could say "paid for by the proud people and businesses of West Virginia."

As for those in nearby states, we ask them to remember that there are pockets of poverty everywhere and that sometimes what's intended to amuse may be hurtful instead. The best jokes are those we tell on ourselves anyway, aren't they?

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