Being a thankful Mississippian is natural, defensible

Published 1:00 am Sunday, November 20, 2011

OXFORD — Social scientists call it “ethnocentrism.” In the animal kingdom it’s similar to “the homing instinct.” Some might use the term “bonding.”

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to identify favorably with the things, places and attitudes we find familiar.

Ethnocentrism explains why we believe the schools we attended were better than the ones down the road. It’s why we consider English the best language. It’s why Mississippians prefer catfish and hush puppies to lutefisk and clam chowder.

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Sometimes ethnocentrism goes beyond preference, extending to defense. People who drive Fords can list for their Chevrolet-driving friends why Fords are better. Ford drivers become impatient when Chevrolet drivers try to explain why Chevrolets are better.

Some pluses can be tested. Better gas mileage. Longer warranty. Lower price.

Some can’t. Better styling. Prettier colors. Easier handling.

Mississippians are ethnocentrism-challenged.

There are no fences around the state we call home. We can leave at any time. But through the years lots of people have told me that despite years living and working elsewhere, they always felt most comfortable back where they spent their growing-up years.

In my career, I’ve traveled some. Others have traveled much more, but I’ve seen much of the United States, Africa, Mexico, the Middle East and parts of Europe. I’ve seen great vistas at sunrise and sunset, seen natural and architectural wonders. I’ve visited great museums and seen the best works of creative geniuses who lived across the centuries.

There’s more contentment, however, when I reflect on fishing for crappie at first light on Sardis Reservoir, on driving up or down the Natchez Trace at the peak of any season, but especially spring and fall, or a visit with stitchery artist Ethel Wright Mohamed in her Belzoni home.

That’s ethnocentrism at work. I’m among tens of thousands who prefer Mississippi and the company of Mississippians to other destinations, other cultures and the reason is mostly because I was born here, grew up here, raised a family here. As much as I like and enjoy exploring and learning from others, I am the proverbial mule headed to the barn when it’s time to come “home.” My pace is noticeably quicker. It aggravates my family greatly that if it took us two days to reach a distant destination, I can make it back across the state line easily — in a day.

Such ethnocentric tendencies are complicated in the Magnolia State by statisticians and others who tell us day after day, week after week, that we are too poor, too fat, too ignorant. Our children could get a better education almost anywhere else. Our chances for success in an occupation or a career are diminished. Two-thirds of our citizens, who are white, spend all their waking hours trying to marginalize the other third, who are black.

A good thing about ethnocentrism is that while it may be a natural phenomenon, it doesn’t compel us to ignore reality. We may love our Fords, but if they have flat tires we don’t have to pretend they don’t need to be fixed.

This is the week of Thanksgiving.

Mississippians shouldn’t really be conflicted about loving life in the state they call home. Loving the state and its people doesn’t require turning a blind eye to financial, social and other ills that exist.

For all the aspects that are wrong, we can be grateful for those who get up and go to work every day — not to point fingers or look down their noses — but to get in the trenches and make a difference for the better.

It is true — and it will remain true all our lives — that residents of other states, other regions in America relish the days when rankings are released because the rankings often validate them — highest incomes, best schools, superior hospitals and such. That’s OK. Ethnocentrism works for lutefisk and chowder fans just as it does for us. They’re just kidding themselves, however, if they take on an air of superiority, acting as if they have no challenges or problems on their home turf. They do, just as we do.

So part of the reason Mississippians adore Mississippi can be explained as a natural consequence of human behavior. It also explains why we defend the state, while recognizing it is far from perfect. We should never, however, lose sight of the fact that there’s a lot being done right in this state. There’s a lot to like. And a lot for which to be thankful.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail