Is 'Hillbilly' Humor Offensive?

ByABC News
November 3, 2003, 8:22 PM

Oct. 29 -- Rachel Rubin collects what offends her, such as a "Fight inbreeding, ban country music" bumper sticker. "Let's see: Incest, funny or not funny?" she says.

She has salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like poor whites in rags. And perhaps the worst item in her cache, Rubin says, is a set of rotting costume "hillbilly" teeth. "I can't think of any instances where it's OK to make fun of someone who lacks medical care," says Rubin, an American studies professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Rubin belongs to a steadily growing group of academics and activists who want politically correct consideration for poor and rural whites. They see a double standard at play that makes phrases like "hillbillies," "rednecks," "hicks," "white trash," and "trailer trash" socially acceptable, unlike epithets aimed at other groups.

"The reason they are acceptable is that they're about white people and not seen as racist and derogatory," says Anthony Harkins, history professor at Western Kentucky University and author of the forthcoming book Hillbilly: The Cultural History of an American Icon. "We tend to degrade people of lower class in general."

Expressions like "redneck" and "white trash" are interchangeable these days, although they have different origins. "Redneck," for example, once described people who work outside in the sun. "That doesn't apply anymore," Rubin said. "What it really means is class."

Foxworthy: Youre Laughing at Somebody

The fledgling "hillbilly lobby" had its greatest victory to date when protests stymied the planned CBS reality television show, The Real Beverly Hillbillies. The show, eventually back-burnered by CBS, would have placed a poor Appalachian family Jed Clampett-style in a Beverly Hills mansion.

The comedian Jeff Foxworthy, most famous for his "You Might Be a Redneck" jokes, said he was doubtful when he heard about the premise of The Real Beverly Hillbillies. "I thought, oh, you're laughing at somebody," he told

"I think sometimes the perception is that if you gave these people a ton of money and an education that they would then become different," Foxworthy said. "Whereas, I have found they do not dislike their lives. Everybody would like to have a few more dollars. But they like their lives and friends, whether it's NASCAR, bowhunting, whatever. For somebody to make fun of it, it's not OK."

Foxworthy, who defines "redneck" as a "glorious absence of sophistication," has never been the subject of protests, despite the subject of his humor. His audience knows his "redneck" jokes are inspired by his own experience, he said.