Born and raised in Charlottesville, V.A., Thea Rossman ’15 grew up near the region of the Eastern United States called Appalachia, the focus of her CAMD Scholar presentation.
Rossman presented her project, “Whiteness, White Supremacy and the Evolution of Appalachia,” this past Tuesday in Kemper Auditorium, discussing the ways in which subtle forms of racism and classism appeared in and are institutionally ingrained in Appalachian society.
Whites living in the Appalachia region during the 1900s were once considered to be dumb and uncultured, as society characterized them by a primitive, failed whiteness. Even so, Rossman said, they were still considered superior to other races.
“This is white supremacy. This is the ideology of the superiority of the white race, surviving and changing to fit new circumstances, to abort seeming contradictions,” she said during her presentation. “I used Appalachia as one case study of… [how] race is not made up in stable categories: It’s shifting, it’s defined by power, it changes over time,” she continued.
In her presentation, Rossman hoped to demonstrate the ways in which apparent reality can be misleading and the ways in which history and narratives are shaped by power.
“We can think of the stories we use to make sense of the world with race being one of those stories. The ones in power are shaping the dominant narrative and creating the stories that we use to make sense of the world, and then those stories then shape the distribution of resources and power further,” said Rossman in an interview with The Phillipian.
When aid organizations came to assist the Appalachian people in the 1960s, they focused mainly on the assistance of whites and ignored other racial groups, said Rossman.
Activists and missionaries devoted to reforming Appalachia were oblivious, however, to the negative effects of their actions. They had good intentions, Rossman said, but they remained ignorant because the effects of the racism they were perpetrating were very subtle.
“American investment in white supremacy, as shown in Appalachia, shaped the distribution of resources in the Post-Reconstruction Era…. Once removed from the isolation that had arrested their racial development, [Appalachian whites] would move ahead with the rest of the nation because they were white,” she said during the presentation.
During her research this previous summer, Rossman used the collections of the University of Virginia Library and the internet to find writings on Appalachian studies, primary sources including color pieces, old romance novels and magazines from the time.
“The interest in the project came from my interest in race and whiteness. I want the main takeaway from my project to be about how whiteness operates in America, not about Appalachia, mainly because so few people here have any connection to Appalachia. ”
Christopher Jones, Instructor in History and Social Science, was Rossman’s faculty advisor during the project.
“I thought the presentation was superb — a feeling I believe the audience shared. It is tremendously difficult to take a complex set of subjects, like white supremacy, identity, and Appalachia, and present an argument with such clarity and depth as Thea did. What I read in her paper and heard at her talk was scholarship of a very high order,” said Jones in an email to The Phillipian.
Rossman’s presentation was the first of the series of CAMD scholar presentation of the year.