There is a staff appreciation BBQ here at my place of work in a couple of weeks. They have one every year, it’s a chance to go and have a free lunch, mingle with coworkers, guess how many jelly beans in the jar and win a prize, etc. etc. There is usually a theme to these events – circus, mardi gras – that kind of thing. Mostly the themes are harmless (relatively speaking). And then there’s this year’s theme.
Hillbilly BBQ! Design a poster based on this here Hillbilly theme! This is screaming all over the hospital, complete with a tacky, childish font, and tuns of werds spelt rong, cuz duh hillbillies, amirite?
I can’t wait to see the posters. I can pretty much guarantee the following:
• Some sort of “Yahoo Mountain Dew!” type guy – you know what I mean, the old miner look with overalls, floppy hat, scruff, missing teeth.
• Moonshine (or at least jugs with XXX on the sides)
• References to brothers and sisters and/or cousins getting married or at least hooking up
• The two “hillbilly” dudes from the Bugs Bunny cartoon
Did I miss anything?
So here’s the thing. This is offensive, pure and simple. Deliberately misspelling words on a poster that is going up EVERYWHERE including where patients can see it? Is wrong. We have patients who are illiterate and some who are barely literate. In fact, a 2005 survey found that 42% of Canadians over the age of 16 struggle with low literacy, and some estimates put that level even higher at over 60% in the Greater Hamilton area. And that’s just general literacy rates. If you’re talking about health literacy – the ability to understand and act on information related to your health (like understanding medication labels and following directions) – the levels of illiteracy are even higher. So hey, why not hammer home the fact that struggling to read and spell and understand is HILARIOUS?
I suppose there is going to be some eyerolling in my direction – oh lighten up, people will say. It’s just supposed to be a joke, no harm is meant, come on now. It’s hillbillies! We don’t’ even HAVE hillbillies around here. And I’m no stranger to this kind of talk, I hear it all the time. Any time I call out something sexist or homophobic or racist in the media – it’s just a joke, don’t be so serious all the time, god can’t you just relax and enjoy the show/movie/ad without looking for “hidden meanings” and looking for something to offend you?
And the truth is that I can’t. Because, as I’ve said before, words mean things. Images mean things, and they stick with the viewers. And if we all just take a “Oh haw haw haw” view of everything that we see, nothing will ever change. Harmful stereotypes persist because of this way of thinking. End of story.
So will I be attending the BBQ? Probably not. Because of the high-larious theme we have just discussed, and but also because the veggie burgers are usually cold and rubbery. Seriously though, it’s tempting to go and chat with the social committee members who came up with the theme – they will all likely be in costume (ugh) as is the norm at these events – and ask them how comfortable they feel, poking fun at an already marginalized group of people. But then common sense tells me that I would probably only get blank stares and more of the “oh lighten up” type conversations. Still, because harmful stereotypes persist due to the fact that no one calls them out, what’s a person to do? Well, I have enlisted an expert on health literacy and called her attention to the signs. I hold out hope that she will agree with my views and possibly together we can approach the people in charge and let them know our opposition. I can’t be the only person offended by this, can I? Because if I am, I am afraid for the future of our species.