Welcome To Shelbyville – A “Political” Review

Welcome to Shelbyville is a documentary recounting the story of the town of Shelbyville, Tennessee during the 2008 presidential election; it recounts the reactions to his election by various different groups: Anglo-Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and Somali Refugees. In addition to this, it also recounts the various groups’ reactions to a new group of Somali refugees. Through this film, we are presented with a microcosm of America; America is rapidly changing, it must figure out how it will react to the religious and cultural changes that are on the horizon. In this brief paper I will highlight some of the cultural differences between the groups and examine how their responses to each other might lead to the various groups becoming more culturally aware.

Welcome to Shelbyville

All four groups represent very different cultural values which are manifested in their views on politics, economics, and religion. In examining the Anglo-Americans values on politics we see that they desire to keep things the way they are. They feel threatened by change. Thus they display an aversion to risk. At one point some Anglo members of the local Rotary club say that “Shelbyville is not Mayberry anymore,” meaning that it is no longer the ideal picture of America that they are used to. This attitude towards political change is illustrated during the election of Barack Obama. At one point, a Presbyterian Pastor says that “the election is historic but troubling…the nation we know and love is changing.” The African American and Hispanic views of politics however is quite different. They see the change as hopeful. Having seen discrimination against minorities they see this new government as possibly bringing about change. In this election alone we see that the Anglos of Shelbyville have a strong uncertainty avoidance. Cultural differences are also displayed in the various groups views about economics. The Hispanics and Somalis are willing to work difficult, menial jobs in order to provide for their families. In fact, the Hispanic person Miguel Gonzalez is very proud to work for General Motors. He sees the value of hard work. The Anglos in the film however are best characterized by what the ESL teacher says about them, she says that some people wouldn’t work there (Tyson or General Motors) even if they paid them. This is an interesting observation, because at one point we see an Anglo couple complaining about how the immigrants have taken their jobs, however jobs are available, its just that the jobs that are available aren’t the ones the Anglos want. Cultural differences are also displayed in the various groups’ religious practices. Although we don’t exactly see their spirituality, we are given a view into how their political views impact their church services. Both the Anglo Presbyterians and the African Americans bring in their political views into their sermons. The Hispanics do not even mention their faith. The Somalis seem to be deeply impacted by their faith. We are told that they pray during designated prayer times, even if they are not at their mosque. We also see that their religious leader acts as a leader in the community, thus their religious life intersects with their daily lives, however they do not refer to politics in their meetings. Finally, the Anglo Baptists are also shaped by their religious views. They too do not allow their politics to intersect with their religious practices, but they do allow it to affect their social life. This is displayed in their decision to have a church put on community outreach for the Somalis.

In addition to the differences between these groups that are seen in their politics, economics, and religion we also see differences in their reaction to the Somali refugees. The Anglo Americans have the most hostile reaction to them. For instance, the former Mayor says that the Somali’s “have diseases,” the “Muslims are here to kill us,” the “Somalis don’t like us.” On one radio show we hear an Anglo complain about being forced to comply with the Somali culture. Another Anglo says that “they are more aggressive,” he complains that they try to bargain and haggle at the store, he sees them as being rough and impolite. These attitudes are only one type of reaction typical of the Anglos. The Presbyterian pastor Stephen Caine, displays a more mild manner aversion to them. He points out that the Anglos are now the minority, and their ways are being threatened but he also realizes that if the churches are going to survive then need to learn to adapt. The African Americans take a more neutral stance towards the Somalis. They find them strange, they have strange food and wear strange clothing. One man at a barbershop complains that he can’t communicate with them. He doesn’t see them as a problem, however he finds that situations get awkward when the Somalis are around. The Hispanics display the most positive attitude towards the Somalis. The ESL teacher that is helping them become culturally oriented is Hispanic. The same ESL teacher also helps them address the problems they face with the news reporter, Brian Mosley. In addition to this it is also the Hispanic community that initiates the “welcoming initiative.” Being immigrants themselves they understand the problems the Somalis face. The greatest difference between the groups lies in their reaction to the Somalis. The anglos react negatively, whereas the Hispanics and African Americans take a more positive stance towards them. The African Americans are in favor of reaching out to them, but they are not willing to take an active role in doing so. The Hispanics lead the charge in this area.

Welcome to Shelbyville Somali

The differences between the reactions towards the Somali’s are rooted in struggles for power. The Anglos are losing power. They are becoming a minority, they are “losing jobs,” and they are being forced to change the ways of life that they were accustomed to living. The African Americans are also being forced to change, but since they do not possess as much power as the Anglo’s they do not feel as threatened thus they are not as averse to the changes that are required of them. Finally, the Hispanics, which possess the least amount of power in Shelbyville, are the ones who have the least conflict with the Somalis. This is likely because they are in a similar position as them. Both are relatively new to Shelbyville and the Southern States. Both work “menial” jobs and both struggle with the language. Thus their similarities bring them together.

Another reason for cultural conflict lies in what the groups believe that America should be like. The Anglos believe that it should stay the way it is, the other groups are open to change and are even hopeful that it will happen. This is seen in their responses to Barack Obama’s election. The Presbyterian church finds the election historic but troubling. The African American church sees hope in Obama’s election. They believe it will bring financial, physical, and spiritual well being to the country. The Hispanics believe it displays what they love most about this country, namely that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. The Somalis have little to no reaction to the election.

Different conceptions of what America should be like are also seen in how the groups respond to the cultural differences in the Somalis. The some want them to leave, others want them to conform to their ways, and some are willing to assimilate them as long as they leave behind their cultural values and adopt American values. The African Americans play a small role in welcoming the Somalis helping the become acculturated. They are willing to help them feel welcome, but they do not take an initiating role in welcoming them. This fact is seen in the scene involving the meal between the various groups. The African American ladies are friendly towards the Somali’s, they even try to understand what Somalia is like, however they display cultural insensitivity when it comes to their style of dress and the topic of terrorism. It is the Hispanics that initiate the most beneficial cross-cultural initiatives. By teaching the ESL class, organizing the meeting with the Newspaper, and initiating the meal between the Somalis, African Americans, and Hispanics all groups begin to move towards being culturally aware people. These initiatives are helpful because they help break down language barriers and help remove misconceptions that exist between the groups. Both of these tasks, the breaking down of language barriers and the correction of misconceptions help the groups identify with each other. As the groups begin to identify with one another they learn that they have nothing to fear when it comes to the changes that are happening around them.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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