‘Ello, Y’all: Author and Journalist Diane Roberts Discusses Career and Southern Stereotypes with Mass Communications Students

Fresh off the plane from working at the BBC radio station in England, journalist Diane Roberts sat down with the Mass Communications students and faculty at Piedmont College to chat about everything from her start in journalism to pesky Paula Deen comparisons.

“If I ever get Paula Deen-ish, I want someone to strike me down,” Roberts said.

After getting some laughs from the audience with that statement, Roberts went into more detail about the Southern stigma. She discussed the 10 years she’s lived in England, and how having a Southern accent affected the way people treated her.

“I’ve had people, and not just British people, ask me one, if I lived in a double wide, or two, did I live in a plantation house,” Roberts said. “There’s that kind of southern-ness, where you’re into everything country, backwoods and weird stuff.”

Roberts added onto her statements by revealing she didn’t know too much about British people when she went to work overseas, so the stereotyping wasn’t just a one-way street.

“I think you have to do the best that you can, because everybody stereotypes everybody,” Roberts said. “I didn’t know all that much about British people, I thought they all lived in lavish cottages, unless they lived in castles. They don’t live in either one, they live in houses, the same as me.”

Roberts then discussed what society imposes on those who may fit a stereotype and also have a wide-reaching platform, such as Paula Deen. Roberts brought up the term ‘professional southerner,’ and pondered over the authenticity of Deen’s television persona, and gave a word of advice to those who may be facing stereotypes of their own.

“There’s this category of being a ‘professional southerner,’ where they really ham it up and I think Paula Deen might be one, maybe because that’s what they’re told the audience wants,” Roberts said. “I have no idea what Paula Deen is really like, all I know is what she’s like on TV, and that may not be her at all. You do have to find a way to undercut what people might think you are.”

Roberts revealed that her start in journalism wasn’t as a natural writer.

“How I got started, was by being a bad writer,” Roberts said. “I was really good at research, I was good at being in the library.”

Roberts recounted an instance in which she had to write an honors thesis in college, and when she handed it in for her professors to go over, their reviews were less than glowing.

“One of my professors gave me a present for finishing my honors thesis, which was a book called “The Elements of Style”,” Roberts said. “I’m reading this book, and I’m getting a sinking feeling. We sat in his office for two hours going through my honors thesis, sentence by sentence. He’d point at one saying, “what don’t you like about that sentence?” After about 10 sentences, there were tears running down my face.”

Roberts discussed her original thoughts on journalism, believing one could ‘write because they can write.’ She went into detail of how she came to the realization that writing isn’t only about putting the pen to the page.

“It hadn’t dawned on me that writing is a craft,” Roberts said. “I was probably told this, but it just hadn’t sunk in.”

Rachel Danford, a junior who attended the lecture, found how Roberts got her start in journalism relatable to her own.

“She started out as a bad writer and now has four books under her belt,” Danford said. “Knowing this makes it easier for me to go easy on myself. I’m not the best writer, but neither was she.”

Danford also finds inspiration in Roberts being a woman and forging an accomplished career for herself.

“Roberts is a very accomplished woman, which is great to see in the field of media,” Danford said. “I found it inspiring to hear all the things she’s done and accomplished.”

Roberts was accompanied by Dr. Craig Amason, the Director of the Lillian Smith Center. Amason gave a short speech about what the Lillian Smith Center’s purpose is.

“Our primary function is an artist retreat center,” Amason said. “Artists pay a small fee and stay in our cottages, and work from there.”

Roberts added on to Amason’s objective explanations with her opinion on the center, and Lillian Smith as a person.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere so pretty,” Roberts said. “I like to think there’s a spirit there of a woman who didn’t care what anybody thought of her, and did what she wanted to do. She spoke truth to power, which is something journalists are supposed to do.”

Throughout her discussion with the students and faculty, Roberts maintained a laid-back demeanor and honest tone, which resonated with Joey Brovont, a freshman who attended the lecture.

“I thought it was very insightful and fun,” Brovont said. “She made everyone feel like a friend and told us about her life.”

Roberts discussed several different aspects of her career and her personal life with the Mass Communications students and faculty. Her career has proven to be ever evolving.

“I’m still on the ‘journey to success’,” Roberts said. “No matter what you accomplish, there’s always going to be a what’s next.”

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