The Folklore Project


Nashville, Tennessee

Popping the Bubble

By Robie Sullins Jr.

When I was growing up, I never thought too much about what was happening outside my rural, Southern bubble. I came from a sheltered background where everyone looked like me, talked like me, and worshipped like me. My exposure to real diversity didn’t happen until college. Now, my life is surrounded with new experiences, new ideas, and most importantly, new people. People whom I don’t view as “others,” but as equals and friends.

Recently, I found myself confused and angry over the White House’s position on immigration. I saw friends, neighbors, and their families affected by the ban. I watched as thousands gathered to protest an order they viewed as un-American and unconstitutional. On the other side of the argument, I read stories and posts from friends who felt safer because of the decision and applauded the president’s order. It was painful to watch stories of immigrants feeling unwanted and abandoned by this country, and almost equally painful seeing Americans so divided on yet another issue. Immediately, a friend of mine and an event from a few years back came to mind.

It was early summer 2014, and Iraq was in a state of chaos. Islamic radicals had made their way into Iraq leaving a trail of mass executions behind them. These images were plastered across newspapers and television screens around the world. The global community was frustrated and angry that such horrific acts could happen immediately following the United States’ involvement in rebuilding Iraq. I watched the news, read social media posts, and made comments to my wife about how terrible the violence was. Then, I went on about my business.

One particular morning some co-workers were discussing the situation in Iraq. Surprisingly, the conversation turned personal when I asked one of my co-workers about the emotional strain her family was under. She was born in Iraq, grew up in Turkey, and moved to Tennessee at age 9. She still had family there, including an uncle and her parents. She told us that her parents lived in Northern Iraq, not far from the violence. They had been debating whether to stay or try to cross the border into Turkey. They were safe for the time being, but wanted to have a plan in place should things go south. Her dad was worried that if they crossed the Turkish border, they would be captured and held for ransom. 

I stood there in awe of her story. Just a few days prior, my parents were debating which sports car to buy, and her parents were debating life-and-death decisions. My little bubble was popped. Soft tops and miles per gallon seemed so insignificant. Here was a person I knew and cared about, being impacted by a horrible moment in world history. Again, everything was fine in my bubble. I was safe, my family was safe, and no one close to me was dying because of their faith. Suddenly the news cycle became more personal. The images of people fleeing the violence became more than unknown names and faces. They became friends of friends, families of friends. 

Stories like my friend’s are not unique. Unfortunately, they are quite common. America is growing ever more diverse, but I worry she isn’t growing more inclusive. So how do we develop empathy for others? What steps do we take to make sure everyone feels welcomed and no one has to experience feeling like an “other?” How did a boy who grew up in rural East Tennessee — in a town where the majority is straight, white, deeply religious, and politically conservative — find himself hurting for others half the world away? He simply got to know someone else. He opened himself to new people and new ideas. He started a conversation and listened. Really listened. He opened himself to finding out more about someone else’s struggles. Someone who wasn’t part of his typical Southern background. 

It’s easier to empathize when you can place a name and face on such a difficult moment. It’s easier when people you know and love are affected. The country and the South are changing, ya’ll. Traditional notions of what it means to be “Southern” are changing. Go outside your bubble, start a conversation, get to know one another, and remind each other that we all belong in this beautiful country.