Over the past couple of years, I've been spending a fair bit of time reflecting on my internalized biases and my responsibilities toward groups I'm not part of, whether by intention or accident. In part, this was brought about by the murder of Michael Brown in 2014 and the deep and unsettling knowledge that Ferguson, Missouri is very, very close to the town where I was born and where much of my family still resides. The white people of Ferguson and the St. Louis area are, in many ways, my people.
Identifying them as my people doesn't come easily to me. From a very young age, I saw myself as somehow apart from the small-town culture I grew up part of. I was going to go to college, I was going to leave, I was going to be Something More. While I never intentionally thought of it this way, I've realized that seeing myself as aiming for Something More inherently meant I saw what my peers were doing and becoming as Something Less.
I don't necessarily think I was wrong in my knowledge that I needed a different kind of life than I could have found in that place. The list of possible narratives there is short, and for women it's even shorter. Holding myself apart meant holding space to be true to myself, and that wasn't entirely wrong of me. But when, a few years out of high school, I inadvertently discovered that the people of my hometown--peers and adults alike--often thought of me as a stuck-up snob, I was baffled. I was the one who'd taken heat for being feminist, for being liberal, for being a reader who took school seriously, for not being a jock. They'd hated and ostracized me; how could I have been the snob?
Sometimes this self-reflective writing means showing my ass, by which I mean to say I was the snob, of course. Although my ideologies were at odds with most of the people around me, I ostracized myself; I made it clear that I wasn't interested in the people around me, made it clear that I didn't think their lives were worthwhile. Recently, I saw a comic referencing the opening number from Disney's Beauty & the Beast, in which Belle laments the simplicity and dullness of her "poor provincial town," and in it, the townsfolk are hurt by her descriptions of their lives. It hit me like a brick.
Even now, I find myself struggling to identify, struggling not to draw an artificial distance. I know what people think about small-town people, some true and some absolutely not, and I don't want them to think those things about me. But the truth is, whatever I've become, that place made me, and anything I became by placing myself in opposition to it was nevertheless a result of being there. In their own way, they drove me to become myself. I owe my small-town Illinois place and its people a certain amount of gratitude, and for me, that's come across lately in identifying them as my people.
Many of them wouldn't be happy about the way I've done so, of course; I've identified them as my people primarily because I felt a need to be responsible for them, to try to make them better. Many of those people are at their core kind and loving, but some are not. They all face tremendous challenges absolutely unique to their rural world, and they've all found different ways to cope with them, to varying success.
The point, though, is that they're worth it. Small town America is not hopeless, it's not without the potential for good work and good news and positive change. It doesn't have to be stagnant and dangerous and overwhelmingly homogeneous. What it needs is for more of us to see them as our people, to know that a bit of attention and a few more resources could make dramatic differences in their lives that would almost certainly lead to less hostility toward the rest of us.
It's complicated and it's difficult. But it's worth it.
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