We worry a lot about racism and homophobia and for good reason. But there’s a form of prejudice we aren’t aware of and that’s regionalism. Regionalism is a term I made up just now, for the sake of this article, for demeaning, presumptions, ignorant generalizations about a region you’ve never visited or lived in first-hand. And it’s what made me, a white girl who grew up in rural Montana, understand what racism and homophobia actually feel like. Because whenever someone makes assumptions about you based on where you’re from or reduces you to a stereotype or pigeon-hole, that’s bigotry.
I was workshopping a story in which I characterized a Vietnamese girl’s talking as “twittering” and a white guy in the class said he found it offensive. My teacher’s response to him was, “Well she’s from Montana.” She meant this as, “Montanans are racist bigots, of course. They’re all about hicks and sticks and mountains and church.” For me, I would have said any person’s voice was twittering if it were twittering, it wasn’t exclusive to Vietnamese girls everywhere, I was describing that particular individual Vietnamese girl. But that’s not the point. The point is that the teacher never saw the irony in that in her worry about offending Vietnamese people, she was displaying patronizing prejudice toward Montana.
Indeed, throughout the class, she constantly referred to my coming-of-age-without-coming novel as “The Montana novel” as though its setting defined it and every little detail that she didn’t understand, she would file under “Must be a Montana thing…” For instance, when a character drank expired milk out of the fridge and a student asked why the character did that, she remarked, “I just assumed it was something people did in Montana.”
Another time she commented that the mom character didn’t seem like a typical Montana mom because she talked to her daughter frankly about birth control and sex. What the hell is a typical Montana mom? And how would you, someone who has never spent a day there know more than me, someone who spent 25 years growing up in Montana and who has a Montana mom. Her comments are on the exact same line of idiotic bigotry if she were writing a book about an Indian girl and I kept asking why the character kept eating pizza instead of saag paneer. Why was she judging individuals by a collective bias? That’s the essence of racism, regionalism, and every other bad “isms”.
Since my main character in the “Montana novel” is a virgin who’s anxious about losing her virginity, this teacher immediately attached that individual character’s thoughts as a mouthpiece for the entire state of Montana. Another strange presumption, because I had made the point that the main character was not a virgin for religious reasons and that she felt like she was behind other college students. One time, the teacher remarked, “Is there a virginity club the character can join? Like a support group for adult virgins. Or is that probably not a thing in Montana because most everyone’s a virgin?” I said, “She’s a 19-year-old college freshmen who hasn’t had sex yet. If you’ve ever watched a CW show, whether it took place in New York or North Carolina or The OC, 19-year-old virgins are not exclusive to Montana.”
It was during this class that I realized an interesting paradox. The same people who are hypersensitive about making offensive homophobic and racist remarks often delight in making ignorant, demeaning, and patronizing presumptions about places they’ve never been. Indeed, I say delight, because she truly laughed when making these remarks and did not think twice about this type of bigotry.
I didn’t mean to focus exclusively on that class, because there are more examples. For instance, I was talking to a Japanese woman who asked me what living in Montana was like and I said my standard response, “I grew up in the ugly flat part of Montana where sports and religion dominated, but then I went to college in the pretty part of the state called Missoula, which is like a mini-Portland.” I appreciated that she asked but at a later point in the conversation when she asked if a particular event happened in Montana, I said, “No, actually that was North Dakota.” And she laughed and said dismissively, “Well, same thing.” Again, I know Montana and North Dakota are similar. But I would never dare make a remark about an area of Japan being the same as another because I would have a fear of offending her and seeming racist and presumptuous. Moreover, I wouldn’t make such a remark with certainty because I have never been to Japan, just as she had never been to either Montana or North Dakota.
But what’s interesting about regionalist bigotry is that it doesn’t occur to people to worry about offending you. They barely blink when they utter ignorant sweeping generalizations. They don’t want to hear exceptions to their pigeon hole because they want to validate their fantasies that we’re simpleminded peasants who wear overalls, milk cows, and don’t have teeth. When I tell people that my dad is an engineer and my mom is a teacher who own a wheat farm and make good money, travel, and read newspapers, their eyes glaze over and they’re bored and terrified. Where is the story that makes them feel better?