Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An authentic middle American speaks

I've been struggling for awhile to put this into words, but there's definitely a odd demographic weighting among DC pundit types wherein white voters -- particularly white working class voters, and even more particularly older white working class voters, and even more particularly older white working class voters who live in between California and New York and in sparsely populated cities -- are somehow a more "authentic" foundation on which to build an electoral majority. And this is true among liberals as surely as among conservatives. Read more...


Like Ezra Klein at American Prospect, I've been struggling to make sense of this unquestioned fawning over middle Americans--not all middle Americans, just those who fit neatly into a mythical picture of Americanness: white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, small town, heterosexual, minimally educated and working class. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being any of these things. I just disagree that these traits make one a better or more authentic American or a more important part of the electorate.

And I say this as a middle American.

The political media's view of middle America is overly simplistic. Who are middle Americans really? Are they the folks in tiny Tripoli, Iowa (pop: 1,310) or the citizens in the predominantly black, Rust Belt city of Gary, Indiana? Are they the farmers in Missouri or the factory workers on the southside of Chicago? Are they the culturati in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, or the tourist shop owners in Nashville, Indiana? Are they the tony denizens of The Windy City's Magnificent Mile or poor folks in the Appalachian southeast corner of Ohio? Are they the people who frequent Chicago's gay-friendly northside "boy's town" or families in the heavily-Hispanic East Chicago, Indiana, Harbor neighborhood? I submit that middle America is all of these areas and all of these people, but the punditry and many Americans insist on seeing everyone in "the flyover states" as some version of the figures in Iowan Grant Wood's famous American Gothic painting. The idea is as much an affront to the diversity of the middle United States as it is to the good people of either coast. What makes the farmer in Kansas better than the farmer in rural New Jersey, the machinist in Illinois better than the one in Queens, the professor in Wisconsin better than the one in Washington State?

The myth of the Midwest is so foolish that I shouldn't be jealous of being left out of it. But I am, a little. Or maybe "jealous" isn't the right word. The obvious, yet ignored, race-bias inherent in identifying who is "authentically American" pisses me right off. I resent that when pundits speak reverentially of middle America, they exclude me. I... who was born and raised in The Hoosier State, educated in Iowa and have spent every day of my working life in the Midwest...I...the granddaughter of a steelworker and family farmer...I...whose ancestors came to this country long before those of many media-anointed "authentic Americans"...I don't count. I don't count for a variety of reasons, education and time spent living in urban areas among them, but mostly it is my blackness that is the problem. In fact, it is my absence from the narrative that allows people to romanticize where I'm from. The middle states can't be home to true, traditional, God-fearing Americans if there are educated, middle-class, secular black women here.

Why is it so easy for the right to paint Barack Obama as both a foreigner and anti-American, despite the fact that he has served the country on a community, state and national level and is currently running to become president of the United States? It is easy because in the American psyche, whiteness = American and colored = something else. Back when I was in college, a diverse dining hall table evoked an interesting comment from a white friend--one of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Midwestern, small town sort. She looked around at the group gathered for lunch, which included several white students, a Hispanic student, a student of Asian ancestry and myself. "Wow! We've got a Mexican, a Chinese person, a black and three Americans sitting here!" Of course, I pointed out that the people of color at the table were Americans, too. All of us were born and raised in the United States. "Well, you know what I mean,"she countered off-handedly. I do know what she meant. She meant that, even in the minds of some good people who mean well, America is synonymous with baseball, apple pie, Chevrolet and whiteness. If America = white and middle American = "true" America, then middle American = white. I'm out of luck.

Middle America won't vote for a black man. Middle Americans identify with Sarah Palin. Middle Americans don't understand complicated issues. No doubt you've heard all of these things before before from some talking head on a cable news channel. These statements reflect a narrow, race-biased and inaccurate view of the majority of our country. And they highlight the immaturity of our political discourse. We'd do well without the unquestioned and exclusionary myth of the Midwest that erases whole groups of people and keeps us from examining important issues in a real way.

10 comments:

Stephanie said...

Tami, You have got to stop reading my mind. I just had an argument with a co-worker that I and even some white people at the table were not "middle American". I said I was, married, a mother, worked for a living, paid a mortgage, had 2 kids who went ot public school and had a teacher and policeman for parents. What about me is not middle? I refuse to give ground to people who say if you are educated, from a big city and a POC you have no knowlege of "true American Values". I think the only thing different for me is that I value the diversity of experience and interaction that living in a larger community has provided me with.

SHevvi said...

I am de-lurking to comment on this post. As a black woman born and raised in Wisconsin and currently living in Minnesota this bothers me too. It has really been going on overtly since the 2000 election. It is so irresponsible for the media and pundits to continue this shorthand and to not call each other out on it.

Faith said...

It is intentional. Thank goodness for bloggers that we can change the topic of discourse to address this. Tami you should submit this as an Op-Ed to newspapers.

Anonymous said...

Don't sweat the small stuff Tami. I get sick to death of real Americans being defined as heterosexual. Meanwhile my world is lesbian, transgender and gay. We have little contact socially with that weird heterosexually married, child raising part of America. Everyone who is not white, not heterosexual etc., get labeled as other.

Stopped going to heterosexual weddings, baby showers, all that nonsense. Our world is separate.

Chele Belle said...

I know most have noticed but a woman of color would never be described as having ALL AMERICAN looks...or the girl next door look. Yes, Christie Brinkley, yes Jessica Simpson BUT no not Halle Berry or Michelle Obama. This is an odd country to say the least.

Anonymous said...

I...whose descendants came to this country long before those of many media-anointed "authentic Americans"
I'm pretty sure the word you want here is 'ancestors', not 'descendants'.

Sara Callow said...

Well, we also now know that Middle Americans are Joe the Plumber. The disrespect for this person named Joe inherent in the entire discussion last night blew me away as well.

Maybe it's better to be left out of the conversation that to be symbolized by one man's first name and his profession.

The entire concept of the "authentic middle American" is disrespectful... not only to the people it leaves out, but also to the public at large. Who really believes that Joe the Plumber is an equal substitute for themself or their belief systems?

And as someone living on the coast, I want to shout "Forget those middle American's... we have more votes here and our values are deserving of respect too!!!"

Not that we fall into one batch anymore than the Joe the Plumbers of the world do. :)

Tei Tetua said...

Remember back in the 1950s Congress had a "House Un-American Activities Committee"? Never mind what it was all about, the whole concept of activities that might or might not be "American" is just so totally American. I wonder if it's part of knowing that your ancestors haven't been here long and could just as well have stayed somewhere else, that makes Americans insecure about their place in the world, and eager to latch onto some kind of impossibly well-rooted group which represents "real Americans". A group which ironically leaves out the vast majority of us, even those who long to believe in it.

Maybe if you don't think the idea of "Un-American Activities" is hilariously funny, you qualify as a real American.

Tei Tetua said...

Remember back in the 1950s Congress had a "House Un-American Activities Committee"? Never mind what it was all about, the whole concept of activities that might or might not be "American" is just so totally American. I wonder if it's part of knowing that your ancestors haven't been here long and could just as well have stayed somewhere else, that makes Americans insecure about their place in the world, and eager to latch onto some kind of impossibly well-rooted group which represents "real Americans". A group which ironically leaves out the vast majority of us, even those who long to believe in it.

Maybe if you don't think the idea of "Un-American Activities" is hilariously funny, you qualify as a real American.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tami. I'm from Kansas City, Mo., and lurk here quite often. My head spins every time I hear these essentialist depictions of "Middle Americans." As if there was never a great migration that took blacks out of the South to places beyond Harlem. I am sick and tired of this whitewashing this part of country, frankly, that has always been "diverse." And I'm sick and tired of working class being defined as white. So every farmer, assembly-line worker, floor scrubber and nanny in my family doesn't count? They need to go somewhere with that ~ish.

Really, I abhor the term "working class" because the last time I checked, everyone short of trust-fund babies works to eat and keep a roof over their heads. They accuse their critics of class warfare, but they're really the ones stoking it with this Machiavellian game playing. Atwater is dead. I just wish his tactics could've gone with him to purgatory.

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