As I stand at the counter of a restaurant in Germany, counting out change, the proprietor notices I can’t quite speak the language and asks where I’m from. “Texas,” I say. Even here, there’s rarely a need to clarify — and sure enough, he nods knowingly. “George-Bush-Staat!”
The state of George Bush, indeed! Like the Bushes, many people have traditionally moved to Texas for its mild climate, lack of income tax and cheap land. But it’s certainly no act of revolution to leave Texas for the coasts, however much it’s treated as one by Texans and non-Texans alike. To consider the act of leaving home a liberating one — to reject one’s roots is to deny that one’s home is a real place with the capacity to change just like anywhere else in the world.
There seems to be some assumption, on the coasts, that a young Texan who holds the kinds of opinions deemed acceptable at an Ivy League institution — whose parents dutifully voted Gore, then Kerry, then Obama — must somehow be grateful to have “made it out” of their home state. It’s an attitude I’ve encountered at Penn multiple times, despite the fact that Texas sends more than 100 students per year to this school.
Then again, it’s an easy thing to internalize, and many people, myself included, have done just that: Within the small, ever-so-slightly left-of-center circle I moved in during my teenage years, it was seen as a major accomplishment to go to an out-of-state university, to “make it out.” And once you make it out, it’s even easier to elicit patronizing sympathy — something that’s often mistaken for genuine personal interest.
You simply have to make small talk regarding the once almost-weekly news of the Texas Board of Education’s machinations against critical thinking, the Texas legislature’s endless efforts to make abortions as difficult to obtain as possible or some Texans’ insistence on secession. You must of course be quick to say that secession — to make these people seem as ignorant as possible, and to make yourself an exception to the rule — is not actually permitted by the treaty Texas signed with the United States upon its annexation. I have done all of this.
Texas isn’t homogenous, though. No place is — there’s the rub, and those who pride themselves on political nuance would do well to remember that. Case in point: One now-former University of Tampa assistant professor, a Canadian, . This was both horrifically insensitive and inaccurate. Houston, the city hit hardest by Harvey, ; outsiders forget this.
In addition, to perpetuate the myth that universities elsewhere in the country are beacons of religious and racial tolerance in comparison to the South is 1) to deny that bigotry exists on the coasts — it does, but it’s far more insidious, which almost makes it worse — and 2) to discount the opinions and actions of people who live in the South and cannot, or rather will not, try to “make it out.” Texas has been changing rapidly under this country’s very nose.
An astute Texan journalist, addressing this, wrote an article entitled “,” and unsurprisingly, the were variations on “I sure as hell hope not.” These comments were from people who admittedly refused to read the piece because of its headline. It’s contradictory, this attitude, but perhaps it is more convenient for liberal outsiders to have a scapegoat on which to blame all of America’s race problems, so that they don’t have to deal with the fact that they could be part of these problems.
All this isn’t about Texas in particular, or even the South, though Texas and the rest of the South for many years bore the brunt of progressive ridicule and pity. It’s entirely possible to embrace (part of) your heritage, to acknowledge the role of your home in your development as a person and all the while denounce much of that which makes home what it is.
Cultural criticism is most valid when it comes from a place of deep, albeit complicated, love for that culture — not from the learned self-hatred present in a lifetime spent trying to distinguish yourself from the football players you went to high school with, and definitely not from an outsider’s derision. Texans whose lives led them back to Texas know this, and have been struggling to turn the tide of social conservatism for decades, although their work has more often than not gone unnoticed by the broader American public. Look up Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, for starters, and remember that for each of them there are thousands of regular citizens working towards the exact same thing.
SHILPA SARAVANAN is a College junior from College Station, Texas, studying linguistics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Phone Home” usually appears every Thursday.
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