Having lived in cities like Washington, DC, and Columbia, SC, with public transportation, clubs, restaurants on every corner, eclectic neighborhoods, farmers markets, and people from around the world, I have urban privilege. Frequently you hear about white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, etc., but I had not thought about privilege along the lines of geography and access to resources. As you may remember from a previous post, for the last three years, I have lived in a town with a population of less than 10,000 people in rural America. It is dry, meaning you can’t buy alcohol within the limits of the township. The main shopping spots are Wal-Mart and dollar stores. Restaurants are generally fast food chains. It looks like your typical urban strip, with only a few brave souls walking or biking out of necessity rather than joy. There are efforts to improve the downtown, but the fact remains that in order to access the benefits of urban life—art, music, nightlife—one has to be able to afford to drive 1.5 hours each way.
I travel a lot and move in and out of urban privilege. I walk this tightrope trying to be culturally sensitive, while at the same time longing for the comforts of urban life. I put on my anthropologist hat and I have difficulty differentiating my ethnocentrism (or in this case the belief that aspects of urban life are better) from my ability to see the real problems rural people face. Are the academic and governmental institutions taking the issues that rural people face seriously? Do the people who live here see themselves as having the same problems?
One of the assignments I give my cultural anthropology students is to research a non-governmental organization and apply for a position to work in another country/culture. Often when they first present information about the people/culture in the country they select, they depict the people as poor, downtrodden, and helpless. I follow this with a discussion of agency and representation. I ask them to think about how the NGOs are depicting the people they are helping. I note that often these organizations produce images of poverty, despair, and helplessness to reinforce the idea that they are helping “the Other.” This is especially true when the images are loaded with markers of ethnic otherness. As I reflected in my first installment of “Tales from the Rural South,” I couldn’t help worry that I was guilty of this Othering.
I looked back on an Everyday Feminism blog post in which Annah Anti-Palindrome writes about the ignorant and harmful things urban feminists should not say to rural people. She is writing about rural transplants in urban areas. She notes that rural people are depicted “as being a group of exclusively white, mullet-wearing, banjo-playing, lazy, toothless, illiterate, alcoholics and addicts.” She goes on to say, “Casual jokes about inbreeding, incest and bestiality are perpetually being made at our expense, and we’re often depicted as violent, hateful, and dangerous.” I hope I didn’t depict rural people this way.
These depictions of rural people are rooted in urban privilege. Before moving to Arkansas, I had never thought of myself as having urban privilege, or that it existed. But like white privilege, the reality of privilege is that it is often invisible to those who have it. Without a conscious, deliberate effort to be aware of it, it is almost never on our radar. Similarly, the reality of my white privilege hit like a lightning strike when I read Peggy McIntosh’s essay on the daily effects of white privilege in her life. She outlines 50 conditions that she attributes to skin-color privilege rather than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, although she recognizes that these factors are often intricately intertwined. The list includes: “1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” Or “44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.” But as white privilege exists, it certainly does not mean that all white people experience privilege the same way. It will depend on their class, gender, sexual orientation, (dis)abilities, and so on.
As a white person, I experience privilege, but that does not mean that I can’t experience oppression based on other aspects of my identity. People living in urban areas experience oppression depending upon what neighborhood they live in, their race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., but they have access to resources that people living in rural areas may not. I could create a list similar to McIntosh’s with conditions that people living in the country face. One item might be: In order to find potential partner or relationship, I have to travel to nearby towns and cities to meet someone who is not related to my friends or me. Another could be: I do not have access to a grocery store (other than Wal-Mart) within 100 miles.
These privileges affect the way people view the world and their potential within it. I recently took students to see a talk by feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. I was floored when one of the students told me that she had only traveled to the city twice in the last four years. To me this means she had two opportunities to see the world as bigger than the one she lives in. Twice she saw people who may have looked different from her, saw new places, smelled new foods, and was potentially exposed to ideas different from her own—all aspects of urban privilege.
With the coming election and data showing the stark political divide between urban and rural areas, it is important to think about the distribution of resources—infrastructure, education, healthcare, and affordable housing. How have rural cultures been impacted by economic and political change? As I continue these Tales from the Rural South, I hope I am able to illustrate these problems while introducing you to the smart, resilient, resourceful, and strong young people who want to make rural life better. Because living in Arkansas, I’ve not only seen the hardships and difficulties of life in rural America; I’ve also come to see the diversity of people who live here and the numerous issues that they face in their daily lives.