This article is for my fellow poor/working-class, rural feminist transplants trying to navigate a movement and culture that centers urban, coastal, middle-class values, experiences, and people.
If your experience has been anything like mine, I know you’ve probably had to walk a long (and bumpy, dirt) road. And for those of you without the citizenship, cis-gendered and white-skin privileges I have, bumpy is undoubtedly an understatement.
While not all of us move to big cities, those of us who do might leave the towns we grew up in because we felt isolated, unsafe, fell in love, or got a fancy scholarship that propelled us into the academic industrial complex.
Others might leave in hopes of connecting with like-minded people, to obtain healthcare, or to gain access to the kinds of resources only made available to urban artists, activists, and culture makers.
I moved from my small, rural, hometown in northern California to the Bay Area because so many of the artists, activists, and culture makers I look up to have lived or still live here.
I wanted to witness their processes, study with them, learn and grow from their struggles and legacies. I wanted my own life and work to be influenced by the same landscapes and conversations as those of my mentors. (p.s. relocation, especially to the Bay Area, is complicated in general, no matter who you are or where you’re from.)
Upon arrival, we tend to be greeted with the simultaneous disgust and awe of a character from the movie Deliverance. Popular culture’s stereotypes and caricatures of us have never been kind.
We’re always portrayed as being a group of exclusively white, mullet-wearing, banjo-playing, lazy, toothless, illiterate, alcoholics and addicts. Casual jokes about inbreeding, incest and bestiality are perpetually being made at our expense, and we’re often depicted as violent, hateful, and dangerous.
When I first got to the city, I constantly found myself having to prove the fact that I, a “rurally socialized person,” could actually be a feminist. People were always insisting on helping me with the use of rudimentary technological devices. Folks with degrees from Smith and Wellesley talked to me in slower, louder voices once they realized where I was from.
People used the term “tacky” to refer to the way I dressed and spoke. And I know that I am not the only person who’s had class privileged, urban folks shamelessly gawk at my teeth, insisting that I “take down the number of their orthodontist friend.”
Being a target for this ongoing barrage of insults can make it hard to remember that these stereotypes were designed to make us feel inferior—to quell our sense of dignity and willingness to fight against injustice.
But make no mistake, these insults were created to reinforce the hierarchies necessary for industrial capitalism, white-supremacy and heteropatriarchy to thrive. They were meant to prevent racial solidarity movements from forming, let alone, from effectively Taking Shit Down.
It’s crucial that we’re able to identify where these harmful stereotypes about us come from, what purposes they serve in the larger context of white-supremacy, capitalism and heteropatriarchy, and why they just aren’t true!
The following six statements are comments that I hope eventually, none of us ever have to encounter again!
And if you’re a rural, working class/poor feminist who hasn’t had the pleasure of engaging face to face with many of your class-privileged, urban and suburban counterparts, you’re really in for…a treat.
1. ‘So you grew up in white-trash central?’
This is infuriating on so many levels.
First off, at this point, we all know that the term “white-trash” isn’t solely engineered to offend white folks living in poverty, right? The underlying implication is that anybody who isn’t white is already considered trash—hence the need to specify “white” when calling someone “trash” in the first place.
Further, people of color and white folks live together rurally in communities all over the country—in the Lower Mississippi Delta, the Southern Black Belt, regions along the US-Mexico border, and large parts of Central Appalachia. I grew up in California where migrant workers from all over South America made up a huge part of the community I was raised in.
Insinuating that all rural, working-class and poor folks are white not only invisiblizes folks of color, it enacts the power of white supremacy by calling on the old, divisive modes of our forefathers who pitted rural-poor white folks against people of color so they wouldn’t have a class war on their hands!
2. ‘Didn’t you grow up, like, with no electricity?’
Since the dawn of western expansion, people in positions of power have constructed strong distinctions between what is considered “civilized” verses “savage.”
Colonizers, by deeming themselves and their ways of life “civilized” (and therefore superior), were more easily able to dehumanize the people in the communities they occupied.
This civil/savage dichotomy is reinforced in all sorts of ways still today—one of them being through technology.
The skills and access required to be considered “technologically civilized” in today’s world excludes enormous populations of people all over the globe, and we – in turn – use that to justify dehumanizing them, appropriating their culture, and occupying their land.
No computer or wireless internet in your house? How savage! Using a clothes-line to dry your clothes? Savage. No central heating system? Savage! Use of non-electric domestic appliances? You get my drift.
To make a long story short, we are taught that “civilized” is superior to “savage,” and that it’s impossible to be considered “civilized” if you lack access to the newest technological resources.
In reality, what we consider “civilized” is actually just capitalism’s way of getting us to assimilate into its dangerous consumption-obsessed culture.
3. ‘But you look so normal!’
As far as I’m concerned, this comment is meant to assert the notion that—due to our “savage,”“animalistic,” “amoral,” and “perverse” sexualities—folks in rural communities suffer from self-inflicted, genetic mutations that render us inherently flawed.
In other words, kids in poor/ working-class, rural schools have lower test scores and literacy rates than kids in affluent urban areas not because of capitalism’s unfair allocation of resources, but because of irreversible, biological stupidity.
In addition, the idea that being “smart” and coming from a rural-poor background is somehow surprising is really hurtful! In the face of this, it’s important to remember that our society values certain ideologies, skills and smarts over others.
For instance, individualism, competitiveness, market economy, industrialization, and the importance of overpowering one’s “animal nature” are typically associated with the “metropolitan mentality” and deemed “civilized.”
In opposition, the adherence to tradition, ritual or religion, the prioritization of process over of product, community infrastructures based on support and mutual aid, and the building of economies that coincide with the rhythms of nature (like farming, for instance), are considered “anti-modern” and therefore, inferior.
So while it may be true that some of us didn’t achieve full literacy until we were much older than a lot of class-privileged, urban and suburban kids did, we knew how to cook a meal, balance a checkbook, and be caretakers of small children by the age of ten.
4. ‘Did you actually come out as queer when you lived there?’
The idea that rural areas are somehow less safe than urban ones for folks deemed “other” has always baffled me.
We live in a heterosexist world where certain people are targeted every day, everywhere. Have you seen the statistics of trans women murdered this year alone in urban spaces? Of queer kids bullied and brutalized in urban public schools?
We all know that hate crimes happen in rural spaces as well. Of course—by nature of the world we live in—they do.
But the scapegoating and lack of accountability that occurs when people imply that rural areas are “worse” than urban ones in this regard is inaccurate.
5. ‘Growing up around all the rural misogyny must have really impacted your love life!’
Comments like this usually come in tandem with assumptions about The Helpless Rural Housewife: barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen with two black eyes, sobbing into a mixing bowl while making jam.
I’m not really sure where the image of the meek, rural housewife comes from, but let me tell you —all the working-class, rural women I grew up with were fucking tough, capable, smart, and sassy as hell. They had to be.
They’d collect truck beds full of splintered lumber with their bare hands to bring home for firewood. They’d keep buck knives in thick leather cases dangling from their belt loops, and they could remove bottle caps with their teeth.
I don’t mean to imply that all rural women are like this—obviously every community, family, individual, and rural culture is different. I’m just saying, the rural women I know are far from meek or passive.
As for the stereotype that all rural men are misogynistic abusers, patriarchy is patriarchy.
There are some men who are allies and some who aren’t—and I’d venture to say there’s a mix of them in both rural and urban spaces.
These gendered stereotypes function to reinforce class-privileged, urban supremacy by using…you guessed it…the civil/ savage dichotomy.
6. ‘Your family shopped at Walmart? What about the boycott of unfair labor practices?’
Just because a community doesn’t organize through consumer-based activism or with the intent to change institutional policy doesn’t mean they’re complacent or apolitical. Activism often looks really different in rural contexts than it does in urban ones.
We know that rural, working-class, and poor folks engage in forms of activism every day, one example being through the practice of mutual aid.
By this, I mean we know how to show the fuck up for each other. Where I grew up, families regularly shared resources without expectation—shelter, food, childcare, money, and so on.
We looked out for each other. Girls and women tagged the names of known perpetrators and abusers onto restroom walls all over town so we knew who to watch out for, whose tires to slash, and who to never leave our loved ones alone with (…unarmed).
We might not organize a boycott against Walmart if that’s the only place to buy groceries for a 100 mile radius, but we will sure as hell fight ICE when they come into our communities trying to detain our undocumented friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors.
We are constantly being told that there is only one effective way to be an activist—and that is simply untrue.
The actual stories, voices, and activisms of poor/ working-class, rural folks are always silenced by stereotypes and media mouth pieces. Urban dwellers have so much to say about the poor/ rural experience, which they do through memes, popular media, books, and movies. But rarely do we hear directly from the voices within our own communities.
Consider Morgan Spurlock, with his premiere episode of 30 Days, in which he and his partner move to a small, rural town in Ohio and each get jobs earning minimum wage for a month – you know, to show everyone how hard life can be for “some people” (before returning to their swanky Park Slope home and lucrative, metropolitan careers).
And you know what? Life is hard sometimes—but we are complicated human beings! We are not defined merely by the hardships and adversities we face.
And further, we are very capable of writing our narratives ourselves. Did anyone ever even ask us what we might have to say?
Enter Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist and author of the 2001 bestselling book Nickel and Dimed, who wrote about her harrowing experiences living undercover as a member of the rural, working-poor for one year.
And, well, I guess that since we’re such “simple folks,” it’s totally possible for a class-privileged urban transplant to understand a lifetime’s worth of cultural nuances from spending just one year among (the likes of) us.
Are you kidding me?!
Some of us want to challenge the stereotypes that exist about us by writing stories that reflect how multi-dimensional and dynamic our lives actually are.
But aside from the publishing industry not seeing us as a profitable or sexy demographic unless portrayed as comedic others, we are generally considered far too stupid to be capable authors in the first place.
Academic and governmental institutions have never taken us seriously. The schools we go to are never well funded, and they generally fail to provide us with the educational resources necessary to succeed beyond mere hand-to-mouth survival.
We never had teachers encourage us to explore our academic passions. Nobody ever told us that college was on the horizon, or even helped us explore alternative paths to finding our own forms of self-actualization.
We are too often funneled from shitty, run-down school districts into labor trades where we’re expected to use only our bodies (until they give out on us) and never our brains.
We often settle into the shame and disappointment of this reality and wonder whether our community’s stories ever really get archived (let alone taken seriously).
In a different world, rural schools would be given access to the same resources that class privileged urban schools do. People like Morgan and Barbara would have offered to share their resources so that rural, working-class, and poor folks could have the opportunities to document our own narratives.
In a different world, there would be grants available specifically for the purpose of supporting poor/ working class, rural writers in the process of archiving our stories. There would be free tutorial and editing resources available to us as we work through our projects. In that world, we would be seen as intricate, complicated human beings with powerful and important things to say.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world (yet). But there are some things we can do for ourselves and each other in the interim.
My suggestions to you—regardless of where you choose to live—is to find each other. Cultivate solid, long-lasting, loving relationships with each other. Remind each other how smart, resilient, resourceful, and strong you are.
Immerse yourselves in the cultural work of other poor/ working-class, rural feminists. Share and act on your mutual aid values in every community you’re a part of. Learn more about the marriage between white supremacy and industrial capitalism.
Study the history of solidarity movements between poor/ working class, rural white folks and folks of color. Get involved with and/or support movements that center the voices of poor and working class people of color in both rural and urban communities.
Write your stories and support others in writing theirs—get involved in literacy activism.
I’ve found that these things can make navigating the world feel a lot more manageable.
Oh, and one more thing: It tends to make class-privileged folks real uncomfortable when you have a visible weapon dangling from your belt loop, so whenever possible, keep the buck knife inside your purse.
Originally published on Everyday Feminism.