Aside from my name, my native language and the traces of Mongolian culture I’ve managed to pick up from my parents, every facet of my identity, everything that makes me, me, was formed in my years growing up in Texas.
Yet I find that especially at college in one of the most liberal places this side of the Atlantic, the fact that I’m from Texas only makes itself publicly present in little things, like when I say some variation of “y’all” five times in a single message in a group chat or when I defend the quality of Whataburger. It’s only at a superficial level that I’m completely comfortable with my association with my own home state.
At Stanford, when people ask me where I’m from, I tell them, “Texas, around an hour and half away from Houston” and, while we continue to make small talk, I often follow up my answer — instinctively — with qualifying statements that distance me from what Texas is best known for in prevailing liberal university circles: perverted nationalism and state pride, backwards thinking, racism, inept politicians, sexism.
Yeah, I hate Ted Cruz — I don’t know why secessionists are a thing since Texas legally can’t secede due to historical precedents — can you believe that the college my hometown was named for was cool with having a white supremacist who is currently not allowed in 26 European countries speak on campus? — the only time my local newspaper ever went viral was when it had a front page design where news of Katie Ledecky’s historic world record and gold medal was in like size 12 font under a huge headline about Michael Phelps’ tie for a silver medal — it’s crazy how much Texas loves to remove access to healthcare services for women, isn’t it?
I say all of this with the implication that I’m other, that I’m one of the select few Texans who are educated and not willfully ignorant, that I’ve thankfully gotten out while I can. Which is a horrible thing to insinuate, that the entirety of Texas is some kind of provincial ideological wasteland that I’m lucky to have escaped. It definitely isn’t.
The place I’ve too often condescendingly dubbed the “great white state of Texas” shouldn’t be oversimplified as backwards. Last year, University of Tampa visiting professor Kenneth Storey (now fired) suggested in a tweet that Hurricane Harvey was “karma” for Texas voting Republican, saying, “I don’t believe in instant Karma, but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesn’t care about them.”
This was an incredibly offensive and shocking statement in so many ways, since commentating on the reason for a senseless natural disaster that caused suffering to any number of people (in this case, thousands) is never okay. It’s also an incorrect one. The region in Texas most affected by Harvey, the Houston area, has consistently voted blue for years, and, on top of that, in the 2016 presidential cycle, Houston’s democratic turnout more than doubled from 2014 — a fact many forget when they criticize Texas voting patterns. Texas is more urbanized than people suspect, with highly concentrated centers like Houston and Austin boasting huge populations, large amounts of diversity and socially liberal policies.
But as I discussed with my RA the other day, perhaps it’s doing Texas — which is made up of diversity at the urban, rural and suburban levels — a disservice by arguing that it has enclaves of “good,” exceptions to the larger, problematic nature of the entire state. Saying that Texas is only acceptable because of its ultra-urbanized cities perpetuates the notion that Texas is an unfit place to live overall and, notably, discourages students who leave states similar to Texas for college elsewhere from coming back and influencing the socially conservative ideology of their home state after graduation.
To be sure, I’m not saying we shouldn’t bring up the countless issues that affect Texas in the process of viewing it in a different light. We should discuss things like how, for example, Texas institutes restriction on top of restriction for women who already often lack resources to get abortions and how, most recently, many Texas school districts are considering allowing K-12 teachers to be armed. And I’m not even touching on a long history of institutional racism. Texas has a Texas-sized list of problems; that much is for sure.
But we don’t have to dismissively label Texas as an impenetrable red state — or else it might just become one.
Contact Yanichka Ariunbold at yanichka ‘at’ stanford.edu.