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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Ya Dig? We should pause before hating on Iowa

Whenever I hear someone bashing on Grinnell, or Iowa in general, I judge them a little bit. First off, I assume they are not from Iowa. I have never heard someone who is actually from Iowa speak spitefully about this state using sweeping generalizations. Of course, I am aware people from Iowa also sometimes get tired of certain things about where they live, but in my experience they tend to use specific examples and they don’t speak with a tone of outright disgust. The people who seem the most eager to bash on Iowa are usually those who are not from Iowa at all, and people who have a very limited perspective of what Iowa is like. Now I know, I know, they would retort to me that they have taken pensive walks around town and sometimes they even walk out of town to the cornfields or to Arbor Lake. Once they even ate at Frontier! Yes, getting to know the town of Grinnell is a start. Yet just like any other state, you can’t claim you understand Iowa from just getting to know one small town. I still hear many easily-packaged stereotypes about Iowa, or the Midwest, thrown around not just by students but also by professors.

More often than not, these people identify themselves with a thriving or up-and-coming city. Now I have nothing against fusion food carts (most of the time…) or an abundance of diverse nightlife options and a thriving social and cultural scene. Furthermore, I do agree that in general there is more of a monoculture in Iowa than some of these larger cities. Yet I cringe when I hear claims about how “progressive” someone’s city is compared to Grinnell or to Iowa. Hailing from Portland myself, I know how easy “hipness” can hide a culture just as, or more, singular and homogenous as what people accuse Iowan culture of (by the way, did you know that the first mosque built in the United States is built in Cedar Rapids?).

I have been lucky enough to be able to get to know the Iowa beyond Grinnell. I have discovered to my surprise that the flat landscape gives way to impressive towering bluffs in the northeastern part of the state. I have learned about the Norwegian immigrant community that is still alive and well in in the town of Decorah. I have stood in a state of bliss inside the gigantic walk-in freezer of John’s Grocery in Iowa City, which was named one of the top 79 best beer retailers in the world. Clearly, I have a lot more learning to go before I leave Iowa, and I may never fully grasp a complete understanding of this state. This is exactly one reason that I try not to speak negatively about Iowa as a state, or even Grinnell as a town. I really haven’t lived here long enough to make such judgments.

Yet I cannot imagine how I would hold my temper if I were from here, if I grew up understanding not only the things about Iowa that make this state so unique and beautiful, but the struggles communities have overcome and continue to deal with here. So before you chip in with your friends and agree that “Iowa is the most boring place ever and I just can’t wait to get back home” or “I just can’t imagine how anyone lives here,” think about saying that to a woman who has singlehandedly raised her children here in Iowa while sustaining a small farm that produces the locally raised organic produce you purchase at the farmer’s market. Or a family who recently immigrated to Iowa and who is so grateful for the opportunities this state offers. Hey, you never know, someone who has been born and raised in Iowa may never be able to imagine how anyone could live in that big, “exciting” city you call home. But they probably wouldn’t complain if they visited, because it isn’t as socially acceptable to smack talk San Francisco, is it?

To anyone reading this who is realizing that they have been known to “Iowa bash,” don’t feel too bad. Hating on Iowa is largely not stigmatized or called out on Grinnell’s campus (funny for a school that stands for a “social justice” and recognition of classist discourses or assumptions). I, too, have been known to unnecessarily hate on Iowa. When I landed in Des Moines after Spring Break, for example, I vocally expressed my discontentment at the flat landscape and biting cold. Yet instead of simply complaining about the cold, I said something along the lines of “ugh, get me out of Iowa.” Since then I have tried not to complain about Iowa when the real annoyance may simply be the weather, something places like New York and Boston also deal with, or simply a frustration all college students go through that is not Iowa-specific. Becoming and staying aware of how you refer to the Midwest, especially when you are not from this region, is difficult. Yet I am confident that if students think deeply about this issue, I’m sure most of them will realize what I did—that this seemingly innocent and funny practice is hurtful, demeaning and not in line with what Grinnell strives to stand for.

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  • J

    James SurrattApr 26, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    I’ve lived in Iowa all my life although I have visited other states, quite a few in fact. My father told me that people from the East Coast seem to think that the land east of the Allegheny River is all Indian territory. Some professors at the University of Iowa in Iowa City have talked to people from Boston that ask how the Indians are out here. I heard a speaker once saying that sectionalism is all over the country where Northerners don’t understand the Southerners. And Midwesterners don’t understand the West Coast folks, etc. Having driven a city bus for 40 years, I’ve talked to people who tell me don’t bother to move out of Iowa. You don’t know how good you have it here in Iowa until you’ve lived elsewhere.