Small towns revel in toxic family-like communities that embrace those that fulfill a set of requirements, but spurns and reinforces the status quo in harmful ways towards outsiders.
I moved to my small midwest town during my freshman year of highschool from the south. The cultural differences aren’t too far off from what I’ve known, but the subtle cultural shifts were magnified by how young I was. And by that I mean the differences in how people expressed themselves to one another and the overall definition of community on a broad scale.
The South is a place all on its own, a “southern hospitality” I like to call it. If you have ever lived in the South, you probably have an idea of what I’m talking about. I want to preface this by saying that I specifically grew up in Texas and the area I grew up in was incredibly poor and racially diverse. I recognize that Texas has a unique relationship to race with its current (and past) conservative politics, which oftentimes is harmful to the communities that live there. However, overt racism was never something I witnessed within the community, not like how I’ve seen Confederate flags hung out on porches and latched onto trucks speeding through my small midwest town. And it is very much unlike the antisemitism symbols tattooed on those I pass in the store.
The “Southern hospitality” is the genuine interest people take in other’s lives. It is offering help when needed, empathetic listening when called upon, and a certain stance and cadence to speaking and hearing. It is the social exchange that made me feel welcomed. However, the welcoming values of the South changed to the judgemental ones of the midwest.
I never truly learned the meaning of the word “two-faced” until I moved, and in some ways, I wish I could unlearn it. Going to stores or walking around town is accompanied by people rubbernecking to stare, and they never are subtle about it either. I’ve had people follow me around the store to stand at the end of the aisle, peeking glances at me while turning over the same box of noodles. These are the same people that will unabashadley come up to me to infer some element of my life with a smirk.
Every interaction starts off with a “How are you?” Oftentimes, it is hollow. As you answer them, you can see their minds drift away and eyes slowly cross. If you engaged this situation, then it is up to you to maintain that energy. Outside of that, the kindness in these casual greetings are a thinly veiled attempt to pull something out of you.
A fool I was in high school, a little green around the edges, when my peers would come chat me up and I mistakenly interpreted it as an attempt at friendship. They would latch onto me between classes, a creaseless smile plastered on their face, placating me into casual conversation. Then it would all come to head when they tried to squeeze homework answers out of me. It was quite an embarrassing experience, looking back on it now, that it took a few years for me to realize that this was happening. For a very long time I thought that most people approached one another with the intention of honesty. But even those that were labeled as being morally upright with lots of integrity, played this game of hunting a higher grade.
I’ve had many instances of dealing with two-faced people and a collection of stories from people as shallow as a puddle lined up for miles. The true colors of these people shone through when I casually heard “white trash” thrown around the gossip mill coupled with the condescending remarks from those that casually waved me off. This was especially heightened in the rat race of AP courses, and the oh-so-special tampering of student records to make sure that certain students received accolades where they certainly should have oh-so-not.
I noticed as well how horrible the cliques and gossip were, which I am quite certain undermines the inclusiveness of the community that the town likes to uphold as its welcoming committee. Each of these groups were like a trial passing judgement on you, and if you couldn’t be folded into the clique with two-faced driven conversation, then you must be okay with standing on the edges ready to be called on.
The definition of community, in my opinion, is the idea that there is some interconnectedness amongst people, that on some level, everyone has an equal right to the relationships and resources in said circle. However, that definition in my small midwest town is different from what I thought it was. Community is used as a mask for the judgmental and two-faced to cast out those that challenge the established hierarchy put in place by rich and respectable families. It makes shallow, harmful behavior acceptable and it all starts with “How are you?”