This fall semester at Williams College was undeniably different from previous semesters primarily due to one significant political event. As you all already know, that event was the “surprising” (for at least many of my friends at Williams College) victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Let me just say right here that this is not an article about politics but an effort for me to share some insight and observations I have made since the election from friends and acquaintances in my school and local community.
Firstly, I have to say that I come from a place of privilege due to my background and the fact that I attend one of the top educational institutions in America, and it certainly goes without saying that I am always grateful for this education, knowing that others do not have this opportunity either due to family, personal, or financial reasons.
However, I learned that even the top education doesn’t always erase ignorance. I feel that it is my moral responsibility to break down this wall of ignorance in a hyper-liberal setting, as I have the privilege of coming from a unique background. It is without a doubt that my school is culturally labeled as “liberal” and the Clinton supporters here are highly educated and well versed in their defense for why Trump is dangerous. I agree with them (You don’t have to).
What I cannot accept is when I hear my educated friends simplify their conclusions about Trump supporters into one simplified statement: “Those Midwestern and Southern voters are so UNEDUCATED AND STUPID”. Immediately, my ears would perk up and I feel an invisible elbow jabbing into my ribs, feeling a little personally offended. Yes, education plays a huge part in terms of removing ignorance, and I am sure that statisticians have come up with diagrams and numbers showing the correlation between education and economics. But the word “education” in itself is so broad and general; I mean what kind of education are we really talking about? History? Civil education? Citizenship education?And at which level of education? For me, the statement that my friends made at Williams does not serve as a sufficient argument in explaining how I have educated friends from Oklahoma who still voted for Trump. Though I am not a Trump supporter, I can understand those who are.
I am a southwestern boy and I am proud of it. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a place I call home for the majority of my formative years. Tulsa had the metro-man-bun-city folks, but also had the old-stock white traditional families, and southern belles. Tulsa had extensive roots in the oil industry due to its history; so many rich folks have lived here. On the other hand, Oklahoma is known to be quite poor overall, being one of the ten poorest states in terms of lowest median family, household, and per-person income according to politifact.com. In this sort of not so diverse but semi-urban place, I had friends of very “red” political leanings. I attended two public high schools in Oklahoma, one that was very “all-american” with a graduating class of close to a thousand students per year. Later, with some personal determination, I attended a fully funded state boarding school in Oklahoma City and got accepted perhaps due to my diligence in high school and my parents’ emphasis on education (bless their hearts).
I am blessed and privileged in the sense that I am not uneducated and I’d like to believe that my IQ is at least good enough to attend a school such as Williams College. So yes, I understand my privilege and that my education has helped me gain more knowledge and understanding compared to many others in Oklahoma. But what is surprising to me is that some of my classmates and friends who studied with me during those days and have now graduated also from great universities still voted for Trump. So with this in mind, I personally don’t think that education was the ONLY source of eroding ignorance. To me, it was about the privilege of gaining social/cultural exposure.
See, as much as I am a proud southwestern boy, I am also a third-culture-kid and a minority immigrant; having this sort of background, as much as it is unmentioned or not legitimized, is actually a privilege in itself. These multicultural factors made me highly sensitive to cultural and social differences around me. Let me explain.
My parents are from China. Unlike Oklahoma, China is highly populated, filled with traditional practices and a rich history, and extremely secular. I was born in Singapore and lived there for a few years. And unlike Oklahoma, Singapore is wildly different: it is modern, a financial center, a city of skyscrapers, one of the most efficient countries in the world, and very international. Therefore, seeing these three cultures and experiencing them personally have helped EXPOSE me to different institutions and the ways each of them can exist so harmoniously internally despite their differences. For example, I realize that Singaporeans are proud of “order” in their society, so much so that they are okay with foregoing some freedoms (think guns and sex and drugs). In America, such an ideology is unthinkable; “freedom” should always come above “order” right?! These sorts of observations made it impossible for me to immediately advocate for any stance in political or social issues before I have the full context and understanding from the opposing side. Thus, I was able to always think about situations with a sort of duality and it developed my ability to analyze social conditions, developing a natural ability for me to step into the shoes of another person comfortably, and to restrain myself from coming to quick conclusions about people groups and their cultures or values.
In Oklahoma, many people don’t have the same kind of exposure that I have had, let alone the kind of exposure my friends at Williams have. Many of my friends at Williams do not resemble my Oklahoman friends at all, having been across the Atlantic and Pacific, sometimes more than once, or have gone on some sort of “graduation” trip to another country, most of the time, to other big cities or a beach. It is also perhaps more likely for those living in coastal states and large cities to be well exposed, as they have the natural advantage to visit large and historical port cities where the population is more diverse (at least in comparison to Oklahoma) because trade and immigration have historically been more concentrated there. Exposure therefore seems more readily accessible to Northeasterners and Californians but this is not the case in Oklahoma.
Many of my friends are not interested in shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” because why should they? They can never relate to it if they have never been exposed to these differences in cultures or lifestyles. My state has a one percent Asian population (add up the South Asians, Middle Eastern Asians, South-east Asians, and North-east Asians).
I remember when I moved to my boarding school in Oklahoma City, my roommate’s parents looked at me with eyes of disbelief: they have NEVER seen an Asian guy in person before. Such is the case for many people in Oklahoma. Many of my dear friends have NEVER left Oklahoma, let alone the country perhaps due to financial constraints or lack of enthusiasm and curiosity for what is beyond their panhandle fishbowl. But whatever the reason, it is not always a personal choice.
As a result, those from Oklahoma and similar states may be blind to the lifestyles in big cities such as the emphasis of secularism or minority racial or LGBTQ communities. Sure, they’ve read about gay parades, social protests, wall street or other social events, but guess what, just as the Williams Gym constantly plays CNN, the Oklahoman media always plays Fox News. People in general are most comfortable with what they grew up with. You don’t need to go too far to see that. Just look at most university friend groups. Under these circumstances of blindness, perhaps it isn’t too hard to understand why there is a high percentage of bigotry from people in my state towards Muslims when the ONLY Muslims they meet or know are those from media in the form of news of terrorist attacks. You’d be surprised that it isn’t always white people who can be just as bigoted as well. To expose themselves to what is unfamiliar on a personal level is therefore what they need, but to do so in an uncomfortable and different setting seems risky, costly, and daunting, and therefore unlikely.
Now that I have showed that exposure is key, you may be quick to jump to the conclusion that “what THEY (these Southerners and Midwesterners) need is to be exposed to big diverse cities and different cultures.” Well, excuse me but the fact that you may have condemned a southern or midwestern individual as being uneducated shows that you too are unexposed to their values, traditions and circumstances.
Just as Midwesterners and Southerners may live in a fishbowl, people from the east and west coasts live in their own fishbowls too. The difference and problem is of a different sort. It is that many of these people feel like their larger fishbowl means other fishbowls should be destroyed. This sort of mindset shows the need for exposure for everyone! How many city folks/ northeasterners have really tried to appreciate country music, understand the significance of religious lifestyles and communities, or come in contact with country-folks who are simply looking out for their families?
When I describe the way Oklahomans have southern barbecues and eat snow cones on the back of a pick-up, many of my friends at Williams learn of these things for the first time. There is a need for everyone to be exposed to the different cultures especially in a country as diverse and geographically enormous as America. Many other countries have some form of emersion. For example, France have some sort of “sortie scolaire,” a cultural field trip incorporated in their schools; In Singapore, I remember my brother going with his class to Tibet for cultural exposure; In the pre-cultural-revolution China, my father was required to work in the rural countryside before attending university.
Obviously, we do not want to be like China during that era (my dad ended up having a permanent physiological problem in his calf muscle), but maybe it’s time for America to spend some money to incorporate some form of domestic exposure program in its education system! Oklahomans deserve a chance to see the Big Apple. New Yorkers can come to appreciate the charms of small southern towns. Who knows, maybe after doing so, you would finally think twice before labeling all Midwesterners and Southerners as “backward, stupid, red-neck Christian hypocrites.”