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Commentary: When We Listen to People Carefully, the False Dichotomy of Rural and Urban America Evaporates

America is again segregated. Spaces where opponents divided by supposed geographic and political differences interact are increasingly rare. Since the 2016 election, the media’s infatuation with rifts between rural and urban voters has been ensconced into our cultural design. These developments overlook the promise of places such as university campuses to blur and overcome fissures. 

I have long been consumed with political and social divisions, but since 2016 my focus has centered on the rural/urban alignment in particular. From 2015-18 I was the faculty director of a University of Kentucky social justice living and learning community, in which students interested in social-justice issues voluntarily live together and explore topics as a group.  After the presidential election of 2016, racial hate speech occurred on our dorm floor. African American students accused White, rural Kentucky students, also in the learning community, of being responsible. 

Immediately afterwards, the residence life department of the university organized a session to address the situation, which quickly turned tense. Black students sat on one side of the room, and White rural kids sat on the floor. Students said things normally unspoken. A student from Chicago talked about family members who advised her against attending Kentucky, fearing for her safety, and women recalled being barred from white fraternity parties. The White rural students looked shellshocked and unfamiliar with what they were hearing, because they came from communities with few minorities. 

In the years that followed, I committed to overcoming the rural/urban divide through oral histories. That goal eventually led me and 12 student interns to chronicle the lives of undergraduate students at the University of Kentucky, West Virginia University, University of Florida, and University of Mississippi. The themes of the work mirrored the lives of the student interns, who were Black, Brown, White and from rural, urban, and suburban communities.

Not until delving into the students’ stories did I realize that the rural/urban divide is too simplistic to apply to real lives. The students’ stories exposed complicated geographic identities, undermining myths that rural spaces are white, and revealing unexpected class similarities.

I had organized the oral history work around the rural/urban divide, but it became apparent that this was a flawed structure. Students’ geographic identities were not easily pigeonholed. “Can I interview them, they’re from Chicago but moved to small town Kentucky?” Student interviewers’ endless questions about whether an interviewee qualified as rural or urban revealed that the dichotomy was fraught. Students occupied multi-sided identities. Students also came from communities with garbled geographic delineations. It was clear, for instance, that the idea that urban spaces are Black ones ignores geographic realities.

Examples from the work include University of Florida student, “Alex,” who in the space of his interview addressed the complicated racial/geographic dynamics in his northern Florida community. Rural whites live in the city, while minorities are relegated to rural parts. 

…a lot of white rural people living in the city limits but when you go outside the city limits, that’s where the minorities live where we’re barred from voting for the mayor and we’re kind of considered this rural area outside the city limits… It’s kind of a way to keep us from voting.

His identity was rural/urban.

I consider myself rural/urban type because my city is different. If you stay close to the city, you’re still kind of in the urban area, go north and it’s actually one of the most racist cities in the state of Florida, a lot of KKK members. Black folks, we know not to go up to that area because it’s dangerous...

Geographic trickiness overlaid with racism informed his identity. 

Associating white students with rural parts and Black students with urban locations is inaccurate, especially in Mississippi. Rural Students from the Delta mentioned never having been around Whites until they attended the University of Mississippi.  Meanwhile, some Black and Brown students from rural and urban communities showed no hint of geographic discord between them.

The interviews also exposed the significance of class in the face of geographic and even racial and cultural differences. When a student comes from a community defined by poverty, whether in Appalachia or Chicago, they encounter a campus that historically has not been oriented toward them. Flagships campuses, in particular, are status rich landscapes exuding wealth, accomplishment, and prominent sports teams, more familiar and comfortable to students who occupy middle class or better status. Multiple times we heard students say something like, “You have to have money to go here.” Students from struggling communities question whether they belong and may hide their class-based struggles, including food insecurity. There is shame in not being able to do things that other students take for granted like affording a meal out. That is despite the fact that these students, rural or urban, may come from communities where they represent the few who make it to the flagship campus.

Campus culture is not theirs also because they often come from communities familiar with trauma. Traumatic stories infused the interviews. A student from the Delta regularly ran home to speak at the funerals of her high school classmates, and an Eastern Kentucky student raced home for a multi-person funeral. These students, urban or rural, conceal their trauma on flagship campuses:  Coming from trauma is not considered the lifeworld of a “normal” college student. 

College campuses offer possibilities. Living close to each other, opportunities exist for students to have honest conversations and to see likenesses hidden in complicated identities and class realities. What we learned is that geographic spaces are not easily delineated, that suburbia slides into both rural and urban locations, and that poverty exists in suburbia as it does in dense cities and remote counties. Poor students face parallel struggles with campus culture regardless of their backgrounds and crave spaces to unmask themselves. 

But the possibility of students seeing their likenesses usually goes unrealized. Nonetheless, flagships campuses, where students from a wide range of backgrounds meet, are unique settings to counter the segregation that is crippling America. Revealing students’ stories is a starting point for spurring empathy among students who may never imagined their resemblances.

Nora (Rosie) Moosnick is a native Kentuckian, sociologist, and author of Campus Candor:  Students’ Stories Unmasked (Cognella 2023)—written in collaboration with three former students, Tori Cruz-Falk, Emily Keaton, and Saturn Star-Shooter. She is also the author of Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky:  Stories of Accommodation and Audacity, (University Press of Kentucky 2012, 2021), and Adopting Maternity:  White Women Who Adopt Transracially and/or Transnationally. (Praeger 2004).

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