The Reinforcing Stereotype

A few years back, an (ex-)girlfriend and I were in line at, I think, the New England Aquarium, when we wound up talking to a couple from Atlanta — my home, and where we’d just come from. My companion was from nearby Philadelphia, so naturally, we two couples were trading stories of things to do, and see, in our respective geographies, when one of our new friends asked me — “so where are you from in Atlanta?”

I’ve since come to dread this question, and learned to either hedge, or lie. Because with my answer – Buckhead – the conversation ended. You see, Buckhead is a wealthy neighborhood, and infamous for producing smarmy, entitled types. Neither I nor my family fit that mold, but it didn’t matter. I’d suddenly become a new person in the eyes of our line companions. The stereotype trumped an interaction that had been, until then, quite pleasant.

Similarly, leaving Texas yesterday afternoon, I was absolutely unable to convince a flight attendant that, yes, I was sad to be returning to New York. I miss my college friends! And Texas beauty is something that New York can’t replicate, for all of its charms. But she was having none of it. What could a New Yorker see in Texas?! Best hurry back to the big city… with an implied, “where you belong.”

It’s axiomatic that stereotypes are sad, limiting, and never do justice to the individuals they describe. But they’re also persistent, and very real. This, I think, is what’s always bothered me about the “culture wars” — “real” vs. “fake” America, and red meat appeals to small-town vs. big-city values. The more we’re told we’re different, the more we become different.

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20 comments

  1. I don’t like that question either, but honestly I don’t think you lived in Buckhead. In my mind, Buckhead is east of 75, centered at the Piedmont/Peachtree/400 triangle (basically Lennox Mall). You lived west of 75, and not that far from the center of Vinings. I don’t think you’d be hedging or lying to say you lived in Vinings rather than Buckhead.

    Whether or not that’s any better, mind you, I don’t know.

    1. I always picture the Vinings as where East/West Paces Ferry becomes just “Paces Ferry,” and Buckhead as including at least the streets coming off of West Wesley. So you and I were in Buckhead. I think you’re making a distinction between residential Buckhead & club/shopping Buckhead, but I always conflated them. But I suck at geography so maybe I’m wrong :)

      1. No, Wikipedia says you’re right. Vinings is in Cobb and I lived in Buckhead. Goddammit! I was less than a mile from being in Bolton and I was west of 75! Fucking hell, I was wrong AND I’m some snotheaded Fuckhead prick???? Fuck.

        1. Wouldn’t it be easier to just base it on zipcode or phone prefix? In Louisville if your zipcode is 40228 you’re in Highview. If it’s 40291 you’re in Fern Creek. Pretty simple.

          1. Unfortunately, Buckhead includes all or part of like 6 zipcodes – and that’s even with my incorrect (goddammit) limiting borders. And Atlanta’s got three area codes overlaid on top of each other (at least it did last time I lived there – for all I know it’s up to 4 now), and most of the prefixes aren’t associated (as far as I know) with any particular area within Atlanta. And yes, that does mean that 404-555-1234, 770-555-1234, and 678-555-1234 are three different Atlanta phone numbers.

        2. Similarly, if you live in London, you probably actually live in Westminster. My understanding is that the real borders of “London” only cover what we’d actually refer to as “Westminster,” based on the tube stop. So when I worked in Parliament I lived in Westminster and worked in London, not the other way around. Infuriating!

          1. Well, London has boroughs like NYC. But it would kinda be as if lower Manhattan were its own borough also named New York.

            Similarly, we stayed in Westminster on our honeymoon, not the city of London proper.

  2. There’s also a lot of truisms in contrasting city attitudes with small towns or even affluent areas with less affluent areas. Simply look at voting trends, poverty rates, crime rates, specific types of drug usage, abortion rates, etc. Really just about any social metric will reveal geographic trends.

    Assuming there is a political component to your post I think the question is, regarding national politics, how much of federal policy is universally fair? How much of the legislation that comes from Washington helps NYC and doesn’t hurt Greensburg, KY? Or vice-versa (I’m happy to admit that some policies are tilted towards rural citizens to the detriment of urban dwellers). There are some very real challenges when you try to run a country this large and diverse and it seems it’s whack-a-mole most of the time where anytime you try to help one group you hurt another (This may also be some insight into the appeal of conservatism for some of us.)

    If your post is purely a cultural observation I would suggest the following lighter-hearted points :

    – The entire country music industry is built geographic populism. As is the career of Billy Joel.

    – As someone who has traveled a pretty big part of this country (33 states at last count) I will always be convinced that the importance of manners wax and wane with ones geographic locale.

    – People on the other side of a state line always drive worse than people in your own state.

    1. oneiroi · ·

      Talking partially to what you brought up, one study about “Federal Spending Received Per Dollar of Taxes Paid by State”

      http://www.taxfoundation.org/research/show/266.html

      1. I’d be curious to see the breakdown of that. I wonder how much of that is farm subsisides?

      2. Nevada is probably only under a dollar because of tax revenue from gambling. It is an interesting table, I would like to see a similar thing done with Australia.

      3. Did some more digging. It’s not a percentage, but the ones that received the most subsidies (at least in 2002), do not seem to correlate with the ones receiving the highest levels of federal spending.

        From: http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RL32590.pdf

    2. There’s a difference between geographic populism like country/BJ music (“Yeahhhhhhh this is my town, nanana na naa”/”I’m in a New York state of mind…”), and Palin/Jack Donaghy’s out-and-out small town people are better people schtick.

      Similarly, the more I see the less I buy meaningful geographic differences. Southerners are as kind or as rude as Northerners… but when it comes to rudeness, Southerners will apologize for it with religion (“Bless her heart!”) and Northerners just won’t apologize.

      1. I don’t see that. I really notice differences whenever I travel. Maybe that’s my bias because I’ve always lived in the same place.

        I have a different take on manners. My wife and I assess rudeness based on how much a car horn is used. I’ve spoken to other people and they agree. How often you hear a car horn in a locale is directly proportional to how polite the people are. In the South if you honk your horn at someone you almost always feel bad about it afterwards. Eye contact is also a lot different up North than down South I have found.

        1. Most New Yorkers never honk because they don’t drive. ;)

    3. “People” on the other side of the state line drive worse because they are subhuman cretins. That is why they live on the other side of the state line in a shitty state like Alabama or Tennessee.

  3. oneiroi · ·

    As a fellow Texas to New York transplant, I do not usually share the same sadness upon leaving.

    There are a lot of factors of course…
    I don’t have many friends left there, my parents moved to a different suburb, I have no mobility, I find the demographics to be alienating, and the strip malls to be unappealing. Although, I did enjoy doing the Diner trifecta last time I was there (Denny’s, IHOP, & Waffle House).

    This comment just made me feel like a scrooge.

    1. My experience, as someone who has lived all 36 years in the same county is that I am excited to leave because it’s an adventure. I enjoy my time in other cities and states (and countries) because of the novelty factor. Coming back home though is always my favorite part. I couldn’t imagine ever living somewhere else. You NYC transplants are an interesting breed.

  4. Our neighborhood was full of educated, kind, giving and thoughtful people! We were blessed by our years there!

    1. Mom is of course 100% right! The Buckhead we knew bore no relationship to the Buckhead stereotype. That’s why I was especially sad to be pigeonholed with the stereotype!

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