Here’s Looking at You, Kansas

In 2019, research company Onepoll led a survey regarding the travel habits of Americans. They found that eleven percent of their survey respondents had not stepped foot outside of the state in which they were born. On top of this, fifty percent had travelled to fewer than ten states throughout their lives. As someone who was lucky enough to grow up going on many road trips and exploring large swaths of the country, this figure surprised me. Not having travelled does not mean that you do not have the desire to do so. In fact, the same poll showed that nearly eighty percent of respondents wished to travel more that they do currently. These people are not at all narrow minded, they do not have the means to broaden their horizons in this way. The financial and even physical strain of travelling is simply too much for many people.

One thing that I have seen consistently since moving to Portland, Oregon from Kansas is that my friends and colleagues have a great number of ideas about the Midwest and its inhabitants, many ideas that do not align with my personal experience experiences. Some are generally true, some are mildly offensive, and some are downright absurd. I decided to interview ten people including friends, coworkers, classmates, and a stranger about their experiences with and their notions of Middle America and the men and woman who grow so much of their food.

Wait a second, where’s Missouri?

Of the people I interviewed, five were from California, four came from Portland or elsewhere in Oregon, and one was from Washington. All were in their early to mid twenties and ideologically, they all shared similar political and social beliefs to my own. I encouraged productive dialogue and asked each of them a similar set of questions:

  • What images come to mind when you think of the Midwest?
  • What are your personal experiences with this part of the United States?
  • What kind of people live there?
  • What do you think of them?
  • What is something you care about or a part of your identity that you think is commonly misunderstood?
  • What is something you wish more people knew about this?

Farms, Farms, and More Farms

Among everybody I spoke with, the Midwest is synonymous with farmland and quaint rural farming communities. Sprawling fields of wheat, corn, and soy, forests, and plains stretching into the horizon with nothing but a lone windmill interrupting the endless landscape were called to mind. A couple of people mentioned cattle and one named a sports team. None of them were wrong, these are things that I too associate with my home. I was however surprised that no one thought of Chicago, the third largest city in the country by population, or any of the other cities that rival those found on the east and west coasts. Similarly, no one mentioned barbeque or any of the other foods that I cherish from home.

Nobody had every spent a significant amount of time in a Midwestern state but most told me “Oh, I think I drove through Kansas once.” a phrase I hear more often than one might suspect.

The Red Scare

The average Midwesterner is two things, conservative and Christian. That is, according to those I talked to. When asked, five told me that the had a generally unfavorable opinion one or both of these groups but they also knew few people who identified with either. Six told me that, as far as they knew, none of their close friends are politically conservative or Christians and three weren’t sure if they even knew anyone who was. One person had attended a catholic high school but never considered himself Catholic.

This shocked me. I am not Christian nor do I identify as conservative but so many of my close friends and family are. The responses that I received made me consider how many points of view a have little to ow contact with and how different each persons perspective really is. Every person that I spoke to was surprised when I told them that only thirty nine percent of adults in the Midwest identify as Republicans compared to forty three percent for Democrats and that less that half of voters in Kansas were registered with the Republican party. They were also surprised to learn that, statistically, Kansas has a higher non-white population than either Oregon or California.

Bigger Picture

I did not want this experiment to be at all preachy or antagonistic and I was very pleased with the conversations that I had. I hope that sharing my experiences made those I spoke with consider their points of view but I also wanted to be challenged on preconceived notions that I held as well. I did not want this experiment to be at all preachy or antagonistic and I was very pleased with the conversations that I had. When I asked about something they think is commonly misunderstood, everybody had an answer.

A few were upset by the bad rep that California has to some Oregonians. They argued that California has an influx of transplants as well and that many are forced out of the state due to rising costs, they wished that Oregon was more welcoming. One, a purple belted Jiu-Jitsu student, told me that he hears many criticisms of their decision to not attend college and to instead pursue another interest. His decision says nothing about his intelligence, only of his motivations. I listened to someone explain that many Asians are not considered to be people of colour and often are excluded in relevant conversations on the matter. A communications major explained that he has rarely tells people what he studies because so many look down on the subject for being vapid and unimportant.

I strive to be as open-minded as possible but most of the complaints that I heard had never occurred to me as being a problem. How many of my understanding are ungrounded and how many unintentionally hurtful? If you can think of something, I would like you to share something about you that is often misunderstood. What needs further understanding and what ideas do you think should be challenged?