My husband and I are getting a divorce.
Or at least, that’s the rumor you would have heard going around my small hometown a few years ago.
In small towns, news travels fast. You’ve probably heard this before. But you have no idea how true it is unless you live in or are from a small town.
Occasionally, the news is just gossip. Like the rumor (which traveled over 18 miles, by the way!) that my husband and I must be getting a divorce since no one saw him working on the farm with me or visiting local businesses.
But most of the time, the news that circulates is fact (give or take a few minor details):
Just a few days after telling a single person that my husband and I are planning to build a farm house in the coming years, I was greeted at the local gas station with a chorus of “how is the house project coming along?” and “so, where are you going to build?”
And this is why I’m surprised I haven’t heard discussion in this small Minnesota town about the news of the Ferguson shooting.
But should I be surprised?
I believe there are two key reasons why small towns may experience this phenomenon: isolation and demographics.
Even though news travels at lightning speeds in small towns, the news that travels is the localest of local news. As a friend observed recently: “only in a small town can you use someone’s name in a story and everyone know exactly who you’re talking about.” In the city we would tell the same story by saying, for example, “an electrician I know….”
In other words, national news is not as real and present to small towners as word-of-mouth small town news.
This isn’t to say that national news is never discussed. When same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota, I recall a few local opinions on the topic. But in the case of Ferguson, there is very little the people of this small town can relate to or share in context with Ferguson.
We do not have a police force.
We do not have a diverse population.
We do not have riots.
I have heard people use racial slurs in this town who genuinely do not know those words are insulting. I have heard people use the word racism for sexism in this town because they couldn’t remember the word that describes discrimination toward women.
Passersby might hear these same remarks and think “well, these people are stupid red-neck hillbillies.”
I beg to differ. Many people in small towns (or at least in my small town!) are very intelligent; experts in their field (pun absolutely intended). They simply do not have the same kind of exposure or real-life experience to understand or empathize with news like the Ferguson shooting.
Demographics of small towns also play a significant role in whether topics like Ferguson are discussed.
In 2010, during the last census, the population of my small town was 94.98% Caucasian and 0.12% African American. That’s right. In this small town, the African American population is less than 1%.
With this level of diversity, it’s easier to assume that topics like Ferguson just are not on small town radar.
However, Ferguson has been one of the primary all-day updates on major news stations. Whenever I’ve walked through my parents’ living room in the last week, if the news is on, it’s either about Ferguson or Iraq. People in this small town must know about Ferguson.
This leaves two explanations in relation to diversity: white guilt and social activism fatigue.
What I mean by white guilt is that as caucasians, we realize we do not or cannot fully understand the experience of being discriminated, and as a result, we feel we do not have the right to comment on news-worthy topics on the matter. We’ve inserted ourselves too much on issues of race in the past that we overcompensate by withdrawing from the conversation completely.
I had a hard time accepting white guilt as an excuse to refrain from commenting on Ferguson, so about a week ago, I posted a photo on Facebook of a Ferguson protester.
A friend of mine kindly and quietly shared an article with me that suggested my small demonstration of support was not helping. The article concludes that “ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.” In effect, social activism fatigue. The Ferguson-flooded news could simply be overwhelming the public, causing them to disengage and walk away from their televisions.
I realize that writing this post is contributing to this fatigue. But this article isn’t for the average, overexposed citizen. This post is for those of us who are flabbergasted with the lack of local support for issues of discrimination.
It seems the article is suggesting that the best thing to do is use small, everyday examples rather than jump on the hot topics of national news to address discrimination. This means that in this small town, I will be better at pointing out racial slurs when people use them, or speaking up when I hear sexist comments.
They are small drops in the bucket, but it seems as if it is all we can do for effective, long-term change.