By Surabhi Balachander, ’17
This op-ed column was originally published in the Stanford Daily on January 22, 2019.
I rarely hear “rural” mentioned in public discourse at Stanford, so I was excited to see Thomas Schnaubelt’s op-ed “The urban-rural divide: Stanford’s most pernicious bubble?” in The Daily on Jan. 10, and I’m even more excited about the Haas Center’s new programming focused on rural America. As a recent graduate who researches rurality in American literature, I wanted to take this opportunity to add a few things to the conversation.
I may not have chosen to study rurality had I not attended a university like Stanford, where most people around me thought of rural America as completely foreign. Throughout my time at Stanford, I felt that my position on the rural-urban continuum was what differentiated me most from my peers—and I want to encourage people to see it as a continuum rather than a strict divide. Definitions of rurality such as the one offered by the U.S. Census Bureau are designed for specific statistical purposes. The Census Bureau describes any area with a population of less than 2,500 as rural. However, the Census Bureau’s actual working definition of rural is “any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area.”
That is, numerical definitions of urban were delimited first, and rural was defined after the fact as anything the urban excluded—rural is, by definition, relegated to the margins. I find it necessary, when rural voices often go unheard outside of rural areas, to problematize these sorts of definitions. As someone who studies literature, I’d like to suggest that we move to consider rurality through a more subjective, affective lens, through experience rather than through statistics—and that we work to conceptualize rurality on its own terms, not simply against urbanity.
As I’m just beginning my research, I don’t yet have fully formed answers about how to better define rurality, only a lot of questions, including questions about my own experiences. The address of my childhood home was in West Lafayette, Indiana, which is, according to the Census Bureau, part of an “urbanized area.” Yet I lived in unincorporated county area, and corn and soybean fields abutted both my neighborhood and my high school. The place where I grew up may not have fit the Census Bureau’s definition of rural, but my experiences do resonate deeply with Merriam-Webster’s—“of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture.”
Of course, this definition is incredibly vague. What does it really mean to be rural in the United States today? The right way to describe rurality lies somewhere between the strictly statistical and the nebulously broad, I would venture. We need to press on our existing definitions of and assumptions about rurality, and consider urban and rural not as clear, mutually exclusive categories, but as porous, changeable descriptors of varied lives and locales.
Most of the popular images of rural America show a homogeneously white population, but rurality in itself encompasses varied lives and locales. While I was at Stanford, I found that my relative rurality was most salient when I considered how it intersected with my racial/ethnic identity. My distance from communities that shared my identity defined my childhood—for example, when I was younger, my family had to drive several hours to worship at a Hindu temple or to buy Indian groceries, and when I faced racism at school or in my community, there were few around me who understood and could empathize. Rural populations of color include Black, nonwhite Latinx, Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander and multiracial people—the full spectrum of racial diversity in the United States. Any meaningful engagement with rurality requires acknowledging that one-fifth of rural Americans are people of color—coincidentally, the same fraction of Americans who live in rural areas (these, like most available statistics, draw upon the Census Bureau’s definition).
It is imperative to not only recognize, but highlight the incredible racial diversity of rural America in light of the flattening images of exclusive whiteness that tend to circulate. Rurality becomes most useful and most truthful as a category when we consider how it operates in conjunction with other identities—racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, dis/ability and so on—and recognize that there is no uniform rural experience.
I started to research rurality when I was a junior at Stanford, in winter 2016. I found that people at Stanford, and those in major urban areas across the country, became considerably more interested in my work, my experiences and rural America in general after the 2016 presidential election. People saw rural American voters as responsible for the election results, and because of this began to consider rurality for the first time—that is, to consider a toxic white conservative rurality as a problem to be addressed. Yes, toxic white conservatism does exist in rural America, but to only be interested in the least nuanced images, to only care about rural areas because of their voting power, is damaging and leaves out so many stories. What about all the rural Americans who, because they are immigrants, because they have been incarcerated or because of voter suppression, cannot vote? Rurality cannot be boiled down to a problem, cannot be reduced to electoral or population statistics and cannot be flattened into a singular type of narrative. I ask that anyone with an interest in rural America critically consider their definitions and images of rurality, and work to make room for the diverse experiences that constitute many real rural Americas.
I want to thank Schnaubelt and the folks at the Haas Center for their efforts in foregrounding rurality at Stanford. I very much hope that these conversations continue, and that the Stanford community can hear more from students, staff, faculty and alumni who come to the university with their own diverse rural American experiences.
Surabhi Balachander ‘17 is a PhD Student, English Language and Literature, University of Michigan. She worked as a staff member at the Bill Lane Center for the American West from 2017 to 2018.
The Urban-Rural Divide: Stanford’s Most Pernicious Bubble?, Stanford Daily, Jan. 10, 2019
The Rural West Initiative, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
Read this article in the Stanford Daily