Some years ago I was teaching up in Grainger County and had a high school class that I knew would benefit from some community activities. One of the people I talked to worked at a clothing center and after talking about the students, we were chatting about this and that and she asked me where I was from.
“Well,” I said, “I was born in Greenback, went to school at UT, lived in Knoxville for a while, and now I live in Corryton, on House Mountain.”
“So,” she said, “you’re not from around here.”
I think about that conversation now and then. In my sixty-six years I have never lived more than fifty miles from where I live now, on House Mountain in northeast Knox County. To most of the people I come in contact with, I’m a country boy from the East Tennessee mountains. As far as the lady I was talking to was concerned, though, if I wasn’t from Grainger County, I was an outsider.
And that usually gets me started thinking about how to define an outsider. There are a lot of different ways; it can be geographic, cultural, intellectual, economic, political, racial, sports, age, or gender based. It is often pretty arbitrary, like lines on a map frequently are. It ranges from “they’re not from around here” to “those people got more money than sense” to “you can’t trust them, they’re a Republican (or Democrat)” to “those people don’t value life the way we do” and so on. I was visiting my son in southern Ohio and was talking to a man about a local restaurant we had eaten at the night before. When I mentioned that they didn’t sell salads, he said, “We ain’t no metrosexual, salad eatin’ people in this town. We’re wings and beer!”
He was grinning when he said it, and used an exaggerated tone to make sure I knew he was kidding, but it was a perfect example of how one characteristic (in this case, ordering a salad) can assign a person to a category. I don’t think this guy would refuse to work with a person who ate salads, or stay out of a restaurant that served them, or attack them on the street; it was just a touch, just a hint of “us and them.” I wasn’t angry or offended by his remark, and the whole afternoon was very pleasant, but I did recognize his choice of humor. I hear it a lot, and use it myself, although I choose a different stereotype. It’s a way of saying this is my tribe and it’s different from, and better than, that tribe over there.
We have to draw lines of separation, I think, to be able to understand the world. Much as I try to imagine myself as a world citizen, I know that there are ways of living and ways of seeing that are completely outside my ability to grasp. I don’t think that makes me insensitive or biased or uncaring; I think it makes me human. It’s dangerous, though, to make the “not my tribe” way of thinking into a virtue; it can easily set people against each other who really need to be pulling together. There are big issues facing us, all of us, and if we spend our time on which is better, a metrosexual salad eater or a guy who just wants a plate of wings and a beer, things will go unaddressed that will soon enough make the salad/wings question moot.