People of Color struggle with identity in Midwest small towns

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Being an outcast in the place you call home

Being BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) in the Midwest can be a disheartening experience filled with discrimination, isolation, and a sense of otherness promoted by people both within and outside communities of color. For years, study after study has deemed cities and small towns throughout the Midwest to be some of the worst places for People of Color to live in the United States, if not the rest of the world.

Rural Midwestern towns, often famous for their imagined or exaggerated images of mom and apple pie—in other words, Whiteness—have always been home to People of Color. While there are often common, timeless threads in their experiences, the last few years of navigating the Trump presidency, the murder of George Floyd, and the COVID-19 pandemic have created a unique environment for BIPOC in the Heartland today.

Life in a small town

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Stephen Escobin, 35, lives and works near Forestburg, South Dakota, a rural town with a population of less than a hundred people. Since immigrating from the Philippines when he was six years old, Escobin has lived in several small towns throughout South Dakota and Minnesota for the majority of his life.

Escobin struggled to assimilate and fit in as a child, having experienced a great deal of “culture shock” while adjusting to the climate and culture of the Midwest. He said he spent years struggling to be accepted into the agriculture-and hunting-strong culture found throughout South Dakota, isolating him further.

“I remember when I was in fifth grade I was interested in hunting, and I asked one of my classmates about deer hunting,” Escobin said. “He instantly said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you about hunting; you don’t know anything,’ and just walked away… I’ve just been looked at so differently and so ‘on the outside’ in these places.”

Escobin now works on a farm near Forestburg where he lives with his partner and their daughter. The Philippine native said that he feels his identity as an immigrant farmer has the potential to make him and his family targets for hate in the community.

He said that animosity and a “weird pressure” was placed on People of Color in the area during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Though this has calmed somewhat, he feels little security long-term.

“I’m probably the only Colored farmer for like 50 miles here,” Escobin said. “I know that once me and my girlfriend take over the farm in a couple of years there’s going to be a lot of competition and a lot of hate towards me because I’m Colored and I’m breaking tradition.

“There’s definitely going to be people that come after me. It’s scary, but at the same time I have a drive to represent who I am.”

While they may sometimes be aware of constantly feeling like “the only one” in the communities, People of Color do not always become so conscious of race early in their lives. 

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Jazmin Newton, a 23-year-old medical student, was born and raised in Huron, South Dakota, a rural town with a population of less than 15,000 people. As a Black woman, Newton said she became conscious of race slowly, beginning with questions over which was the “skin-colored crayon” in elementary school to later sitting across from White kids in high school who insisted on using the N-word. She said along with being one of the only students of color in the room, she remembered often being one of the only people in her class to call out the use of the slur.

“No one really backed me up, and I guess that’s kind of how I’ve always felt, at least when I was in Huron,” Newton said. “I think it’s hard as a Person of Color in a very White community to feel comfortable standing up for yourself because you’re already an outcast.”

Newton said she appreciated her experiences with more diversity when she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and started medical school at the University of South Dakota (USD) located in Vermillion. Following the murder of George Floyd, she founded USD’s White Coats for Black Lives chapter, a national organization dedicated since 2014 to combating racism and implicit bias in medicine.

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Floyd’s murder also spurred incoming University of Minnesota first-year student Anna Kruse, 19, to seriously question and explore her identity, as well as the impact of racism on her life over the last few years.

Kruse also grew up in Huron, having moved there when she was eight years old during a time when the city was steadily becoming more racially diverse due to an influx of immigrants.  She grew up with a White father and a Korean mother who had been adopted and raised by a White family.

Kruse said she was relatively “sheltered” growing up, though she was aware of a lack of representation in her life. “I really do not have any connection to my Korean culture,” Kruse said.

“I think starting to mature and become a young adult, I was starting to do some soul searching and realizing that these issues are a big deal. [I started] looking at myself and just observing what was going on around me.”

Lasting impact

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The experience of People of Color in the Midwest is not a monolithic one. For some, a small Midwestern town is a home they have no intention or need to ever leave, while others see leaving as a matter of survival. Some find their lives full of happy memories only; for others, resentment and regret linger.

Dr. Terrion Williamson, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and the director of the Black Midwest Initiative, studies Black life in the Midwest, more specifically looking at the history of violence against and serial murder of Black women and other women of color in the Midwest. She and the Initiative spent the last year or so gathering and dispersing resources to Communities of Color following Floyd’s murder, the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt at the Capitol, and COVID-19.

“What I have learned from doing this work is that, however much we may dislike it or critique it or whatever, the places that we call home…still have something to provide us,” Dr. Williamson said. “I want [young people] to know that there’s no place you come from that doesn’t have something to give you that you can then use in the world, wherever it is you decide to go next.”

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