As a teenager, seeing south Louisiana’s policies of exclusion and inability to shake its legacies of slavery and Jim Crow made the much larger East and West Coast cities seem more desirable. I felt displaced and poorly represented in my home region, viewing it as inferior to other communities that seemed more progressive and cosmopolitan. These feelings I held faded when I started college in New Orleans, a place I felt balanced its rich cultural heritage and cosmopolitanism well. It was there that I realized the animosity I held towards being a Southerner and a Louisianan came just as much from an inability to appreciate the complexities of my home region as it did from the problems plaguing it.
Attending graduate school in New England and being one of very few Southerners attending my school pushed me to claim my regional identity as a valid part of my social identity. I went beyond mainstream discussions of regional identity and culture, which often don’t evolve beyond discussions on culinary and linguistic differences, or red states versus blue states. As a Louisianan living in New England, I discovered that I had a unique cultural knowledge and relationship to place that contrasted from that of native New Englanders and my classmates not from the South. My regional identity also shaped my understanding of issues related to social class, race and religion, as well as the ways in which I experienced other components of my social identity.
I also discovered that regional identity wasn’t limited to North vs. South debates either. Regional identity is based on geography, and the term region is used to describe metropolitan areas, states, nations or multinational regions like the Middle East or the Caribbean. In other words, someone’s regional identity as a Texan is just as valid as another person’s regional identity as a European. Unfortunately, regional identities and cultures are susceptible to othering, oversimplification and stereotyping because of our exposure to media narratives and political discourse. We internalize certain images and ideas and obtain an ethnocentric sense of superiority or inferiority around our regional cultures and identities. Consequently, we view our home regions as either not good enough or better than others. Our misunderstandings—and unwillingness to understand what’s behind regional cultures, whether it be in the U.S. or in other parts of the world—can result in interpersonal conflict and in some cases, violent conflicts and separatism.
The exclusion of regional diversity and culture from conversations centered around diversity and intercultural awareness greatly troubles me. Those working for cultural diversity do themselves a major disservice by neglecting and ignoring regional identity as an important component of social identity. As south Louisiana welcomes more transplants from other regions of the country and world, it will become necessary to widen our understandings of our own regional identities and cultures and those of others. We must recognize that every community in the world is imperfect and problems, and the key to improving them will be acknowledging and appreciating the unique cultural knowledge that come from regional culture. Most importantly, we must be unafraid to redefine how we see our own regional identities. Had I known I had the power to do so, I would have a long time ago.