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Painting an Incomplete Picture: What It Really Means When You Say "Townie"

Driving through Lexington, the last thing you see before turning onto W&L’s campus is bold text on a large banner: TRUMP PENCE 2016.

It was probably hung up by a “townie.” That’s what W&L students call Lexington residents. I learned the term during O-Week and picked it up just as quickly as “coop” or “VMIs” (pronounced “vee-mees.”) Not all Lexington residents are townies, of course. Professors and their families aren’t townies. The factory worker you run into at Kroger is a townie.

Before coming to W&L, I had a clear notion of what Lexington—and its “townies—” would be like, one that was reinforced by the aforementioned banner. I thought that all residents were conservative—which I equated to close-minded. They were unsophisticated—save for professors and their families. One thing was for sure: they weren’t people with whom I’d want to spend my time.

Despite these unconscious biases, I valued community engagement, and got involved with service almost immediately after arrival on campus. When I was partnered through the Office on Youth and Campus Kitchen to be a tutor at an elementary school in Lexington, I was incredibly excited. I have a passion for community service, particularly working with children. I came to Washington and Lee as part of the Shepherd program, with a commitment to work with the larger Lexington community in order to both improve it and also enrich my own education.

Over time, I built relationships with the kids at the Office on Youth. Through conversations at snack time or between math problems, I got a better picture of their lives. Carl’s dad is a police officer; Amelia’s cousin is getting married; Justine’s favorite food is pizza. These kids aren’t just “townies.” They are multifaceted people with unique personalities and backgrounds. Where they live—and those socioeconomic implications—has no bearing on who they are as people.

I hadn’t ever thought of the word “townie” as having socioeconomic implications until it was used in one of my classes. I only ever consciously thought of it as a distinguisher between groups of people in Lexington. There are W&L students, VMIs, and townies. That’s just how it is. However, upon a closer look, the term “townie” has a much more insidious connotation. To define people in this area by whether or not they are college students, which is undoubtedly a mark of privilege in America, breeds a culture of elitism; the implication being that, if you aren’t here to be a student, it must mean that you’re an unsophisticated “townie.” I came to this understanding in class when a professor of mine asked our class, “Am I a townie?” The immediate answer was no, of course not. We all had a silent understanding that “townie” actually means more than just a Lexington resident. Townie means blue-collar, close-minded, and unintelligent. Since this professor is affiliated with our university, she wouldn’t be one. The term is a microaggression, casting out and dehumanizing those we perceive as inferior or unrefined.

Earlier this year, Rockbridge County had its first Pride Festival. This was right here in Lexington, the town I had generalized as close-minded just based off of the TRUMP PENCE banner. At Pride, I saw a few of the students I work with at the Office on Youth and their families. They were supportive and progressive- certainly not fitting of the bigoted “townie” narrative. A man I met at Pride, Oliver, helped further challenge my biases about Rockbridge. Oliver’s life matches what I’ve been taught a townie is: he’s lived in Lexington his whole life, he works at a welding plant in Buena Vista, and he doesn’t have a college education. My conversation with Oliver was insightful and interesting. He talked about his role as a queer ally in Rockbridge, speaking about his goal to meet and understand members of the queer community. He finds learning about those who are different than himself important—a lesson that I very much needed to learn and apply in my own life. I asked him about his interactions with W&L students, and the dynamic between them and Lexington natives. The elitism that I have been actively unlearning is common in W&L students, from his perspective. We had an engaging discussion; he, like each of the students at the Office on Youth, and like everyone else in Lexington, is a multidimensional person who deserves to be seen as much more than just a townie.

Is Oliver a Trump supporter? Perhaps. I have no way of knowing. That wasn’t relevant to our conversation. The truth is, not everyone in Lexington is a Trump supporter. Creating one narrative for a large group of people paints an incomplete picture of them. One sign doesn’t indicate the political leanings of an entire town, and the general political leanings of an individual doesn’t necessarily indicate their stance on every issue. These sweeping generalizations are largely rooted in a lack of understanding. For me, it took going out and meeting Lexington residents to understand that.

Connections like these are why interacting with the community—whether it be through a service partnership or just a chat with a stranger—is so important. Engaging with those different than you is what engenders mutual understanding. Generalizing groups of people through one narrative, whether it be calling all “townies” bigots, or all Lexington residents “townies,” creates a divide, and prevents this understanding. By thinking critically about terms like “townie” and their meanings, we can all learn to be better members of this community, as well as society at large. I have come to understand the privilege that comes with being a W&L student and how to be mindful of this both on and off campus. I now recognize microaggressions and the paternalistic power dynamic at play when they are used. Lexington natives aren’t simple “townies;” within that term, the ignorance lies in the one who uses it, not those to whom it is applied.

*NOTE: All names used in this are pseudonyms in order to respect the privacy of individuals.

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