Last week, someone put up a sign on DU’s advertisement for their Hootenanny party that said, “Hootenanny stereotypes rural Americans — no classism.” I have a lot of criticisms of fraternity culture, that could fill up several more weeks of this column, but the Hootenanny is not one of them. My issue with the classism sign is that it in itself propagates the same stereotypes of rural Americans that the sign is trying to fight and ultimately is counterintuitive to solving the urban-rural divide. I’m from an area that I often describe as farmy. My immediate family isn’t involved in agriculture, but my parents’ best friends own a large farm where I spent a lot of time from my childhood into young adulthood. I’ve seen how hard it is to run a farm, and I’ve also had the privilege of eating corn that was picked off the stalk the same day. I don’t know the exact qualifications for being a rural American, but I’ve spent enough time stuck driving behind tractors on a two-lane road to know that I probably meet most of them.
The argument that the Hootenanny party is classist rests on some assumptions that are nearly as problematic as the creator of the sign thinks that the Hootenanny party is. Classism is commonly considered to be prejudice and discrimination based on economic class, specifically against the poor. For the Hootenanny party to be classist against rural Americans, rural Americans at large must be poor and unhappy, and agriculture must be a dead-end vocation. This criticism of the party literally requires the false stereotype that farmers are poor and uneducated, which is largely false. According to the United States Census Bureau, rural areas have lower rates of poverty than urban areas. Farming as a vocation requires a high level of business acumen and specialized training and skills in the agricultural sciences. I’m probably correct that most Swarthmore students aren’t planning on farming after they graduate, and farming isn’t often on “best jobs” listicles, but rural America is not a wasteland. It’s not perfect and has many pressing issues, but college students dressing up as farmers is not making light of agriculture in the same way that dressing up as a sexy firefighter for Halloween isn’t widely considered to be offensive to firefighters.
The problems faced by rural America include declining social and political capital, the opioid epidemic, and the growth of large commercial agriculture companies. Yet, rural America is not desolate or out of options. I’m from southern Delaware, which is much more rural than the northern half of the state. Southern Delaware is nicknamed “lower-slower Delaware,” which reflects the more relaxed pace of life that many rural and quasi-rural Delawareans are proud of. To imply that social groups shouldn’t host Hootenannies implies that any imitation of rural culture must mock rural culture, which requires rural culture to be marginalized and for farmers to give a hoot about who wears flannel and cowboy boots in a frat house on a Saturday night.
Trump’s election illustrated clearly that many rural Americans felt largely left out of political discourse, and that conclusion certainly isn’t wrong. The result of the election showed that rural Americans tend to be conservative (just as Americans living in cities tend to be more liberal) and indicated that rural Americans were frustrated with identity politics. Many rural Americans would probably think that the attempts to enforce social and cultural boundaries onto a country-themed party is just what is wrong with kids these days. We can’t make the urban-rural divide any better if we try to use methods that are largely rejected by the people who actually are rural Americans.
Even worse, if DU avoids having Hootenannies in the future, current and prospective rural students may perceive the cancellation as a rejection of rural culture on a campus already considered to be a part of the “liberal elite.” If a party host can’t play country music and encourage wearing cowboy hats, then we’ve lost an opportunity for people who like country music and identify as being a rural American to espouse those preferences during at least one party a year. A frat hosting a Hootenanny is clearly different from frats hosting parties that stereotype based on race or ethnicity. Unlike race or ethnicity, an urban person can move to a rural area, take up farming, and become a rural American, and vice versa. The mutability of ruralness is what makes this type of party fundamentally different than parties based on race or ethnicity. Social groups can host Hootenannies and cannot host parties that appropriate other cultures because farmers are not marginalized, and anyone could decide to take up agriculture in rural area if they choose; conversely, there are marginalized cultures, and a person cannot move into or out of a racial or ethnic group.
There are a lot of legitimately offensive party themes in the world, but I’m fairly confident that the Hootenanny is not high on the list of worst things fraternities have done. Swarthmore’s frats exist in the Swarthmore bubble, and we as Swatties often forget that students at many other schools deal with a lot worse from Greek life. We should never stop working to make the frats less problematic, but we also need to see the forest through the trees and focus on the causes of the issues, like the amount of social capital given to the frats as single-gender institutions and their near-monopoly on parties, rather than whether or not a country-themed party stereotypes rural Americans, or even if the stereotype that farmers wear cowboy boots and listen to country music is harmful or marginalizing to people who are from rural areas.
If the frats were to host a party that was racist or culturally insensitive, the campus would react with appropriate outrage and would likely prompt a response from the Bias Response Team. The Hootenanny just isn’t that. Everyone is entitled to their own feelings and reactions to the party, but dressing up in country gear isn’t going to inflame the rural-urban divide.