I walked off the plane after finals week looking like a cross between a pack mule and a zombie when I saw it: our Starbucks had started selling beer. Only in Kentucky, I thought. I was home. Hobbling to the espresso-shop turned aspiring sports bar, I wondered for the 567th time that week if I was a hoarder, since my purple backpack looked a hell of a lot like Barney the Dinosaur. I ordered my drink, and then finally took a breath and looked around: I was the darkest person in the entire terminal. The man who had been in front of me in line tipped his cowboy hat, black coffee in hand, before pulling his carry-on towards baggage claim. In different circumstances, seeing him might have made me feel especially out of place, like a Latina liberal snowflake dropped into the South unprepared -- but actually, I felt relieved. Coffee cowboy was the first working class white person I had seen since I’d last been home from school two months before. Not talked to. Not hung out with. Seen.
A few months ago, my friend told me about a startling conversation she’d heard on her first day of class. A guy had walked in, looking lost and exhausted, practically falling into his chair and said, “God, it’s been such a bad day I could kill myself.” The TA cut him off quickly, “Hey -- that’s not really something to joke about.”
“Geez, no, no, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I’m just so tired but seriously, I promise I didn’t mean that, I come from a place where suicide is an enormous problem.”
“Oh, um, where are you from?”
“Palo Alto, California.”
I’m half-Mexican, half-very white Kentuckian. I’m a senior at Stanford, so I spend a little over half my year in California -- coincidentally, only six hours from where my biological father lives, though I’ve never met him. I spend the other half of the year with my two moms in Louisville; both of their families have been in the state for six generations (at least). Since I left for college three years ago, and especially since the election, I’ve felt out of place no matter which home I’m in. In Kentucky, I’m a brown, vegetarian, feminist, with gay parents and a dog named after a Broadway drag queen. At Stanford, I sometimes feel like white trash; the school has a $24 billion dollar endowment, and there are extraordinarily few poor or even middle-class white students here, let alone from the South. Many of my friends -- and professors -- cannot even put Kentucky on a map, and call it “flyover country.” When I tell people what state I’m from, their most common answer is, “I’m sorry.”
Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to be sorry. I see confederate flags in the back of pickup trucks at least once every time I come home. My parents were afraid to hold hands in public when I was growing up. A 7-year-old boy was shot dead when a stray bullet blasted through his window and hit him -- while he was sitting at the kitchen table eating his birthday cake. (Yeah, take that in for a second. Damn.) The state is screwed up. And it’s true that those things rarely, if ever, happen in Palo Alto.
And yet it’s Palo Alto, where the hedges are manicured and the palm trees are insured, that has a teen suicide epidemic, and I’d say consistent mental health issues among even the most privileged high school and college students. Myself certainly included during parts of my time here. (Is Kentucky immune to that? Of course not, but we’re not famous for it.) At Stanford, students are often so stressed that from Week 3 to Week 10 in our quarter, just what week it is is an easily understood reason to be miserable. I’ve had hundreds of conversations that go like this: “Hey ____, how are you?” “*groans* Well, you know...it’s Week 4.” And, I usually say back, “Yeah, I know, you got this/hang in there/we’ll get through it.”
But what the hell? What are we “getting through”?? Being in the 5% of students who were accepted to one of the richest universities in the world, that will basically guarantee us stability and countless opportunities for the rest of our lives, where I live in a mansion with a personal chef (it’s insane), and take classes from Nobel Laureates? “But we’re happier than MIT!” is not the right answer. We should be the happiest people on Earth. We have no right not to be the happiest people on Earth. But we aren’t even close.
So, I’m sorry, too.
I spent November 8, 2016 in wracking sobs. I spent November 9, 2016, to my great surprise, talking about Kentucky, as my friends here struggled to understand “those people.” I have never felt so split as I did on that day. Furious at Kentucky, but also finally understanding how ignored and misunderstood people from my state often feel. Sad for the South and the immense problems we still face, but sad for Stanford and the bright red flags that we don’t even realize aren’t normal. I was half and half. If I will ever be whole and whole -- if our country will ever be whole and whole -- then my two homes must learn from each other. That takes cultural humility. That takes getting out of our bubbles, and talking to people who are truly different from us. That takes asking questions, instead of saying we're sorry.
In Northern California, a Black trans woman with pink hair and a purple dog could walk down the sidewalk, and at least on the best days, people would be far more accepting here than in most of the rest of the country. That’s my favorite thing about my second home. In Kentucky, when you walk down the sidewalk, people know your name -- and your dog’s name -- and if they don’t, they’ll call a stranger “sweetheart.” They actually stop to talk to you. That’s my favorite thing about my first home.
After November 7, 2017, I am hopeful that one day, I will live in an America where both of those things can be true at once.