Rural Legends : white hetero-settler masculinity, neoliberal ideology, and hegemony in The Heartland

By Levi Joseph Gahman

Doctor of Philosophy Thesis, College of Graduate Studies (Interdisciplinary Studies), University of British Columbia (Okanagan)

August 8, 2014

This dissertation applies an interlocking spatial framework and critical discourse analysis to hegemonic masculinity, neoliberal ideology, and conceptions of the rural in Southeast Kansas. Drawing from decolonial, feminist, poststructural, and anarchist perspectives, it examines the different ways in which masculinities are discursively and materially embodied in rural spaces. The analysis utilizes empirical evidence, qualitative research methods, and fieldwork conducted in rural Kansas to highlight how mutually constitutive social axes of identification are intimately tied to place, as well as how socio-spatial relationships and neo(liberal) configurations of practice position differing entities as subjects. The research project also sheds light on taken-for-granted notions of masculinity and how hegemonic formations of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, and nationality produce dynamic, spatialized oppressions and privileges. In addition, it seeks to elicit understandings of what is produced by (neo)liberal ideologies and masculinist subjectivities that rely upon the rhetoric of competition, self-reliance, and rugged individualism. Lastly, it illustrates the exclusionary, marginalizing, enabling, and normalizing tendencies that have developed in Southeast Kansas as a result of settler colonialism, conservative Christianity, the ideals of capitalism, gendered hierarchies, white supremacist processes of racialization, ableist social relations, heteronormativity, American nationalism, and liberal conceptions of the self.

[Page 126:]


Mike also provided cautionary warning stating that since I was an ‘academic type’ that I may not be comfortable with all the things that took place in the area. When asking him to elaborate he noted: ‘down here, we are pretty much set in our ways …and we don’t mind it like that.’

Mike then went to suggest that what I may be exposed to might make me uneasy at times because he knew that my views were ‘liberal’ (which, in partisan politics in large swaths of the rural United States is associated with not being Republican) and ‘kind of un-American.’ As it seemed like he had something specific in mind that he was envisioning, I asked him if he could give me any brief examples as to what he meant. We then had a discussion centering on two primary topics, both of which he noted were ‘only a couple of the things I was getting into.’

The first topic centered on the use of the word ‘nigger.’ Mike mentioned that he does not use the word ‘to describe another man, or a group of them at least,’ but that he did use it [Page 127:] in certain contexts that he deemed not to be inappropriate or offensive. He went on to say that circumstances when the word was not improper, nor insulting, were times when it describes situations surrounding work. These included phrases such as ‘being worked like a nigger’ (long, strenuous, work hours, monotonous, demanding, and physically taxing conditions, all with little or minimal pay), or saying that a person had to do ‘nigger work’ (unskilled tasks that require little technical or mechanical know-how, and are physically demanding such as splitting wood, setting fence posts, bucking hay, digging post holes, burning brush, spraying chemicals, etc.). Another participant, Eric, also noted that from time to time I would probably be told to ‘nigger-rig’ (a short term, temporary fix using whatever materials are necessary) equipment in order to keep things going. I stated that I grew up working in the local sawmill, and that I ‘had heard it all before,’ to which Mike knowingly nodded in agreement saying, ‘oh yeah, for sure.’

My mention of previously working in the sawmill proved beneficial for a few of
reasons. The significance of having grown up and held a job in the community cued that I was familiar with the work environments found in the region, and it also signified that, as one participant noted, I had ‘put in my time’ performing blue-collar work. This dynamic also ended up aiding my research as the experience earned me a bit more credibility as a ‘local,’ as I was introduced as such in several future meetings with potential participants whom I did not know. In reality, the reference of working at the sawmill was beneficial mainly because it implied that I was familiar with the hegemonic norms of the spaces that I would be a part of. Alternatively, it signified that I formerly had been part of the loose fraternity of rural, white, working-class men in the area which made me seem less threatening and immediately (to some degree) gave me status as being ‘part of the club.’

[Page 128:]

That personal history partly garnered recognition for me as a former insider and also earned me social standing as a ‘worker,’ as a ‘man,’ and as one participant noted, as someone who had ‘earned his stripes.’ Consequently, these dynamics eased the apprehensiveness of several participants surrounding my role as a researcher because I had an association with several of the well-respected locals. Most importantly, my previous experience served as a silent and subconscious reaffirmation of whiteness and working-class background. These aspects of my subject position granted me privileges in that I was easily able to fit in well with the dominant demographic of the area. Thus, my positionality of sharing similar social identities, having family and friends in the area, and having lived in the area, meant that I had social ties with many of the members of the community, who subsequently could vouch for me.


[Page 239:]

Good Guys versus Bad Guys

In looking at the social hierarchies that operate in Southeast Kansas, I once again
borrow from Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity that suggests that the discourses surrounding manhood in particular local contexts produce marginalized, subordinated, and complicit masculinities (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). Given the particular (local) version of hegemonic masculinity that permeates most spaces in the area; one of white, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, citizens; such marginalizing and subordinating processes can be readily observed in the discourses of everyday interactions.

Several scholars have noted that processes of ‘othering’ and the politics of alterity that exist in settler societies predominantly take place along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality; thereby reinforcing structural white, male, supremacy (Pease 2010a, Razack 2002, Tuhiwai Smith 1999, hooks 1989, Mohanty 1984). The discursive formations of who are defined as ‘bad’ guys and ‘criminals’ operate as regulatory measures that allow certain men to attain higher levels of masculine status, and keep others from gaining hegemonic acceptance.

Such policing of masculinity can readily be seen in the following exclusionary statements made by Tom, a 22-year-old participant, who when asked about news stories pertaining to gun violence stated:

‘I mean hell, look at all these crazy people doing all these shootings here lately. A lot of the shootings I hear about are done by guys from the city, you don’t see a bunch of farm boys murdering each other all the time. Most of the people killing each other are either psychopaths or terrorists with radical views who hate America. You can’t tell me they had good Christian [Page 240:] upbringings. The guns ain’t the problem, it’s the criminals who get a hold of them and use them that cause the problems. And think about it, if guns were outlawed people like that would still find a way to kill other people. They’d just use homemade bombs, or knives, or rocks, or something else. People on TV keep blaming the guns, but that is just an excuse.’

One interesting discursive formation to note in the statement above that is particularly salient to geographers is the positioning of violence being perpetuated by ‘guys in the city.’ The participant engages in rhetoric that suggests being ‘from the city’ is in direct opposition to what many participants referred to as ‘being from the country.’ Critical scholars have noted that the ways in which being ‘different’ is constructed can lead to oppressive and exclusionary effects (Kobayashi 2013, Berg 2012, Goldberg 2009, Sibley 2002). While not explicitly stated outright, the connotation of what being ‘from the country’ versus being ‘from the city’ means is often times rife with racist, sexist, and homophobic tendencies.

These discourses of subordination are further highlighted by the follow-up statement offered by Tom, who when asked to elaborate upon who he thought was responsible for gun violence stated:

‘Its not that I’m a racist, but most of those guys shooting each other from the city are criminals. I bet most of them are niggers, or spic drug dealers, or gang members. I bet they were never really taught how to treat a gun, or that you need to respect them. And when I say nigger I don’t mean all black guys, I’ve worked with some good black guys, I’ve also been around some hard working Mexicans. …when I say nigger, I mean that anyone can be a nigger. It’s more of how someone acts you know – a white guy can be a nigger, a [Page 241:] Mexican can be nigger, an Asian can be a nigger, its not just a skin thing, just a way to describe how a guy goes about the way he acts. Most those shootings are guys trying to be tough, or hard, or whatever…’

Angela Stroud (2012: 22) notes the significance that race, class, gender have in relation to masculinities and gun use when she states that the gun can be ‘a symbol that at once signifies violence and protection.’ Other critical scholars researching gun culture suggest that the meaning attributed to gun use can be interpreted differently depending on who is holding the gun, the place in where it is being held, and subsequently, by who is allowed to assign meaning to the context where it is being used (Stroud 2012, Brown 2008, Cramer 2006, Wright 2001).

Noting the fluid and flexible nature of giving meaning to gun violence based upon categories of race, class, and gender, is key in the understanding how white supremacist discourses come to dominate local understandings of gun use. Abby Ferber notes the feelings of being threatened that white men experience when encountering visible minorities, particularly black men (2007). Other scholars have also noted that the increase in fear and anxiety that white people undergo oftentimes causes them racialize ‘non-white’ bodies as criminal, threatening, animalistic, hypersexual, and aggressive (Feagin 2009, Ferber 2007, Collins 2005).

In analyzing the quote from Tom above, it can be noted that the process of subordinating other male bodies based upon the racial epithets of ‘nigger,’ ‘spic drug dealers,’ and ‘gang members’ creates direct associations between Black and Latino masculinities as being typical attributes of ‘criminal’ bodies. This racist discourse underscores the significance of ‘whiteness’ and how it is enabled to label others from a [Page 242:] position of privilege. From this seat of power, white masculinity thus enjoys the luxury of obliviousness, or rather, the comfort of freely going unnoticed because it is seen as the normalized standard that others are compared to. Consequently, white masculinity remains free from criticism because of its invisibility. In turn, the influence that hegemonic (white, masculinist) discourses have in particular local spaces effectively excludes, and oppresses, racialized people from acceptance and inclusion.


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