A peculiar phenomenon has recently come to my attention: people tend to believe that Utahns are uncultured, uneducated, and tasteless. I balk at this assumption because of my own obvious culture, education, and taste, but also because I know that this stereotype is not true. The definition of “culture” according to Merriam-Webster, is “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties esp. by education” or “enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training” or “acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills” (304). Well, I certainly consider Utah’s inhabitants to fit those definitions. I know more women and men in my neighborhood with college degrees than without, many of my friends and family visit art exhibits that make their way to Salt Lake City, and good food can be enjoyed anywhere by anybody. Yes, even in Utah by the native.
My first awareness of being judged classless simply because I reside in Utah came from an undergraduate student I met while working on my Master’s degree. While eavesdropping, I heard him robustly list to a friend all he knew of French culture: the wine, the millions of cheeses, and the language. As he bragged of taste for French cuisine, I decided to join the conversation. I knew this young man was taking French classes, so I asked him about them. I am interested in learning French as well, although I focused my language requirement on Spanish. (Maybe wanting to learn two languages is very un-Utahn of me, at least in the stereotypical view of Utahns. You know, none of them know anything of other languages and cultures. Just forget the Mormon missionaries. They don’t count.) Anyway, as we began to talk, this student mentioned his desire to visit France someday. In a spirit of camaraderie, I mentioned to him that I had recently been to Paris and loved the experience. His face turned to shock. “What? You’ve been to Paris? I can hardly believe that? Aren’t you from Utah?” he said.
My own face showed shock. Huh? Why would he think that people from Utah can’t travel to foreign countries? I assured him that I had been there. He relaxed and our talk turned to cheese. I mentioned manchego, a sweet, hard Spanish cheese my sister served at her wedding along with tapas. He had never heard of it. Our talk turned to other delicious deli foods, and I showed him the prosciutto sandwich I had brought for lunch that day. Again, he could not register how a person from Utah would even know what prosciutto is, let alone enjoy eating it. I finally decided to ask him: “Where are you from?”
“Colorado,” he replied.
So, he’s from the mountain west. I would have expected his attitude from neighbors further away, but no, even our close neighbors think we are backwards.
Where does this stereotype come from? I admit that I have heard stories of people who think going on vacation is visiting Salt Lake City from their rural town in the east or south of our state. I also know people who have never been to Paris, but surely that does not make them uncultured. Maybe instead they visited Egypt, Brazil, or Thailand. I have a friend actually who taught himself Russian after learning to speak Korean on an LDS mission. He worked for the NSA for several years. Where is he from? Not Colorado, but instead Provo, Utah. In fact, according to the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, “The National Security Agency (NSA) selected Utah for its language analyst offices. The NSA commented that Utah’s famous facility with languages was a big factor in its site selection process” (6.1). I think my French cheese friend would find this shocking, yet I certainly don’t know why. Plenty of people in Utah have such language skills. Currently, Chinese is becoming the language to study in high school, and Utah public schools are now offering Arabic courses as well. I personally know people from Utah who speak Spanish, Korean, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Portuguese, French, Yapese, Danish, and more.
Utahns are also literate. According to a Deseret News article, “[T]he Beehive State still has one of the highest percentages of competent readers in the nation” (Leonard). Apparently our schools do a great job of teaching literacy, something unexpected from a state where people are supposedly below average in being “cultured.” For those places traditionally thought of as more in-vogue, such as New York and California, some “20 percent of the population . . . lacks basic reading skills” (Leonard). Beyond being able to read a newspaper, the state of Utah boasts six universities and a handful more community colleges. As to interest in the arts, our state has some 58 art galleries, 18 art museums (yes, more than just those run by the universities), several websites devoted to making the population aware of the arts (such as artsandmuseums.utah.gov), and a Tony Award–winning Shakespearian festival, details of which can be found at bard.org. This festival, held annually in Cedar City, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The festival puts on 9 plays, and in 2011 had on display “[o]ne of 228 rare First Folios from 1623, considered the earliest and most complete collection of Shakespeare’s works” (Fulton). Wait. You mean Utahns know who Shakespeare is?
I also know Utahns who have visited the best museums in our country and other countries, talk about art as a passion, have knowledge of philosophy, and read books that are not on the bestseller list or written by Nora Roberts or Dan Brown. Apparently, a taste for good food and wine is also abundant in Utah. When I typed “fine dining Utah” into Google, it immediately resulted in 2.25 million hits. One website, http://www.dininginutah.com, is devoted to listing all exceptional restaurants in the state by type of food, a long list that included Indian, Thai, Cajun, Argentine, and “Cosmopolitan/Eclectic.”
Yet, I witnessed the assumption that Utahns are a hapless bunch who know nothing about art, food, or culture again. In a graduate course, taught by a lovely British woman who holds a doctorate degree and yes, gasp, lives in Ogden, Utah, one of the students took cheap shots at the culture of native Utahns during her entire presentation on Virginia Woolf. First, she over-explained Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” to the class, as it was a painting mentioned in the reading we had done about modernism and feminism. She felt sure that none of us had ever seen it before, so she pulled a picture of it up from the Internet. (Eye roll.) She did not bother to assume that any of us knew the painting, had minored in humanities in another life, or visited a museum with Picasso’s work. She believed that none of us knew and that she did, because, as she put it, “I’ve lived many places and moved millions of times.” Is that possible, moving millions of times?
Next, she showed a painting by Henri Matisse. A member of our class mentioned that she had seen that painting when it came with an exhibition to Utah. The presenter looked discombobulated because she realized that we already knew the wisdom she had been attempting to impart. She recovered her snobbery and said, “I commend you for going to see it when it came. I know a lot of people here don’t ever do that.” What? People in Utah don’t visit museums? I guess that’s why she felt obligated to educate us all. It must really be tough refining all of her neighbors, friends, and coworkers. What a sorry gang they must be for her to believe that all people in Utah are uncultured.
She again mentioned her many moves when she told one of the women in our class that if she was able to find her inner feminist by staying in one place her whole life then she must be a strong person. For her, she must move “millions” of times in order to constantly reinvent and discover who she is and what her potential will be. Isn’t that a form of borderline personality disorder? Or is it just condescending?
I’m not sure why this stereotype persists. Perhaps it is a common one, which is applied to many states and groups of people. I think we all like to think of ourselves as exceptional, while discounting other cultures and other areas. It seems that this is just a microcosm of American exceptionalism, and the fact that I’m here arguing about it through anecdotes (yes, I know my research and my claims aren’t sound) means that I’m inclined to think of Utahns in a more generous-than-necessary way. Do you face this problem in your culture/geographical area? What turf wars or stereotypes do you see?
“Culture.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed.
Dining in Utah. 2011. 14 July 2011 < http://www.dininginutah.com/>.
Economic Development Corporation of Utah. Utah Language Skills. 1 Oct. 2009. 14 July 2011 <http://www.edcutah.org/files/Section6_LanguageSkills_09.pdf>.
Fulton, Ben. “Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Golden Years: The Intimacy of Turning 50.” The Salt Lake Tribune 11 July 2011. 14 July 2011 <http://www.sltrib.com>.
Leonard, Wendy. “Utah Scores High in Literacy.” Deseret News 11 July 2011. 14 July 2011 <http://www.deseretnews.com>.