Southern Comfort

Of Wildcats and wild assumptions

There we stood Saturday night, my roommate and I, screaming at the screen. My home team, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, had eked out a win against Notre Dame in a game with 20 lead changes and 12 ties, only punching their ticket to the Final Four with six seconds left, and only after pushing me and the rest of their fans to the brink of emotional collapse.

But after my heart rate had returned to resting levels (not for a while), I began thinking about what had just transpired: About 14 million people had their spirits lifted, dashed, and hurled this way and that on account of a game played by just 16 people.

Why does that happen?

For me, it’s personal. I was born in the University of Kentucky’s hospital, my little brothers admire Anthony Davis even more than I do, and from elementary school until the day we graduated, my classmates and I knew that, come March, we could always count on our teachers to cut their lessons short for an SEC tournament game.

But my ardor for the Wildcats this year, and in this tournament, has as much to do with the here and now as it does the then and there. It’s a deeper point that I only realized when I caught myself joking to a friend, “Yeah, there aren’t that many days where it’s great to be a Kentuckian. You take the ones you can get.”


I don’t really believe that, and yet I said it. Why did that happen?

In jokes there are often kernels of truth, sometimes more potent than the bare truths themselves. So if I had to self-psychoanalyze, I’d diagnose an implicit internalization of the campus tendency to see the South (and the Midwest, and all those other states dismissively designated “flyover country”) as inferior.

There is the kind of Australian conception of America as two civilized coasts bridged by a desert wasteland that becomes easy to accede to when 51.5 percent of non-international students at Harvard College come from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California—one sweetened by conceptions of the South as a poor, overweight, stubborn supporter of regressive politics.

But in stereotypes, too, there are often kernels of truth. For the past century, this country has been immersed in cultural wars, first on issues of race, and now on issues of sexual orientation, that have pitted North against South. History has not judged the South kindly for it, and it will not in the future.

But it is when we turn general trends into individualized sanction that things go wrong. Conversations stray from nuanced discussion to, in the recent words of a better writer than I am, “a hilarious device, a dark and farcical tale against which its authors apotheosize themselves.”

I feel the need to counter this hilarious device with either self-deprecating humor or sobering facts. Lexington’s an excellent city of 300,000, I say, with an openly gay Democratic mayor, in a state governed by a Democrat whose champion cause has been Obamacare, in the only Southern state that still has a Democratic-controlled state chamber. But even that has the tinge of original guilt that unsettles me.

Once in my freshman year, I was introduced to a proud New Yorker, a resident of the “The City” as he put it. I revealed my Kentuckian origins, and the conversation immediately ended when he laughed and turned away. Who knows what caused that—perhaps he’s not a fan of Mitch McConnell (just like me)—but what matters was that he turned away.

It’s not that we necessarily need Harvard to admit more than 10 students a year from every small state, but rather, it’s that we not reduce people to their zip code. Unfortunately, not all New Yorkers are immunized from racism and homophobia because of their proximity to Bill de Blasio as much as all Oklahomans are doomed to climate change denial by their association with James Inhofe.

Of course, it’s not just the coastal elites that buy into the Manichaean narrative. To Mike Huckabee, this country is divided into Bubbaville and Bubbleville, with the homier residents of Bubbaville superior to their snobbish, coastal counterparts.

Neither narrative is true. Behind these simplified labels and tropes are identical people, from which no group is better than any other.

Except, of course, the Wildcats.


Idrees M. Kahloon ’16, a Crimson editorial executive, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Dunster House.


Recommended Articles