Studying Fargo

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Jen Erickson, a University of Oregon anthropology doctoral student, didn’t need to return to Bosnia to find the perfect place to study the culture. She only had to go to Fargo.

The Luverne, Minnesota native spent the 2006-2007 academic year studying Bosnians and Sudanese, who have fled their homeland and settled in a white, Christian community.

She’s been putting her dissertation together, which considers what we think makes for a worthy citizen and why some cultures meet our standard better than others.

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Q: Why Fargo?

A: It started in Bosnia. I lived in bosnia for two years and I learned to speak the Bosnian language. When I came back, I was wondering what I was going to do with my life and I found a job working for Lutheran Social Services in Sioux Falls; I worked as a case manager there for about a year and a half before I went to graduate school. And when I went to graduate school, through various classes and critiquing the discipline of anthropology and having to go elsewhere, I had gone elsewhere, I enjoyed it, it was a wonderful experience, but after working with refugees in the U.S., I decided I should do my doctoral dissertation in my own backyard.

Then I came upon Fargo because the work I did in Bosnia, I worked with a lot of Roma — or gypsies — and over half of the Bosnia refugees in Fargo are actually Roma. But they’re only about 10 percent of the population in Bosnia, so it made a nice comparison to some of my previous work.

Q: Were there things you learned as a case manager here, working with Bosnian refugees, that you didn’t know in Bosnia?

A: Yes, definitely. The connection, the challenges that refugees face in the United States is very different from what Bosnians face in post-war Bosnia, as they were trying to acclimate and adjust to a very consumer-driven society. And the one and only goal of refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S. is pushed toward economic self-sufficiency. And by that they mean economic self-sufficiency from the state; not relying on any welfare, or government handouts, if you will.

I think that was very different for Bosnians, coming from a former Communist country. And then a lot of the Bosnians who had some of the biggest difficulties were those who had been of a middle- or upper-class-level status. Like so many other people coming to the United States, that class status is not acknowledged here. They were kind of all grouped in to this group of refugees.

Q: What was your experience with the Sudanese prior to Fargo?

A: I actually knew almost nothing about Sudan until I started working as a case manager and started working with a lot of Sudanese as clients, and so were a lot of my co-workers at LSS. When I heard about the atrocities that have been happening in Sudan since, basically, the 1950s and how little I knew about it, I was embarrassed for my lack of knowledge, first of all, but then really compelled to continue working with them and really supporting them in various projects that they wanted to do.

As a case worker, I saw that the case workers have a pretty difficult job in that they take clients to schools, medical clinics, welfare agencies, job sites. They’re dealing with family disputes and going to picnics and weddings. And you might be working with half a dozen different cultures or more.

As anthropologists, we really try to get into the deeper aspects of the culture, and so it was a challenge for me to try to do both and show that people in their everyday lives, they’re constantly coming across people from other cultures, whether it’s at work or in schools or at the doctors office or whatever, and I wanted to get at some of those interesting cross-cultural experiences.

Q: You’re not only researching these new cultures, you’re also researching the dominant culture, which in this case is a white, Christian culture. What surprised you the most?

A: I was working with the dominant culture, the Sudanese and Bosnians. I expected to find a lot of racism, and I did. And a lot of xenophobia, kind of fear of these groups coming into Fargo, and I found that. And I documented it.

What was surprising was the really important role of culture — in addition to race — in separating those ideas out. Sudanese faced a great deal of racism for sure. But some of their cultural values were more in line with the dominant culture than the Bosnians.

For example, Sudanese are very Christian and they really strongly believe in the Christian values because of their contact with missionaries in Sudan during the war and in refugee camps in Sudan. And they also have an extremely high value of education. And a lot of them, especially the leaders in the community, are talking about the value of hard work, of education, and Christian values, and that goes well with the dominant culture. And so they’re getting involved in churches, they’re meeting people that way.

Bosnians tend to keep to themselves. They also believe in the value of hard work but they really weren’t touting the benefits of education and civic duty and speaking out about their culture the way the Sudanese were.

And so in some ways, the Bosnian Roma were considered some of the least worthy citizens in Fargo because of this; because of race, but also because of culture, because of everyday aspects of culture … like ideas about the role of education, the role of community and government and so on.

Q: Does the fact they were more of an insular people create the perception that they’re not as worthy a citizen, or were they actually interested in the education of their children and all of these other values?

A: The Muslim Bosnians, who were white Bosnian, they believe in education. They send their children to school. The children sometimes finish high school. Some of them might go on to college. But because they weren’t out there in the community, they blended in a little bit more than other refugees, again, because of their race.

But they didn’t have any sort of community organization, and when they tried to start community organizations, they often failed because of lack of internal cohesion and because Bosniaks — Bosnian Muslims — and Bosnian Roma don’t get along. And there’s a lot of racism against Bosnians by other Bosnians.

Roma, on the other hand, tend to drop out of school at younger ages — before the age of 16 — and a lot of Roma and Bosnians in Fargo are marrying their children, which is a cultural practice, at very young ages. And so child protection, and schools, and police officers, and a lot of different state institutions are getting involved.

And so the Roma are upset because they want to continue a lot of these cultural practices — and they do have a lot of pride in their culture, but it’s not something they want to talk about in public. And so my job, I see kind of over the long term, is to explain both to Roma and these different state institutions, that there’s different ideas about what it means to be a good citizen or a worthy citizen, and especially between the Roma and the dominant culture, they just don’t gel right now because of differences surrounding marriage, children, education, and things like that.

Q: I can’t imagine Fargo changing its definition of a “worthy” citizen. What do you see happening?

A: I think there’s a couple of different things that need to happen and, first of all, I give a lot of kudos to the state institutions and the private institutions, namely Lutheran social services, Cass County social services, the schools, they were really open to letting me come in as a researcher and a lot of them are asking for advice; they want to do something to be more inclusive. The wider society is not going to change, but there’s a lot of advocates for refugees there who are doing their best to help a little bit there.

I think it’s good that someone like me can work with Roma that they don’t need to change everything about their culture; I hope that doesn’t happen. In order to continue to practice their culture, they’re going to have to make some adjustments. If the kids can stay in school at least until they’re 16, they can read and write, that will make rural businesses better. A lot of Roma are practicing the scrap metal business. This can help the business, it also can help maintain cultural values, and things like that. It has to come from both actors. State and private institutions have to adjust a little bit and also Roma have to adjust a little bit as well.

Q: Do you think the dynamic you found would be the same if you went to Pelican Rapids, or the south or west or California, or is this a unique situation for the Red River Valley?

A: It’s both. Fargo and Pelican Rapids would be the same. And I think the Upper Midwest would all be similar. Sioux Falls and Fargo are similar. Minneapolis is a little bit different because it’s a bigger city, it has a little more diversity.

But the thing I found in the Upper Midwest is this thing about niceness. There is a cultural aspect that might be similar to the South, but it’s certainly not the same as the East and West Coasts in terms of modesty — a very Norwegian American concept of modesty — forced modesty, almost. And a politeness. It’s known as Minnesota Nice.

Bosnians — both Romas and Bosniaks — had a problem with this because they’d say things like, ‘I don’t understand why people… they smile all the time and they’re always so nice but we know you’re not really nice. It’s fake nice and they’re actually cold.” And some of the Bosnians said that they thought that some of the people in Fargo are some of the coldest people they’d ever met. And I remember telling this woman, “You know, we’re actually known for being really nice.” And she was, like, “I really don’t see this at all. I see this as only fake nice. I know they don’t like me. I know they hear my accent. I heard this from refugees a lot.”

Q: I know people who moved here from other parts of the country who say the same thing.

A: One of the things I talk about in this dissertation is the people of Fargo — and I think it could be expanded to the wider Midwest, I don’t know about the rest of the country — is that we the people of the Midwest — the white people — don’t have a culture or a race. It just goes without saying, it’s just us. But the refugees have a culture and a race. This is the biggest problem that I saw. So my goal was to say that, no, there is a culture. And it’s a culture that’s shaped very strongly by Christian values, even more specifically, Lutheran values. This idea of niceness, of modesty, of civic duty, of self sufficiency. These are American values, but I think they play out slightly differently in other parts of the country.

So I want to put a name on it and say “we have a culture. We have a race. White is a race” and that needs to be interrogated. Just to make people aware of their own cultural values and system. Maybe that could help a little bit.

Q: This “nice” thing. Where does it rank in the list of values that people use to determine who is a worthy citizen?

A: I think it ranks quite highly on the everyday level and that’s where anthropologists work. I would find in welfare offices, for example, some of the welfare workers that I spoke with say enjoyed working with Sudanese because Sudanese were more “grateful.” They were overtly grateful and nice people to talk to.

If I’m a social worker and I have someone come into my office and say, “thank you so much. I appreciate the time you’re putting into this, if you could do that for me, that would be great…” this is the Midwest way of speaking. That social worker is more likely to give out more benefits… you could provide outside resources more. He or she might be more helpful.

If you’re someone like a Bosnian Roma who comes in and, at times — and I would say this is a cultural strategy — some Romani men have been overtly sexual. Or Roma in general can be very belligerent and say, ‘Listen, this is your job, give me these kind of benefits…” , the social worker is probably not going to respond very well. On this everyday level niceness is very important. That wouldn’t be the same on the East Coast.

Q: When you explain this to them, what is their reaction?

A: I want to be careful that the stereotype doesn’t get out there that the Roma are overly sexual because that’s not true. I do think it’s a strategy, but it’s a cultural strategy like niceness that’s developed over a long period of time. So I don’t think that people… the families that I work with who are Roma don’t necessarily go in and say, “Now we’re going to do this.”

I didn’t actually sit down with them yet. This is a long-term project. I only just recently put this all together. But I would say it’s not an overtly cultural survival mechanism. But with like teachers or doctors, they could say “if you could be more polite to me, you might have more success in getting what you want.”

Q: By going back to your home turf, did you have a sense of ownership toward members of the community that you might not have had if you’d gone to Bosnia or Sudan or anywhere else?

A: Definitely. I was what some people might call an insider. I’m from the region. People know where Luverne is and I was seen as one of them. In other ways, a researcher is always going to be an outsider. But I tried to give back to the community as much as possible. I hadn’t actually lived in Fargo before, so there was plenty about Fargo that I didn’t know. But I grew up in a Norwegian Lutheran American family and I wanted to get at that culture

(For more information about Jen Erickson’s work, see this article in the University of Oregon magazine)

  • bsimon

    Now this is a good slow news day story.

  • Kim E

    Thanks for this article Bob. It’s very interesting to see how cultures react to each other in any situation, but especially in a small rural town like Fargo.