By Jaime Ortega.
Living in Columbus Ohio has helped me understand suspicions I had before of a general problem with racial intolerance.
I remember the nights back in 2005 during buckeye football season when I was speaking Spanish on the phone, and groups of drunken guys would disrespect me and start imitating me in a rather cruel manner.
Many foreign students who attended The Ohio State University would say to me, “Americans are racist, I want to go back home.”
I would reply to my foreign friends, “It’s not Americans but Ohioans. Ohio does not represent all America. Most states in America are very diverse and their people are open-minded and friendly.”
What grabbed my attention when I told a bunch of students at OSU that I planned to travel to Kentucky for the weekend was their immediate judgment of Kentucky as the “worst and most backward state ever.”
They would say stuff like, “Don’t go to Kentucky; it’s racist and weird …”
As I travelled through the Covington area just south of Cincinnati (the border area between Ohio and Kentucky), I felt paranoid from the sayings of the OSU students who advised me.
One thing I remember clearly: when I sat in a restaurant in Ft. Wright, KY, the Kentuckians didn’t stare at me, unlike my experiences in Ohio, and I did not feel constantly monitored or judged.
Instead, they turned out to be very friendly and welcoming people, throughout all the places I travelled in Kentucky.
While I was having a haircut in the city of Lexington, KY, I asked the barber, “Why do people in Ohio think Kentucky is backwards and racist?” She responded with a smile, “Honey … Ohio was almost conceded to Canada.”
The truth is that many outsiders (not all) from Arkansas, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Texas, Maryland, Arizona, Florida … that have lived in Ohio for more than a year feel the same way.
Those that tend to agree Ohio is nice and friendly have only visited the state for less than one week.
One good reason for the apparent close-mindedness people in Columbus suffer was explained by a colleague from California, John Jacobs, a fourth year Psychology major.
“Most Ohioans come from smaller towns were they had no outside interaction with society and diverse communities,” Jacob said. “When they hear a foreign language spoken, it follows an abnormal code of conduct which they didn’t have the luck to grow up with.”
Jacob also said, “It’s not so much that they are racists, but it’s a mixture of xenophobia and racial prejudice.”
Jacobs said that the way Columbus was fractured was a sign of its cultural strangeness.
“Columbus is a unique city in my view, because it’s a wannabe city that tries to be like Chicago, or cities in California or Germany but with the attitude of a watered-down New Yorker. This helps explain why people are honking all the time, but without traffic.”
I spoke to Sandra Williamson from Melbourne, Australia, a Cultural Studies major who visited Ohio State University to apply for their business masters program, but had already lived for a few years in Dublin, Ohio.
“Ohio State University is a top notch school that doesn’t have culturally integrated people to fit the standards of the university,” Williamson said.
“Universities by definition are diverse, but students who normally attend universities are diverse tolerant because they grew up with Mexicans, Blacks and other races,” Williamson said.
“Most kids that attend Ohio State get protective when they see others speak a different language or look a different way, because not knowing how to integrate, they start acting with hate as a natural response.” Williamson added, “Most students at Ohio State will tell you racism is everywhere on campus.”
A professor at Ohio State whose name won’t go on the record said, “When most foreign students come to Ohio State, many feel rejected by students here, and become close-minded and unwilling to become part of the greater American experience.”
“It’s only natural right?” the professor said. “When people feel rejected they become protective as well as unwilling to socialize with others.”
Recently, this year OSU authorities have cracked down on swastika paintings and racist bigotry.
Some students have marched to protest hate crimes, but the students and professors who protested were primarily African American rather than white Caucasians. The OSU hate response has short-lived expectations.
But racism and xenophobia are so visible in Columbus that it is sometimes difficult to draw the lines.
Leticia LeRoy, an old African American lady that takes the number two COTA bus weekly to downtown High Street, told me once, “Even African Americans are racist in this town towards others different than their own. They close themselves to not be part of the whiter community, but have become like them — demeaning a now growing Latino community.” Ms.Leroy added, “It’s a reflection of our Midwestern values.”
If you’re a foreign student that is looking for a University to finish your degree or applying from another state, Ohio State offers a great education and great studying resources. It’s not Harvard, but it funds its programs well enough.
The only backdrop is that the state of Ohio and particularly Columbus are culturally primitive and may feel like a socially backwards place to study for those who are looking for diversity and friendships.
Having racial problems in these modern days and times in a University the size of Ohio State where democracy and freedom of speech are promoted could be worrisome for those who are foreigners or from another state.
My recommendation: If you can support two to three years of disrespect and segregated groups, xenophobia, racism, poor costumer service, the annoyance of cars honking for no reason, and people constantly acting superior to you, then you’ll be fine in Columbus.
But getting your degree at OSU is worth the mental suffering.