What is the Midwest? Is Minnesota in it? How about Ohio? Or the Dakotas?
To many Minnesotans, the answers might seem obvious. But there is actually quite a bit of disagreement over which states are truly part of the Midwest. Several people contacted Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune’s community-driven reporting project serving inquisitive readers, for an answer.
On a map, Minnesota appears roughly midway between the coasts, surrounded by a cluster of states far from either ocean. Minnesota is in the approximate center of the Central Time Zone. The Mississippi River, long the symbolic dividing line between “the East” and “the West,” runs through Minnesota. Minnesotans speak in the Midwestern vernacular — for example, we call carbonated soft drinks “pop.”
Defining the Midwest, it turns out, is not as geographically simple as it might seem. In fact, it’s not even entirely about geography.
In 2016, the news-explainer website Vox invited readers to name the states that they think compose the Midwest. States receiving the most votes were Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and both Dakotas.
Those are the same states the U.S. Census Bureau, which divides the country into four regions, refers to as the Midwest.
In a recent (and ongoing) poll by the online publication CityLab, readers who identify as Midwestern were asked where they live. Respondents supplied ZIP codes, not states, so the resulting map includes numerous scattered blobs, mostly surrounding cities. But they’re also concentrated in those same states.
Yet some places have fuzzier identities, noted David Montgomery, the St. Paul-based CityLab journalist who conducted the survey. Cities such as Pittsburgh, Louisville, Oklahoma City and Rapid City, S.D., are considered sort of Midwestern but are also associated with other regions of the country.
Which brings us to a definition of “the Midwest” that isn’t a clump of states, but a land of specific demographics, economies, culture or values.
In July, a New York Times editor tweeted that U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., are not “from the Midwest” — despite their actually being, well, from the Midwest. The tweet was widely denounced as racist and the editor was demoted, but the episode showed that there are people who think a Midwestern identity rests on a particular ethnicity or political viewpoint.
What if, instead of shying away from the label, Midwesterners proudly embraced it — but on their own terms? The Midwest is large and contains multitudes: people with Norwegian ancestors and others with Somali ancestors; farm fields as well as skyscrapers; Lizzo and the Chmielewski Funtime Band. Someday the Midwest could be considered so cool that beverage drinkers across the country will even call pop by its correct name.
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