Don't Mess With Texas
Justin R. Erenkrantz
Social Science Core


This paper will examine the social psychological aspects of in-group bias and stereotypes through the eyes of a Texan. This paper will suggest that there is a correlation between the teaching of Texas history and the in-group bias felt between Texans. This paper will also correlate the stereotypes of Texans to the prevalent media representation of Texans.

I must confess that I am a native Texan. I was born in Texas, and I spent my first sixteen years there. Each person has a special place that they call home - for me, it is Texas. Having now spent time in a variety of other states, I must admit that other regions of our fine country do not identify with their native state as strongly as Texans do. Ohioans typically define themselves as Midwesterners. Californians typically identify themselves with a particular city - Los Angeles or San Francisco perhaps. Why is Texas different? Are there societal differences that we can identify and examine that separate Texans from residents of other states?

A relatively recent area of social psychological behavioral research is in the area of Social Identity Theory. Social Identity Theory was initially proposed by Henri Tajfel and James Turner, and claims that there is a difference between personal relationships and group relationships [TBT79]. Under Social Identity Theory, people act differently depending upon whether they are perceived to be dealing with an individual or with a member of a group of people [Bro00]. In this light, this paper will examine two different societal aspects of the unique Texan experience - the kinship felt between Texans and the external stereotypes of Texans. Furthermore, this paper will suggest a link for the kinship felt by Texans to the state educational requirements as well as suggesting that the stereotypes of Texans has been influenced by the media.

When a Texan meets another Texan, they can immediately forge a common bond. When I left Texas, I received a bumper sticker as a going-away gift from a friend proclaiming that I was a ``Native Texan.'' This bumper sticker acted as instant indication that I was proud to be a native son of Texas even though I was no longer a resident. I did not primarily identify myself as an American who lived in Texas, but rather as a Texan who lived in America. To residents of other states, this may seem a strange juxtaposition of affairs, but I felt that this was a normal state of affairs. This identification lies in the history of Texas which all of us were required to learn in elementary school.

Texas has always separated itself from the rest of the United States. An example of this is in the Texas state flag and the state nickname - ``Lone Star State.'' Like the United States flag, the Texas state flag is the familiar red, white, and blue. However, unlike the United States flag, the Texas state flag only contains one star instead of a star to represent each state. This flag is a reminder to all Texans that we stand alone - Texas does not need anyone else to survive. In Texas, it would be rare to see the United States flag without the Texas state flag flying beneath it.

The word ``Lone'' in the state motto can (and to this particular Texan does) suggests a picture of Sam Houston riding alone on his horse. Every Texan harbors some wish to be identified with this mythical hero of Texas lore. Texans have a desire to be portrayed as those who are willing to face innumerable odds no matter the cost. Texans are conditioned to ``remember the Alamo'' - we wish to honor those who gave their lives for Texas. The sheer amount of state history ingrained upon school-age Texans instills the feeling of superiority of Texas.

It is my belief that the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), a standardized test that students must pass in order to advance to the next grade, and the state guidelines for Texas History education indirectly furthers the in-group biases of Texans. A section of the eighth-grade TAAS test is dedicated to social studies, and the seventh grade curriculum is entirely dedicated to Texas history. On the Texas Education Agency's website, there is a Texas Social Studies Framework which provides guidelines to teachers as to how to best prepare their curriculum for teaching social studies [Ageb]. The following is an excerpt from the Grade 7 checklist for the Texas history curriculum:

(7.3) History. The student understands how individuals, events, and issues related to the Texas Revolution shaped the history of Texas. The student is expected to:

(A) explain the roles played by significant individuals during the Texas Revolution, including George Childress, Lorenzo de Zavala, James Fannin, Sam Houston, Antonio López de Santa Anna, and William B. Travis; and

(B) explain the issues surrounding significant events of the Texas Revolution, including the battle of Gonzales, the siege of the Alamo, the convention of 1836, Fannin's surrender at Goliad, and the battle of San Jacinto. [Agea]

This degree of specificity is replicated for several different periods - before the Texas Revolution, during the Texas Revolution, statehood, reconstruction (the Civil War is covered during United States social studies), and modern-day Texas [Ageb]. The degree of detail and sheer amount of information required for Texas students to learn about their state is almost without precedent in our current educational system. The influence of Texas history can have a lasting impact on the biases of the students produced by that education system.

In 1970, Henri Tajfel performed a study where school-age students sorted pictures into a liked and disliked category [TNJC70]. Then, Tajfel asked the students to resort the pictures based on whether they thought that the picture was from their country or outside of their country. The results of this study indicated that children had an almost overwhelming tendency to identify pictures that they liked with their country. Tajfel also found that as the children matured, the stereotypes for their country increased even further. This study suggests that by exposing the children to these stereotypes at a young age enforces the stereotypes and relevant biases later on in life.

The Texas educational system inundates the children with the almost mythical stories of Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and other Texan heroes. This perpetuates the feeling that Texans are superior to others. Social Identity Theory claims that in-group biases are a direct need to feel superior to another group[Bro00]. By reinforcing such ideals of Texas history at an early age, they are indirectly making Texans feel superior to other states. As suggested by Tajfel, this in-group bias will be with them for the rest of their lives.

As mentioned previously, the other societal aspect that we will examine is external stereotypes of Texans. In early social psychological texts, a stereotype was defined as ``faulty distortions,'' but social psychologists are now starting to believe that stereotypes are an invaluable part of our relationship with groups of which we do not belong [Bro00]. When dealing with such foreign groups, we must have a set of internal rules which lead us to believe how the members of a particular group will act. While it would be ideal to judge each individual person on their own individual merits, recent studies show that the human brain works by connecting known information and inferring unknowns based on known data [LF01]. Since we can not individually encounter each group present in society, we turn towards the media and other mass distribution points to act as information sources about unknown groups.

Without going on a limb, I will propose that the stereotypical Texan is a tall, white cigar-smoking, boot-wielding, Stetson-wearing, engraved-belt-buckle-wearing, Cadillac-driving, money-grubbing oil baron who says ``ya'll'' a lot. While it is certainly feasible that at least one person fitting this description lives in the state of Texas, it does not necessarily mean that only these sort of people live in Texas. Most people will not suggest that the entire state of Texas is populated by such people. However, the first perception when meeting a Texan will be drawn from this stereotype. A particularly interesting source for this stereotype of Texans was J.R. Ewing from the television show Dallas.

The television soap Dallas was ostensibly about the Ewing family - led by the ruthless oil tycoon J.R. Ewing played by native Texan Larry Hagman. However, the television series went a long way to propagating the aforementioned stereotypes of Texans. The family controlled an oil business, Ewing Oil. The Ewing family lived in an immaculate house, Southfork Ranch. For the thirteen years it was on the air, the fictional Ewings defined Texans to those who had never set foot in Texas. However fictional the Ewings might have been, people who watched the show could imagine that most Texans were like the Ewing family.

The interesting point to make about Dallas was that it was not an isolated phenomenon - at the time, most television-owning Americans could claim that they watched Dallas. In 1980, the year that I was born, most of the nation was asking ``Who Shot J.R.?'' Dallas was the first real show with a ``cliff-hanger'' - in March of 1980, J.R. Ewing was shot by an anonymous assailant. The show in which J.R. was shot received the highest ratings for that season [ST]. Over the ensuing eight months, the entire nation was swept up in ``Who Shot J.R.'' mania. During the summer of 1980, J.R. Ewing was on the cover of both People and Time [Hoc]. People started a humorous ``J.R. Ewing for President'' campaign [Hoc]. When the series resumed later that year, over 83 million people tuned into to see who really shot J.R. [Wee]. Entertainment Weekly later proclaimed that this cliff-hanger was the third most important event in the history of television [Wee]. If Dallas had not been as popular as it was, then the stereotype of J.R. Ewing would not still be pervasive.

There should be no question that the stereotype of the ruthless oil man is still present. At a recent oil conference many years after Dallas went off the air, Texas oil men complained how they were being haunted by the mythical J.R. Ewing [Whi98]. As it happened, Larry Hagman was in Abilene a week before this conference and mentioned that many people still treat him as if he were really J.R. Ewing. He remarked that ``only the dumb ones'' thought that Larry Hagman was a ruthless no-good oil tycoon [Whi98]. But, the stigma of J.R. Ewing has also worked in his favor. Hagman recounted a time when he happened to be in Vienna when the annual OPEC meeting was being held. A fellow Texan brought him over to meet the Arab oil barons - the barons asked the actor's advice on the price of oil. They believed that he was J.R. Ewing.

However, these stereotypes are not limited to television. In John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, Steinbeck makes a cross-country trip with a dog, Charley [Ste61]. Even though his own wife is a Texan, John Steinbeck still dreads having to visit Texas. Steinbeck realizes that any visit across America without visiting Texas can not truly be called a a cross-country visit. Therefore, he has no choice but to visit this mystical place.

Steinbeck explains the difference between a Texan living in Texas to a Texan who has since left the state:

0.25in Outside their state I think Texans are a little frightened and very tender in their feelings, and these qualities cause boasting, arrogance, and noisy complacency - the outlets of shy children. At home Texans are none of these things. The ones I know are gracious, friendly, generous, and quiet. [Ste61,202]

Simply by crossing state lines, Texans undergo a metamorphosis unlike residents of other states.  Steinbeck continues and relates being a Texan to being a religion - ``To the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery and paradox'' [Ste61,203]. Steinbeck furthers that this love for Texas is greater than the traditional love for one's state, but is more closely related to the devout worshiping of a religion. He also claims that, ``[t]o attack one Texan is to draw fire from all Texans'' [Ste61,203]. Whether Steinbeck's stereotypes of Texans are correct, as they very well might be, these stereotypes dominate one great American writer's discussion of Texas and Texans.

Whenever politics and Texas collide, the stereotypes of Texas emerge again. Former New York Senator Patrick Moynihan wrote a column in the Washington Post that related a telling anecdote about Hubert H. Humphrey's initial reaction to JFK's assassination in Dallas, Texas in 1963 [Moy91]. The story goes as follows:

0.25in The door opened, and in burst Hubert Humphrey, eyes streaming. He grasped [Ralph] Dungan, who had risen. ``What have they done to us?'' he gasped. ``They,'' of course were those people down in Dallas. No one in particular, just the bunch that never did like Kennedy, one of the or whatever crazed enough to do some cowboy shootout thing.

In the time of the nation's greatest stress, the man would later be Lyndon B. Johnson's Vice-President summed up the feelings of the country - hatred towards Texans for killing their President. Instead of blaming the incident on one particular individual or a group of individuals, the immediate reaction of many was to blame the people of Texas for the death of their beloved leader. Humphrey and others did not stop to consider that Texans had lost their President as well. As outraged as the rest of the country was, Texans might have been even more enraged because it happened in their own state. It should be pointed out that a Texan, Jack Ruby, took revenge upon Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being transferred. But, for many years, people held a strong resentment against Texans because of what happened in Dallas in 1963.

This stereotype can still be found even in present day media reports. Right after the most recent New Hampshire Presidential primary, a Los Angeles Times article written by Claudia Kolker suggested that George W. Bush's Texas values would not go over well in other parts of the country as he embarked on his campaign for Presidency [Kol00]. ``That assured, here-I-am attitude goes over famously well in that state, not just with oilmen and cowboys, but politicians as well'' is one pointedly stereotypical comment about Texas and Texans written by Ms. Kolker. She quotes a former press secretary of LBJ that the downside of being a Texan is the disdain with which many people greet the traditional Texas persona. The press secretary claims that is ``just a part of being overbearing.'' The rest of the article continues in a similar vein portraying the typical Texas stereotypes.

Texans are a fertile ground for social psychological researchers. Texans like to believe that they are special, while others like to believe that Texans are special. This internal and external sense of difference has further fueled the degree by which Texans feel different. It has now reached the point that everyone agrees that Texans are somehow different from the rest of the country. However, it should be pointed out that these biases and stereotypes border on triviality. It would be ludicrous to suggest that there exists a systematic discrimination for or against Texans.

The biases and stereotypes present about Texans are almost comical in their depth. If an in-group bias does exist, it probably stops at the line of pride. It could be suggested that Texans have an enormous sense of pride - in themselves, in their state, and in their country. The motto ``Don't Mess With Texas'' was started as an advertising campaign by the Texas Department of Transportation to remind people not to litter the highways [oT]. This advertising campaign played on the pride of Texans in their home state - they love their state so much that they should not want to ruin it with litter.  There should be absolutely nothing wrong with pride. If residents of other states think that is comical, so be it.


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