“We need to talk”: How the culture of the White, wealthy Northeast hides from confrontation behind politeness

Art by Audrey Njo

Anxiously watching my phone for a text, I hoped for the best; still, despite my repeated efforts to talk through a recent scuffle with a friend, I couldn’t get so much as a “k.” As a Cuban-American who grew up in Miami, Fla., I really struggled when I came to Tufts to adapt to the student body’s dominant culture surrounding confrontation and conflict. All my life, my Latin American heritage heavily influenced how I handled interpersonal conflict and confrontation. As Cubans, it was always very normal to tell a person straight up what was bothering you, how the way they acted contributed to it, and what you wanted them to do to fix it. Fight it out, then hug and make up—or don’t, but at least both parties say their piece. In the best cases, the talk is followed by an apology and a discussion on next steps for remediation; in the worst cases, everything is laid bare in a fight that leaves you thinking long enough to learn from the situation.

However, coming to Tufts two years ago introduced me for the first time to a culture with which I was very unfamiliar: the White and affluent culture of the American Northeast. For the first year and a half of my time at Tufts, I largely stayed in circles mostly made up of international students, people of color, ethnic minorities, and people from other regions of the US; it wasn’t until I started to make more connections with middle and upper class White students from the Northeast that I began to notice a pattern in my conflicts at school. Time and time again, when these friends and I had disagreements, when someone made an ignorant comment, or even when someone might’ve taken more positionally harmful actions—such as racist or transphobic personal offenses—the responses puzzled me to no end. Rather than sit down and talk things out, assess each party’s involvement in the issue, and attempt to work out a solution, it seemed the overwhelmingly common response was to simply cease communication, avoid each other in the hallways, and drop out of each other’s lives altogether. I thought I was going crazy until I spoke to a therapist who noticed the patterns in the conflicts and suggested that perhaps the issue might be cultural. This idea blew me away, and I set out to analyze it further by asking my friends of color, lower income friends, and friends from other regions and countries about their thoughts. Slowly but surely, the pattern emerged. 

Everyone I spoke to, including some wealthier, White northeasterners themselves, seemed to share the same experience. Through a combination of ghosting, avoidance, and an aversion to deep reflection on identity and action, northeastern individuals within this intersectional niche of wealth and Whiteness repeatedly showed patterns of avoiding in-depth and vulnerable conversations about actions or behaviors that had negatively impacted someone else. And it clearly isn’t just a regional phenomenon; it seemed from my conversations with others that people of color, some ethnic minority communities, and less wealthy individuals from the same areas in the Northeast didn’t exhibit this behavior nearly as often. Whether influenced by community expectations, familial dynamics, or general cultural values, it seems like the normalization of this kind of avoidance of confrontation and interpersonal discomfort is characteristic of this subset of the population. The sentiment was resounding; from every discussion, it almost seemed as though this common tendency was part of an effort to maintain an “unproblematic” persona who can do no wrong. By avoiding the hard conversations about the harm they caused, these individuals could skirt the cognitive dissonance of a challenge to their character, bypassing the need for any shame, apologies, or critical self-reflection (and thus any effort at remediation). The record stays clean—at least from their perspective.

And it’s not just limited to interpersonal dynamics. In the political sphere, this effort to maintain an image as progressive and socially aware pops up everywhere. In American news media, especially in liberal circles, blanket judgment after blanket judgment of the moral character of other regions such as the American South gets hurled across the map. The region frequently gets dismissed as “backwards,” “racist,” or “homophobic,” while many issues that exist in a similar capacity within the Northeast are assumed to be less severe simply because “the North is more progressive”—much like racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia in Europe are dramatically ignored by Western media while they are highlighted in non-White majority countries like Egypt, Uganda, or China. These are often not only mischaracterizations of said regional cultures, but they also entirely dismiss the marginalized populations that exist there who are actually harmed by whatever policies or circumstances are being pointed to as “evidence” for those claims. To be clear, it is true that the Northeast has been a progressive leader in several recent sociopolitical issues such as trans healthcare and reproductive rights, but there is a distinct lack of discussion on many issues that persist in the North, such as voter suppression, police brutality, and wealth disparity. Despite having many of the same problems surrounding race and class as other regions across the country, the North’s reputation stays clean, repeatedly earning titles like “Best States to Live in” in online articles. 

While the region is progressive in some ways, it falls short in others. For example, northeastern states actually tend to fall quite low in standards for racial integration compared to other regions of the country. Perhaps part of this ability to maintain a progressive image is owed to the fact that the Northeast is much less racially diverse and often wealthier on average than other regions of the country; with a lower proportion of marginalized communities in the Northeast, diluting or silencing the issues faced by these communities is significantly easier and thus keeps conversations about racism or other forms of institutional oppression subdued. Meanwhile, though battles over issues of discrimination and legislative oppression in the South have been making headlines, the difficult conversations are being had—both in the news and in the streets. News coverage of these issues, such as abortion bans and anti-trans laws mostly surfacing in Republican-controlled states, is rightly zeroing in on the oppressive language and harmful changes being put forward by these lawmakers. Equally deserving of said coverage, though, is the resounding public reaction against these changes in these same states, such as through blazing commentary on congressional floors or public protests by students and their representatives. When a problem negatively impacts a large enough portion of the population, and they are able to mobilize, ignoring said problem gets significantly harder. 

By avoiding negative press, the Northeast is able to hide from its legacy of racism and xenophobia that is still alive and well. Despite its capital city of Boston’s history as one of the most racist cities in the US over the last several decades, Massachusetts, in my experience, still rarely gets brought up when racism in the states comes up in conversation (especially on campus). Texas, in comparison, tends to bear much more of a reputation despite being the second most diverse state in the country. With so much energy put into maintaining an image of the Northeast as ultra-progressive, very little tangibly stands behind it, creating an echo chamber that redirects all blame and judgment elsewhere. Thus, the Northeast avoids the reputation it deserves much like White northeasterners do: by hiding from discussion of its shortcomings behind a front of progressiveness and faux-politeness.

For students who hail from more openly confrontational cultures, adjusting to this new style of non-confrontational interaction is rough; learning to avoid people in hallways or letting text conversations die off unfinished is a real challenge to the way we’re brought up. Ignoring what’s on our minds leaves us frustrated and without an outlet for the harm caused, whether it’s a simple interpersonal conflict or an instance of discrimination. This forces the individual who suffered that harm to reflect and repeatedly revisit the situation for an answer they will never come to on their own, which in the end still leads to the same outcome: an end to a relationship that in most cases could easily be prevented with a genuine apology and a willingness to put in the work to grow from the situation. 

Every region has its shortcomings and room for improvement, and similarly we as individuals are all constantly growing and learning from our mistakes. Being able to listen to the people in our lives when conflict arises and talk things through is essential to solving small problems now so we have the communication skills to solve big problems later. The message to those who were raised in this culture of avoiding confrontation is simple: don’t fear vulnerability—lean into it. Most problems in life can be fixed with an “I’m sorry” and an open ear.