Wisconsin. America’s Dairyland. The Badger State. A land where many of us treat our first trip to Lambeau Field like a coming-of-age rite. We gush about going up north the way our coastal friends might talk about taking a trip to the Hamptons or Napa Valley. And we order our bloody marys so weighed down with garnishes that we have to use two hands to pick them up.
Ask any Wisconsinite what sets us apart from the rest of the country, and odds are good that you’ll be told how nice and down to earth we are. Maybe you’ll also hear something about our sports teams, our state’s natural beauty, our weather-honed hardiness or our drinking culture. The beer flows freely here, and so do the Sconnie stereotypes.
Stereotypes aren’t always a bad thing. They can provide people with a shared sense of identity, a sense of belonging. And Wisconsin’s could certainly be worse (we’re looking at you, New Jersey). But this month, as the eyes of the nation are trained on our state – albeit less intently than we would have preferred with the scaled-back Democratic National Convention – we couldn’t help but wonder what they’ll be expecting to see. Are these stereotypes accurate? And for whom?
SINCE 2017, Wisconsinites have had a useful, if over-the-top, shorthand for our quirks: Charlie Berens’ “Manitowoc Minute” character. The 33-year-old Elm Grove native’s YouTube persona has evolved from a low-rent TV news anchor reporting on distinctly Wisconsin happenings to a singular personification of essential Wisconsin stuff: the earnest-to-a-fault friendliness, beer and old fashioneds, cheese and brats, hunting and the Packers, all delivered with great comedic timing and, y’know, dat exaggerated accent.
Berens, who began his career as an actual newscaster, started working on the persona because he’d gotten tired of repeatedly being told that there was something wrong with the way he talked. “I developed this character embracing everything my bosses would tell me about my accent,” he says. “I doubled down on everything they said was wrong about it.” The result is a caricature of what we think outsiders think of Wisconsinites, but it rings true in Wisconsin, too. Berens sells out live shows across the state and has racked up millions of video views.
“You can leave Wisconsin if you want, but Wisconsin’s coming with you.”
— Charlie Berens
Jim Stingl, who talked to thousands of Wisconsinites over a 40-year journalism career that ended with his retirement from the Journal Sentinel late last year, sees Berens’ character as a sympathetic portrayal. “It doesn’t exactly make us look sophisticated, but I don’t think Wisconsinites care if we look or sound sophisticated,” Stingl says. “I think he brings out what makes us good and kind and genuine.”
Berens isn’t surprised that Wisconsinites are eager to laugh at themselves – or, at least, a camo-wearing, Packers-worshipping, “ah cripes” version of themselves. “This isn’t a state that takes itself too seriously,” he says. “This is a state that wears Cheeseheads to funerals and is unapologetic about it.”
IN THAT SENSE, the stereotype that people here are good-natured and friendly contains at least a kernel of truth.
“I can tell you that the idea of ‘Midwest nice’ is real,” Angela Daimani says. The NEWaukee co-founder, who lived on the East and West coasts before moving here, admits that it took her some time to adjust to all the friendliness. “I remember when I first moved here being kinda creeped out. I’d walk around the neighborhood, and people would say hi, and I’d be like ‘Why is everyone trying to talk to me?’” But now she feels just as disconcerted when she visits friends or family on the coasts, and no one tries to make conversation with her while she’s pumping gas.
Being friendly and neighborly doesn’t mean being a pushover – particularly among Wisconsin women, says Deb Carey, who with her husband founded one of Wisconsin’s most celebrated businesses, New Glarus Brewing. “Don’t misunderstand my ‘nice’ as being soft,” Carey says. “We’re not a bunch of cream puffs.”
Tara Draper, a small-business owner in the Wisconsin Dells area, travels regularly and has also gotten the impression that people here are friendlier than most. She may be right, too. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service’s latest data, Wisconsinites volunteer more than people living in all but two other states (now we’re looking at you, Minnesota and Utah). And researchers from Cambridge University, who spent six years conducting over 600,000 personality tests around the U.S., found that we’re also among the most extroverted and agreeable people in the country.
Could that be a function of our surroundings? Draper feels fortunate to live near so many bodies of water, forests and unique geological formations and considers an appreciation of our state’s natural beauty another one of our defining characteristics. “It’s something that I’m thankful for every day,” she says. “The day the government mandated that we shut down our restaurant because of the pandemic, I took my daughter to the river with some bread. The sun was shining on us, there were all these ducks around us, and I knew that everything was going to be OK. It felt really good to connect with nature at that point.”
Milwaukee-based historian John Gurda agrees that our attachment to the land around us is strong. “We have probably the country’s most distinguished assembly of conservationists, going all the way back to John Muir and Aldo Leopold.” Muir, who co-founded the Sierra Club, began studying botany at the University of Wisconsin in the 1860s. And Leopold, a pioneer of environmentalism, taught there in the 1930s. Both men were influenced by the beauty of the land where they lived. And both, in turn, inspired future generations of Wisconsinites to continue to protect the state’s natural resources. Earth Day was founded by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, and even today, the state ranks higher than most in terms of environmental consciousness. And, if the number of locals whose eyes light up when they talk about going “up north” is any indication, it will continue to do so for many years to come.
“Keep ‘er movin’!”
— Charlie Berens
Gurda also thinks that the state’s unique political landscape has helped shape our sense of identity. “There’s a tradition of liberalism, progressivism,” he says. Milwaukee is still the only major American city to have elected a socialist mayor. And the progressive La Follette family shaped Wisconsin politics for generations. But he’s also quick to point out longtime, strong conservative support, too. Robert M. La Follette Jr. was succeeded in the U.S. Senate by red-baiting Joseph McCarthy. And, more recently, the nation watched as Gov. Scott Walker gutted public employee unions, causing massive protests at the Capitol in 2011, and again this year when state legislators refused to postpone the April election during the COVID-19 crisis.
“There’s a bifurcated political personality,” Gurda acknowledges. But he also believes that red and blue voters still have much in common and that differences between our state’s generally left-leaning cities and right-leaning rural areas are exaggerated. “Even though the cities have been more likely to vote Democratic, there’ve been pockets of Democratic voters further north,” he says. “Certainly there’s a huge summer population of urban Wisconsinites who absolutely love to spend time in rural Wisconsin, and by the same token, loyal Brewers fans come down for games in Miller Park. I would hesitate to underline the divisions and stress more the commonalities.”
MUCH OF WHAT we think of as Wisconsin cultural identity today owes heavily to its history as an immigrant state. That identity is displayed to the legions of Wisconsin schoolchildren who take field trips to the state’s biggest city to visit its largest museum.
For four decades, the Milwaukee Public Museum’s European Village exhibit has showcased the immigrant communities that shaped our state’s population: Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Swiss, German. Of course, there’s something all the communities in this exhibit share. The name gives it away.
This most romanticized era of Wisconsin immigration centers on the period up to about the 1920s – around the time European immigration largely ended, notes Sergio González, assistant professor of Latinx studies at Marquette University. It’s the era that shaped our state’s enduring love of dairy, beer and sausage, and it was largely an economic boom period for Milwaukee and much of the state.
— Charlie Berens
Of course, this ignores the centuries of Native habitation of Wisconsin before it. And González says it also excludes the past century’s significant influx of new residents – and their economic and cultural contributions – from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Latinos, he says, were invited to the state as workers but haven’t been fully included in its “social fabric,” nor its economic and political power structures.
Many white Wisconsinites, who make up 87% of the state’s population, have not fully welcomed immigrants into their communities, González says. And many have shown even less hospitality to Black Americans who moved here in large numbers beginning in the 1960s – Milwaukee’s part in the Great Migration.
“Wisconsin’s sense of identity was framed and shaped centuries ago, and it hasn’t deviated from that. It’s not an inclusive identity,” says Earl Ingram, host of “The Earl Ingram Show” on local station Talk 101.7 FM. “If the majority rules, as it does in America, and the majority is white, they rule. It’s a harsh reality, but it is a reality.”
Ingram has lived in Milwaukee all his life, and he says that little has changed for the city’s Black residents in recent decades. “I was a product of the civil rights struggle and lived through the belief that somehow things were going to improve. And I’ll say that there’s been some improvement, but not to the degree that should be.”
Another lifelong Milwaukeean, 45-year-old William Richardson, grew up in a diverse neighborhood with diverse schools and diverse relationships. “I was experiencing three separate cultures that I wouldn’t fully understand until I got older,” he says. “The culture of my relatives, Black and Southern; the culture of Wisconsin’s fish fries and Dairyland sensibilities; and the culture of growing up in a city that has often been labeled one of America’s most segregated.”
Today, his life blends all those experiences. He attends Juneteenth festivities on Third Street but also Summerfest and the State Fair. Speed Queen Bar-B-Q is in his regular night-out rotation, but so are countless Friday-night perch dinners. His favorite cocktail is an old fashioned. And Richardson is a huge fan of all Wisconsin sports teams. He fondly recalls a trip to Lambeau Field last year during which he and two white friends ate kringle on the drive north, tailgated and enjoyed the UW Marching Band’s pregame and halftime performances.
“This isn’t a state that takes itself too seriously. This is a state that wears Cheeseheads to funerals and is unapologetic about it.”
— Charlie Berens
Still, the notion of “Wisconsin nice” can ring hollow for people of color, especially in less diverse parts of the state. He describes his Wisconsin experience as a Black man – up-close use of the N-word by white people, police harassment – as typical for people who look like him.
Pao Lor, a longtime school administrator and coach in northeastern Wisconsin who’s now an education professor at UW-Green Bay, saw many of his fellow members of the state’s immigrant Hmong community feel welcomed to Wisconsin and adopt many facets of the Eurocentric Sconnie culture. They became deer hunters, Packers fans. “People were friendly to a great extent. Those are some of the things that we were defined by,” he says. There was a confidence that Wisconsin’s long-established progressive culture would carry the day over the challenges any immigrant community faces.
But, Lor says, that began to change recently. “I think the political climate in the last 10 years revealed certain aspects of Wisconsin that were not as welcoming,” he says. “I think it’s hard for someone from a minority background to regain that trust.”
He cites the policies and divisiveness stoked by Walker and President Donald Trump as contributing to that feeling. “When you look at the Hmong American experience, I believe that it’s for the better. In the past, our views of the United States were too idealistic or naive,” Lor says. “At the same time, as long as we can do this in a civilized manner, maybe this is a phase that we’re going through. Maybe many of us can reflect on this and see what we’ve learned and use that to improve the country and improve humanity.”
González cites sports, specifically the Milwaukee Brewers, as a sturdy bridge between more recent Latinx immigrants and the traditional Wisconsin culture. “The misnomer is to think that arriving communities have no interest in becoming Wisconsinites, whether that is transforming the state’s culture but also very much enjoying and practicing the state’s history, traditions and cultures,” he says. “They want to feel like it’s their right to be part of that tradition, part of that conversation, part of the celebration.”
THESE QUESTIONS ABOUT Wisconsin’s identity have been on the mind of Michael Perry, whose writing and humor could be seen as a less gonzo version of Berens’ Wisconsin essence, for years. He grew up against the classic America’s Dairyland backdrop: a farm in northwestern Wisconsin. It wasn’t until later in life that his world widened, and he realized that his bit about the Lutheran Ladies Knitting Club wasn’t going to resonate with every audience – and why. His worldview, even within Wisconsin, was not as absolute as he once thought.
“It’s not that the red barn and the black and white cows weren’t a real thing and that they weren’t a big part of Wisconsin culture. It’s just that they were not as definitive as we allowed ourselves to believe,” Perry says. “It’s not about rejecting that image, but it certainly is about putting it in its place and being more inclusive.”
The state already has community-minded instincts; they just need a bigger tent, Gurda says. “If you have a strong sense of us you have a strong sense of them,” he says. “In Wisconsin, with so many European ethnicities, there’s been a strong sense of identity within those groups. We need to widen the definition of us to include more recent arrivals.”
Adds González: “All of these different aspects of what we think about Milwaukee or Wisconsin, immigrant communities are very interested in being a part of it, but they have to do it on their own terms. It can’t be a question of assimilation and integration, where people are forced to give up who they are as well.”
Projecting this more diverse (and accurate) Wisconsin identity could be easier as the state produces more home-grown media. “When I was trying to make it as an entertainer, or even in the news, I always thought I had to leave the Midwest to do it,” Berens says. “It’s exciting to see so many entertainment hubs pop up in the Midwest. Nō Studios is doing a great job of creating a sort of creative ecosystem. And I don’t think there’s any reason that more content can’t be made here. And there could be a wide array of voices. Not just my voice.”
One thing that most of the people we talked to for this story made clear was that they like it here. Sometimes, it’s a “warts and all” type statement. “I don’t hate Milwaukee or Wisconsin,” Richardson says. “I’m quite proud to be from the former and tend to be a cheerleader for the latter.”
Others would rather live no other place, period. “From the bottom of my toes, I love this state,” Carey says. “I don’t think there’s a better place in the world, and I have been all over the world. Wisconsin is a rich economy of people who are kind and hardworking and open to ideas and other people and are self-effacing and big enough to be kind to others. I think those things are what make Wisconsin an amazing place to live.”