Why-oming A New Definition of the Term “Cowboy” Can’t Change Its Legacy
There are cowboys out there who echo the conquering-the-west narrative, one of entitlement and legacy and what he is owed.
This is Why-oming, a column by Jenny Tinghui Zhang that explores life as a woman of color in Wyoming, one of the whitest and loneliest places in the United States.
Last December, when my upstairs neighbor was out of town, I received a Facebook message from her boyfriend around 11 p.m. “I’m watching A’s cat while she’s away,” it said. “Want to come up and have a beer?”
I’d only met him once—I’ll call him Garrett—when my neighbor was hosting a housewarming party. (I lived in the basement apartment below her house.) He was a law student, tall and conventionally handsome with the swagger of someone who always got what he wanted. At the party, we’d spoken once, maybe twice.
I replied to his message. “Thanks, but I went out for drinks earlier and am done for the night!” I returned to Facetiming with my partner.
A few minutes later, he messaged me back. “Can I borrow your charger? I left mine at home and I’m at five percent.”
What I should have thought: It’s late at night, I don’t know this guy, I’m alone, I shouldn’t.
What I thought instead: He really needs my help, so I should help.
I shuffled upstairs with the charger in hand, not even bothering to tie my snow boots. At my neighbor’s front door, I knocked three times, blinking to keep the snow out of my eyes.
The sound of heavy footsteps. The door opened, and my neighbor’s boyfriend stared down at me, the whites of his eyes red. Immediately, I smelled the rancor of stale beer and sweat.
Garrett swayed and stumbled towards me, his height casting a shadow in the already dim room. Something was wrong about this entire encounter. I dropped my charger in his palm and quickly turned to leave.
“Wait,” he slurred, his breath sour and hot between us. “Do you want to spend the night with me?”
The door was open, the winter night waiting for me, but I couldn’t move. His question felt like a foreign object skewering my body to the spot.
“You have a girlfriend,” I reminded him pointedly. “And I have a boyfriend.”
He let my protest dissipate before coming closer.
I was keenly aware of how there were no lights on my street, how much taller and broader he was than I; how, in that moment, we were the only two people in this world. He knew that I lived alone in the basement apartment, to which, with one heavy rock or crowbar, he could easily gain access.
The smell of beer was suffocating, his big body, suffocating. In that moment, I felt myself forgetting everything I ever learned about self-defense. I could only think about what I had to do to stay safe.
“I’m sorry,” I said, laughing and backing away from the house. “I’m so flattered! I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.”
I walked backwards all the way down to my apartment to make sure he wasn’t following me. Once inside, I locked the door and crawled into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin. The ceiling creaked under his weight as he walked from room to room. It would be so easy for him to come down and break the glass window on the door. I dug out my pocket knife and put it under my pillow. I slept with the light on.
In the morning, I woke to a new Facebook message from him. “I was really intoxicated last and I’m sorry if I offended you,” it read. “Your charger is on the dryer. Thanks again for your help.”
My first fall semester at the University of Wyoming, I received an email. “Timely Warning: UW Receives Report of Possible Sexual Assault,” said the subject line. I would receive this email six total times over the course of my two years at the university.
Maybe it was shocking to me because of the size of our campus. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, things like sexual assault felt far away in a population of nearly 50,000 students. But at UW, where the student population was just 12,000, six reported sexual assaults seemed astonishingly high.
That night, as I lay in my bed in my basement apartment, eyes widening every time I heard him moving upstairs, I thought about those emails. I had always felt safe when I lived in Austin. Although not as ethnically diverse as Houston, the city has its moments. For one, it remains one of the more progressive cities in Texas. It also prides itself on its “weirdness,” and although that has wavered with the influx of tech companies and Silicon Valley types, the ethos still serves as a backbone for the city’s identity.
As a resident with an eighteen-year tenure, I believed that Austin was mine, as much as everyone else’s. It was where I attended middle school through college, where I cut my teeth on jobs, embarrassments, triumphs, heartbreaks. At least, in Austin, I knew that no one could make me feel small or like I didn’t belong.
But in Wyoming, a state where one of the worst acts of violence against Chinese-Americans took place, a state where a gay student was murdered for being who he was, a state where I got looks whenever I entered into a space , I could not say the same. I was always looking behind me. Not just because I had night classes, or because streetlights were scarce, or because of those sexual assault emails, but because I knew a dooming truth: I was more of a minority here than anywhere I had ever been before. Hate crimes weren’t out of the question in a place that prided itself on insularity, which often got sugarcoated as “quaintness.”
I knew that I should tell my neighbor what her boyfriend did, both as justice for myself and for her. Something told me this wasn’t the first time he had done it, either. If I didn’t at least retaliate, he would continue thinking this behavior was okay.
But every time I thought about telling her, I found myself seized by an overwhelming fear. He knew exactly where I lived, knew the layout of my apartment, knew that the only door I had was one with a big glass window and a flimsy lock on the doorknob. Outside of my small twelve-person grad program cohort, I was entirely alone in Wyoming.
He knew it too, could smell it on me from the way I walked with my head down, earphones jammed in my ears, hands clenched around my keys or my pocket knife inside my coat pockets—the way that you don’t want to be noticed, because you know you’re all too noticeably different.
Between what was right and fear, I chose fear. I chose my own safety over telling the truth. I thought about this every time I saw my neighbor with her boyfriend, every time I heard his voice booming through the ceiling. I could trace his movements based on sound, whether it was from her bedroom to the bathroom, or from the living room to the kitchen. His presence was a constant reminder that the threat would always exist. I hated him for making my home no longer feel like home.
This past year, the University of Wyoming underwent a rebranding, which culminated in a new slogan: “The World Needs More Cowboys.” It proceeded to adorn the campus, splashed across banners, buses, and the billboards you saw entering Laramie. It was met with both enthusiastic support and criticism. The question at hand: Wasn’t the idea of a “cowboy” exclusive?
A handful of professors and students banded together in protest. For them, the image of a cowboy meant someone who was white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, and US-born. “The history of cowboys, of course, is much more diverse than that racially, and presumably also for sexual orientation,” said Christine Porter, an associate professor of kinesiology and health at UW. “But the image—what the word ‘cowboy’ means off the top of almost everybody’s head in the US—is the white, heterosexual male.”
Angela Jaime, director of the program in American Indian studies and a member of the Native American Advisory Committee, added that the term also elicited a negative reaction in the context of Native people and Western expansion. “It becomes incredibly problematic to try to imagine using any of this promotional material when I’m recruiting Native students,” Jaime said . “The term ‘cowboy’ evokes the play time—the racist play time—of cowboys and Indians, right?”
Defenders of the slogan, including the marketing company that created it and former university president Laurie Nichols, responded to the criticism by saying that the campaign’s intent was to take the symbol of the cowboy and modernize it to reflect today’s challenges.
“It redefines what it means to be a Cowboy in this day and age,” Nichols wrote in her statement, “distilling it down to the inner spirit of curiosity and boldness that all who call themselves Cowboys and Cowgirls can identify with—no matter their race or gender, or whether they’re students, employees, alumni or other supporters.”
Nichols started her tenure in 2016 and was the first female president at the 133-year-old university, an eyebrow-raiser when you consider that Wyoming was the first state to let women vote. During her time here, she focused on increasing Native student inclusion and enrollment, expanding services by opening a Native American center. The university also hired a chief diversity officer under her watch. This spring, students, faculty and staff were shocked to learn that Nichols’ contract had not been extended.
“The term ‘cowboy’ evokes the play time—the racist play time—of cowboys and Indians, right?”
Indeed, the marketing material supporting the campaign showed a diverse array of students; promotional videos and images depicted a wide range of ethnicities being “curious” and “bold” against the vast Wyoming landscape. “Ours are diverse cowboys, who come in every sex, shape, color, and creed,” the award-winning video says .
By the campaign’s definition, I should consider myself a cowboy, too. I more than embodied their “redefined” version of a cowboy; I attended the school where the cowboy was the mascot, I had proven myself curious and bold, and now I would eternally carry the phrase, “MFA candidate at the University of Wyoming” in my byline.
But I did not feel like a cowboy. The majority of cowboys I encountered around campus were not what the university was promising. At the gym, I was surrounded by cowboys who were white and male. Driving across town, I saw cowboys who displayed confederate flags on their windows, even though we lived in the mountain west. Trying to be a good neighbor, I met a cowboy who manipulated my benefit of the doubt, a cowboy who made me feel terrified and small.
Which led me to the question: How much can an institution really redefine a myth when they are a living, breathing embodiment of the myth’s truth?
The term “cowboy” comes from an English translation of “vaquero,” a Spanish word for someone who manages cattle while mounted on horseback. First used in print by Jonathan Swift in 1725, it has gone through many iterations as it came to represent an adult cattle handler of the American West. Other variants include “cowhand,” “cowpoke,” “buckaroo,” and “cowpuncher.” Today, “cowboy” is a term common throughout the west, particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
It’s difficult to track racial demographics among those buckaroos and cowpunchers, because cowboys ranked so low in the social structure at the time. Census records suggest that about 15 percent of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry, similar to cowboys of Mexican descent. Other estimates suggest that, in the late nineteenth century, one out of every three cowboys was a Mexican vaquero, and 20 percent may have been African-American.
Still, when we think of a cowboy today, we picture a John Wayne type, someone who is unapologetically male, white, and hypermasculine. Today, they are symbols of old-world resistance. They recall a time of conquerors, aspirational in their self-reliance and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, the kind who take what they want and answer for little.
Most of the cowboys we’ve seen are, well, men. But cowgirls did exist in the nineteenth century, and even more so in the twentieth century. Women often worked alongside men, learning to ride and run the ranch when men went on long cattle drives. Still, their contributions to the west went largely undocumented and today there are few records mentioning girls or women as cowhands. Instead, the cowboy narrative passed down and distilled through popular culture more often reinforces an idea of the maverick bachelor who easily sweeps the girls off their feet.
My neighbor and her boyfriend broke up later that year. I moved out of the basement apartment, after living there for a year and, for the first time, I felt like I could breathe.
During the rest of my time in Wyoming, I saw him all around town. Most graduate students frequented the same one or two bars. Sometimes, it’d be in my favorite karaoke bar. Other times, I would be sitting inside a restaurant or bar or coffee shop, and see him walk by. Once, he saw me in my car and waved, smiling as though we were old friends who shared an inside joke.
It always had the same effect on me, no matter how far removed I was from the incident: a chill down my spine, then a dread and guilt, as though I had somehow been the one in the wrong. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I told him that night.
I was angry at how scared he had made me, how scared he continued to make me. I was angry that his mere presence could affect me while he continued to go about his life unbothered. More than anything, I was angry with myself for not being stronger, for allowing this to happen at all, for not remembering all the things we’ve been told since we were children: to not let the bad men get us.
This past fall, as I watched Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing and later read the news of his confirmation to the Supreme Court, I thought about Garrett again. He was a law student in his second year. This would not be the last time that people like him, I realized, would make a woman feel in danger and think nothing of it.
To him, it was as easy as sending a Facebook message saying, “sorry if I offended you.” To the woman in question, it was months of looking behind her, wondering what if and when, and carrying around a pocket knife that she practiced opening with her thumb in her spare time. Both of us, you could say, are cowboys.
But there is a difference between what a slogan wants to do and what a slogan actually does. There’s the ideal evolution of what it means to be a cowboy, a fearless and innovative representative, a leader and a team player, the embodiment of progress, diversity, and daring to be different. That’s the kind of cowboy the university wants to call its students, and the kind of students the campaign is meant to attract. That’s the image I would want from my school.
But then, there’s the actual Cowboy who currently exists as a majority at the university and in Wyoming. And what being a Cowboy means to him does not line up with a marketing campaign that some ad company in Boulder, Colorado came up with. What I saw in my encounter with Garrett, and embedded in those six reported sexual assault emails, is this: There is a cowboy out there who still echoes the conquering-the-west narrative, one of entitlement and legacy and what he is owed.
There is a cowboy out there who still echoes the conquering-the-west narrative, one of entitlement and legacy and what he is owed.
When a boy grows up alongside a cowboy narrative, who does he become? When a young white man has that narrative reinforced through a slogan that he sees plastered around campus, what does he think? Does he think of the inclusive messaging goal that the marketing campaign is trying to espouse? Or does he feel justified in his behavior, that everything he does can be traced back to “cowboy behavior,” and instead of feeling ashamed or reflective, believes himself good and right and fair?
“The World Needs More Cowboys.” When I drive past the slogan, when I read those words, I can’t help but think of those six emails about sexual assault. I can’t help but think about the way my neighbor’s boyfriend breathed over me that night. How easy it was for him to do that and how easy it was for him to forget.
For him and others like him, the slogan is a sign of encouragement: “The world needs more of you.” For me? I could call myself a cowboy. But I’m not sure I want to.