Travel writer Tom Leaman writes about some of Exeter's lesser-known treasures.Written by Tom Leaman on 6th April 2018
My Complicated Relationship with North Carolina: When Travel and Politics Collide
Travel writer, Iesha, inspired by current global political strife, questions the existing relationship between travel and politics
It’s a typical blustering day in Birmingham, and I find myself aching in nostalgia for a place I visited two years ago. I miss the breeze whipping my hair in an open top Jeep as the sun sets. I miss the days spent carefree with the tide caressing my toes. But then the memory becomes tinged with an unexpected emotion. Guilt. Why? Because the place my heart calls to, is North Carolina, USA. In the past year, and in particular since November, the world has been questioning the cataclysm that is occurring across the Atlantic. How can people vote for him? How on earth did he get elected? But I wasn’t surprised that Trump had resonated with the American public. During my stay, I witnessed pre-Trump Carolina, which was the perfect breeding ground for his policies.
I didn’t travel to South-Eastern NC in ignorance. I was fully aware that this was a ‘Red State’ and that my friends there shared these views. I, however, am what they probably call a ‘goddamn liberal’. My political stance is left of centre, I wholeheartedly support the rights of the LGBT community, I am an atheist, an intersectional feminist and I loathe racism. I knew that some of our ideas clashed. I remember sitting on the 9 hour flight, making a promise to myself, don’t be controversial. Agree to disagree. I figured that I was probably over thinking, and that nothing would come up.
It’s important to note that I interacted with solely white locals of all ages during my time in North Carolina, all of whom welcomed me into their homes and conversations with the infamous southern hospitality. Part of what makes writing this so difficult, is that I feel I am insulting people who have never showed anything but kindness to me. Each person I met in Carolina means so much to me, and I have tremendous respect for them all.
But I was raised to question. I am outspoken and I am not afraid to engage in debate with others, often finding myself disagreeing with friends or family. Nevertheless, I’m British and we don’t talk about taboo subjects because we don’t want to cause upset. A pretty un-American characteristic, where who you vote for and your religion is something you talk about freely. So as I was treated well by the people I encountered for the first time in North Carolina, in the back of my mind, some voice was questioning it.
“As a white, cis and straight woman I asked myself, what if I was gay or transgender? Would I be welcomed with such a kind reception? If people knew the extent of the values I was keeping under wraps, would they be so kind? Prejudices and stereotypes cloud judgement
As I mentioned, I wasn’t surprised that Trump was extremely popular in the US. I firsthand witnessed some racist and homophobic behaviours. I remember scrolling through my Facebook, which came up with the news highlights from the UK, to see that a shooting had taken place, on 17th June in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine African-Americans were shot and killed in a mass attack by a white assailant.
I watched Fox News (quite an experience I must say), and listened to the local radio. I was confused, why wasn’t this the headline news story? Why had I found out about this from my newsfeed from thousands of miles away when Charleston is less than a three-hour drive from where I stayed (which by American standards is practically down the road)? This troubled me. Then, on the 26th June, while I was still in Carolina, a predominantly black church was set on fire in Warrenville, SC, and I heard nothing about it. I may have missed when the news mentioned it, but surely it should be covered more? In the UK, if anything like that occurred, we would be talking about it for weeks. It unsettled me that these racist acts seemed commonplace not far from where I was staying. Unreliable media isn’t exactly a radical concept these days, but nevertheless, I kept waiting to hear something about the attacks. All I heard was silence.
While I was in Carolina, gay marriage became legal in America. Again, I found this out through the reaction of British social media, rather than through the news where the law had been passed. I recall welling up in my bedroom, because I felt that I couldn’t go downstairs and share my joy that finally marriage was available to everyone, but I felt I had to hide my views. This was mainly due to a few conversations that put me in an extremely uncomfortable position. I remember a friend making gagging noises and how the thought of two men having sex revolted them, and everyone laughing. I remember an account of someone being derogatory to black people, another time to Hispanic people. I remember silently seething. How could they say these things, and think it was acceptable? I had heard people say some homophobic things before, but the openness with which subtle racism and homophobia was dropped into conversation really took me aback. It was only a few instances that I personally experienced, but I had the feeling that people held back around me, as not only did my body language probably make it extremely clear that I did not support this ‘banter’, but that my family friends, I am sure know, that I hold ‘liberal’ views. I remember when I let slip at the end of the holiday that I supported LGBT rights, and cursing myself for mentioning it, before quickly changing the subject. I knew they didn’t share my values, and I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position. I didn’t even feel like I could say I admired Obama - when I was asked, I told them I was indifferent.
I am not, by any means, branding the people I met bad people. People in my family hold views I don’t agree with, and I try not to let this cloud my relationship. But my time there made me question, when is it right to raise controversial topics, and when do you say nothing? Am I a coward, for sitting there while people were homophobic, does that make me as bad as them? North Carolina is a truly beautiful and wonderful place that I will always hold close to my heart. But I see the Carolina flag hanging in my room, and think, does it make me a hypocrite that I have the flag of state that shut down the gender neutral bathroom bill about a year ago? A state that voted for a fascist? A place that bans novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Harry Potter in schools?
I am not besmirching the state of North Carolina, the South or America in its entirety. I will not do a Donald and state that an entire collective of people are represented from solely the small group I encountered. I stayed in a largely white community, in the poorest county in the state. My intention is not to generalise and demonise the people I met. But when I saw about a year ago, that Trump was beginning to gain momentum, when so many saw him as a buffoon that nobody would vote for, Trump spoke to a demographic of Americans, people who I had eaten with, conversed with.
Last summer, I was due to return, but glandular fever meant being in hospital rather than Carolina. And with Trump, shootings, and police brutality, it scared me to return. Part of me thought, how could I stand idly by, like the Fox News presenters, as though nothing was wrong, when in particular, the African-American community was being targeted and innocent people dying? Would my acceptance of a country that let this happen make me an accomplice? Could I return to a place where in March 2016, white students at a local high school hung a Confederate flag in the courtyard and cafeteria, and when it was taken down, one student wrapped it around his neck like a cape and ran through the cafeteria, stomped on chocolate milk cartons, yelling “white power!” while being high-fived by other students, was that the place I missed?
Travel has long been intertwined with politics. The recent act that Trump has enforced, banning the freedoms of Muslims in entering the US. Brexit capitalising on hatred of immigrants, and hindering free movement across Europe. Travel will make you experience beliefs that don’t reflect your own. I long to travel to Indonesia and South America, where abortion is illegal – and being pro-choice - will I also feel the same guilt when I eventually travel there?
“Should you avoid travelling when you disagree with the politics of your destination?
But in cutting yourself off, in the refusal to understand and engage with others who don’t think as you do, doesn’t that make us just as bad as people who refuse to speak to Muslims because they think they’re all terrorists? By brandishing those who vote Republican over Democrat, as hateful, does that not make us equally as ignorant?
2016 was horrific for social progress, with Brexit, Trump and Europe’s embarrassing handling of the refugee crisis. What I see around me is people who are desperate to divide. They fear what they don’t understand. I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t make me a bad person. In turn, I do not believe that those who are religious are full of hatred. I see conflicts between people in every corner of this world over our differences. I know Christians, Jews, Muslims, Republicans, Tories, and Brexit supporters. Do our labels define us so much, that we must refuse to engage with those who don’t fit in with us?
I am not condoning the acts or beliefs of those who are fundamentally ignorant. I disagree vehemently with so many of the values that are held in Carolina. I don’t want to pick fights with people, but I don’t want to stay silent. It is so important, to raise the difficult questions, to speak even if your voice shakes. But more than ever, it’s crucial to travel, build not burn bridges and break down walls that seem to pop up both physically and metaphorically.
The possibility, that even in the face of our differences, a friendship can grow, surely this disproves everything that hate fuelled politicians perpetuate? I refuse to let some modern-day McCarthy put up barriers between myself and others. I will see the positives in places so different from the UK, but not ignore the elephant again. Anne Frank, who faced horrors I never will, said ‘in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart’. Politicians are making laws that spawn hate, but I see people across the globe join together in solidarity. No ocean or what person somebody votes for will cloud my judgement. I will try to not be prejudiced against those with whom I disagree, but work towards mutual understanding. But equally, I am determined not to be complacent when I hear or see something I know to be wrong. I will always try to explore the world, and not sit with arrogance believing I know best, knowing that interacting with different cultures broadens the mind and makes you a better person. To understand another culture, another’s viewpoint is the greatest thing about travel, and it’s something I hope will have a greater legacy than the divides that are trying to tear us all apart.