You know how embarrassing it is to rep-resent California right now? To see your classmates walking around in Terminator t-shirts and know that the subject of their action-hero apparel—former Mr. Universe, the only man to give birth in Junior, the Kindergarten Cop—has become the leader of your beautiful state? And not only is Arnold our governor, but he competed against porn-stars and hustlers and Gary Coleman to win the seat. Circus is an understatement. The California recall was an absolute disgrace.
And I had been so excited to vote! Naïvely, I forgot that just because I have a voice doesn’t mean it’s going to echo that of the majority. I requested an absentee ballot, opened it one afternoon on a desk cleared specifically for the voting purpose and read the instructions carefully. I was prepared to punch each number a few times if need be—there’d be no hanging chads on my ballot. I combed the pages and pages of gubernatorial candidates, laughing as my eyes passed over the Terminator and on to those whom I perceived to be “worthier” candidates (not by much, I’ll admit, in some cases). I cast my vote and scoffed at the Schwarzenegger supporters who live down the hall: guys from Texas and Wisconsin and Kentucky who presumed to anticipate the results of my election. Two weeks later, I couldn’t believe that Arnold, a man with no platform to speak of but ass-grabbing, had garnered the most support from my fellow Californians. Apparently they’d all seen Total Recall.
“Where do you live?” asks the woman seated next to me on the plane.
Forget loyalty; my goal is to save face. I put on my best Southern accent and smile sweetly: “North Carolina.”
Six months ago I didn’t know what to expect from life in the South. I braced myself for the expected “lack of diversity” and prepared to face conservative hoards and Confederate flags. Granted, North Carolina is not considered Deep South. I’ve even heard it described as “a veil of humility between two peaks of arrogance [Virginia and South Carolina].” It does, however, share its agrarian past and legacy of slaveholding with other typical Southern states. And though it was the last to join the Confederacy in 1861, North Carolina is still dealing with the repercussions of a long, sordid, post-Civil War Reconstruction.
The similarities between North Carolina and the stereotypical Deep South, however, end there. As photojournalist John Herbers describes, “No state is more difficult to understand—to arrive at the essence of how it got to be what it is—because [North Carolina] is vastly different not only from states in other regions but from other Southern states as well.” North Carolina is one of America’s most industrialized states and is home to the Research Triangle, a technology center that rivals the Silicon Valley. Charlotte is a national banking center. Last year, while Alabama Governor Bob Riley was dealing with Taylor County High School’s first integrated prom, North Carolina’s Mike Easley focused on education, health care, and reduction of air pollutants from coal-fired power plants.
Not that North Carolina is some sort of Eden on the Eastern Seaboard. Though I’ve never heard of segregated proms in Raleigh, there is of course the question of a racial divide. But after living in the South for just over three months, this Californian is ready to dub “lack-of-diversity” a boon, not a problem. Granted, I have the skewed perspective of a college student living with men and women from all over the world, but I don’t feel particularly out of place even in the cities surrounding Duke. There aren’t as many Indians (I always crack a smile when I meet a Shweta or Shashi who says “ya’ll” and eats at Bojangles), but there are more African-Americans than I have ever seen in the Bay Area. People are conscious of race here; they don’t sugarcoat the issue like we do in California. In California we can hide behind the banner of being “the only state with a non-white majority,” but in doing so we ignore the racism and discrimination that does exist.
When I introduce myself to kids from the Conservative Union as being “kinda from between San Francisco and Berkeley,” their jaws drop in a mixture of horror and fear as they contemplate the liberal shenanigans that must take place in both cities. They don’t realize that UC Berkeley is known more now for computer science than People’s Park.
Californians are expected to be revolutionary, but Southerners are equally radical, maybe more. There’s conflict here: tension, dialogue happening every day in Duke’s fairly mediocre student newspaper between liberal and conservative factions on campus. The university has a much more liberal faculty than student population, so students who lean left are heard loud and clear. And while I know from friends at Cal and Stanford and USF that activism and dialogue are viable parts of their campus lives as well, I can guarantee you get more attention from peers when you are in the minority.
The North Carolina state motto is Esse Quam Videri: “To be, rather than to seem.” And it is. It is a state with real issues and ongoing efforts to forge real solutions. California seems liberal. Seems diverse. But is it really? It goes without saying that California has a rich cultural tradition, educated population, and—until recently—an economy vital to the nation. I don’t presume to know what’s going on in Sacramento, and I’m prepared to give the new governor the benefit of the doubt. My musings may well be seen as the knee-jerk reflex of a young adult who dislikes the complacency of Californian youth but doesn’t understand the complexity of adult decisions. Maybe. But at least I’m not politically apathetic or prepared to accept election results I can’t reconcile. And though I am proud to be a Californian, I can tell ya’ll I’m glad as heck to be in college in the South, where issues are dealt with and governors have platforms and the minority is heard.
As for post-graduate education, I can only speculate—Governator style: I’ll be back … maybe.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a freshman and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.