When I first moved to LA, I was super hyper crazy conscious of not looking like a racist. Australia is often called the Sunburnt country but I think of it as being more like Sunbleached. It’s darn white Down Under. We have a huge European population who came out after the war and loads of Vietnamese and Thai who kicked in during the 70s. And you better recognize the Chinese; they’ve been Australians since the 1899 Gold rush.
But when it comes to finding the black people in Australia you’re scratching pretty hard. Our decimated indigenous population is marginalized and lives in suburbs no one else goes to. Most Australians have only seen Aboriginals at the movies or dancing round fires on Qantas commercials. And if you’re black and from overseas you’re either a doorman or a model.
On the other side of things, I used to live in South Africa and there everyone says “black” and “white”, no matter if they’re black or white.
But as I rang the doorbell of America and was waved inside, I wanted to make a good impression. I know I can say “White”. I know I can say “Latino”. I don’t know if I can say “Black”. Right at the point where I’d want to, my guilt addled white brain would nudge me to “African-American”.
Here’s the dilemma. When I say “black”, even in my thickest Australian accent, no matter how hard I try, I hear the echo of bad times. I feel like I may as well put on a KKK outfit and hoist me a burning cross.
“African-American” on the other hand just sounds so cloyingly PC that it’s unreal. Like people who lisp when they say “Barcelona”. I get why the term exists. It’s extremely powerful. It claims a right to a place in this country and a sense of pride. Both good things. But like all good things, it feels like its time has passed. I hear Italian-American, I hear Chinese-American, I don’t hear Caucasian-American. And I sure don’t hear anyone refer to me as Caucasian-Australian.
So I ask a Black/African-American friend of mine when I first arrive which is the correct one to use in LA in 2006. Her answer took me by surprise, “I would say Black, but you would say African-American”. And then she laughed, because she realized that she wasn’t joking.
Great. So of the two terms on offer, one makes me feel embarrassed, the other makes me feels awkward. And since that’s being perpetuated, it strikes me more like revenge than equality.
Then that new guy got into office.
I remember the first time I read that America could possibly have a “Black President”. I read it. Then re-read it. Then listened for the explosions … that never came. Apparently, Black was an OK word now. Thinking back, I never really heard Obama referred to as the first African-American President. Though ironically, with Kenyan and Texan parents, if he’s not African-American, then no one is.
Though we’re all getting used to seeing him now, I still sometimes can’t believe that he’s really the guy running the country. It’s a funny thing about America, just when you’re ready to write the whole place off as being lost in some puritanical 1950’s dark ages lost cause time warp of fundamentalist mire, they do something that puts them light years ahead of the rest of the world. And everyone follows their lead.
All over the globe, people marvel at the fact that a guy from the fourth largest racial group in the country won the election. In America, Black people are outnumbered by Whites, Hispanics and Asians. And yet, he’s the guy in the Oval Office.
For a Turk in Germany, an Indian in Singapore, a Colored in South Africa, a woman in Iran and so on, the world changed because they now think that it’s possible for them to be something more than they ever dreamed.
Back here in the States, it’s also changed something else that no one really thought about.
I was talking to another black friend of mine here in LA and I was asking him how it was all going since Obama put basketball hoops up on the White House tennis courts.
BF: It’s kinda weird actually.
ME: How so?
BF: Well, when I walk around now, white people say hello to me.
ME: That’s new?
BF: No, but before when they said hello, it really meant, “Hello, I see you walking around my neighborhood and I want you to know that I see you,” kind of shit.
ME: And now?
BF: Now it’s like they’re happy to see me.
ME: How are those incidents of inter-racial high-fiving?
BF: That shit’s through the roof!
ME: I’ve got bad news for you my friend. Black people have lost their edge.
BF: What!? No man.
ME: No really dude, it’s over. You lost your cache, your cool, your props.
I had to sit him down and explain that in Australia I watched the status of Gays go from underdog cool, to decriminalized, to pretty normal to the most boring topic of conversation at a dinner party. Sometimes what you ask for doesn’t taste the way you think it will.
Ipso facto, African-American paradigms and states of being post-Obama. Or more basically, Obama’s fucked it for black people in America. When you go corporate, you lose the street. It won’t change overnight, but mark my words this is the beginning of the end. Make way, here come the Mexicans.