Colour blind: Uniqueness vs. the black spot of race
I hope Barack Obama instead of being an African American president becomes the change president that resonates not only to Americans, but also to places like the Netherlands and beyond, says Eritrean expat Kookie Habtegaber.
For those people whose past and present has been impacted by the foreign policy of the United States of America, following the politics of this powerful country is nothing new. Perhaps one can even say many outside America know more about these policies than the average American who is not affected by it except when a costly war is waged.
Coming from the country where American foreign policy has meant I could not grow up being spoiled by my grandparents, or knowing my family and relatives, who were embroiled in a 30-year struggle for independence, you can imagine politics has never been far away from my table or from that of the Eritrean people. Either democrats or republicans, US policy towards the Eritrean people has been more or less unconstructive to say the least. But for the first time this year, I read about Eritreans organising, aside for Eritrean causes, and the birth of ‘Eritreans For Obama’. And when my friends here, apolitical and with a huge apathy to politics, started watching Obama on CNN and the campaign trail with devotion, I knew something was in the making. The more I followed the elections, the more I was wondering about the unique factor and many questions came up.
‘Why is such unprecedented support for Obama?’ I asked myself.
Is it because he is black? But, actually is he black, or African American, or European American? The uniqueness of Barack Obama has been mentioned so often as the first African American Black president.
Why, in America, the self-proclaimed vanguard of democracies and the land of the free, is it still a unique milestone that an American with a Kenyan father runs for presidency? Isn’t equality of human beings the basis for democracy?
And why is he being identified by the colour of his father and not necessarily his mother’s? Patriarchal tendencies? What if he identifies more with the whiteness of his mom? After all, he spent more time with the white part of his family than his African side. And, what if he didn’t have chocolate skin colour, but looked more like the cream white of his mother? Would he still be an African American or something else?
And finally, what if he does not identify with any of the above? Colour blind, so to say. What if Barack identifies with his experiences rather than his skin colour? I never knew I had a skin colour identifying me as different and black until I visited America at the age of 13. And yet I was raised in Africa.
I never understood the prefixes either. Why can’t there be just plain Americans? Not (Chinese, Japanese, African, Mexican etc) Americans? Who are the Americans without prefixes then? In a country where patriotism runs in the blood, these prefixes are baffling.
Here in the Netherlands, putting prefixes to identify 2nd and 3rd and probably 4th generation of children born to labour migrants who came in the 50s and 60s has had a damaging impact. These kids know no other country than which they are born into, but partly they are raised with a culture that is often very different from the dominant one. And so these young people struggle to identify themselves. Society demands they assimilate while at the same time these prefixes disenfranchise them, depicting them as different because of the ethnicity of their parents and grandparents. Decades later, they are still Turkish-Dutch, Moroccan-Dutch, Indonesian-Dutch etc, except maybe if they become an outstanding athlete, then they quickly befit a ‘Dutch athlete with a Kenyan origin’ such as Lornah Kiplagat, world champion half –marathon. Her Dutch passport is younger than many of these kids.
Putting people in a box will not move us forward, be it a box we jump into ourselves. I hope Barack Obama instead of being an African American president becomes the change president that resonates not only to Americans, but also to places like the Netherlands and beyond.
Madeline Albright, in a TV show during her visit here to promote her book and Hillary Clinton, said; essentially foreign policy means ‘making other countries do what you want them to do’. While foreign policy has been a top issue during the campaign, discussion about the implications of foreign policy has not gone beyond US’s stances towards Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I have not seen or read hardly any public discussion by the candidates or the US media on what actually this foreign policy means on the ground. For instance, close to where Obama’s ‘blackness’ comes from, in Somalia, one of the worse humanitarian crisis is taking place and US’s foreign policy in Somalia has made things worse, and is not constructive.
In the name of foreign policy, the US has propped up those who abuse their power, or human rights. How does such a double standard hold up against democratic values? Even Barack Obama in his interview with the CNN, said: ‘We will eliminate him (Osama Bin Laden), kill him and apply the death penalty if necessary (appropriate)’. What about bringing him to justice? Isn’t that what democracy stands for, even if it is our worse enemy? What of all the Christianity morals that have been flying around this election, how does revenge and destroy our enemy fit in, as opposed to turn the other cheek?
Who answers for the suffering and loss of lives that has been caused as the result of Iraq’s invasion or in the name of foreign policy elsewhere?
The hard reality (not just in the US) is that of double standards, incomplete justice, human rights and democratic processes. Discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, and personal choice still exists. Self-interest and national security will often out weigh fairness and equality.
Nor is producing a lot of white noise about candidates and campaigns a reflection of true democratic process when citizens are genuinely afraid their votes will be stolen or the richest country in the world can’t organise sufficient voting capacity that people have to wait in line for 5 hour before voting.
Despite all of this and for all its flaws, the Obama promise gives a ray of hope and has, to a large extent, diminished apathy of US voters, and giving people the belief they have a say in their future. Those of us abroad hope the message of inclusion and healing will touch and reverberates through US foreign policy as well.
Yes we can - live in peace, share the benefits and challenges of this earth, if we believe in the possibility of shared future where all peoples will be better off. After all, who would not want to live the ‘American Dream’?
5 November 2008
By Kookie Habtegaber, a freelance contributor based in the Netherlands.