obama mic

As Obama enters the final hours of his 2 terms as president of the United States, social media, news outlets and  facebook feeds are buzzing. Many are heartbroken – they beleieve their country has traded in an articulate, outwardly progressive, intelligent man for someone who embodies an entirely opposing and distasteful set of values. They are fearful for the future.

People generally fall into two main camps with Obama. They love him or they hate him. A few fall into a more nuanced approach . Various marginalised communities measure his Presidency on what his policies specifically did for their community. In the African-American community, several community ‘leaders’ have been outspoken about the fact that Barack did not specifically target the black community with his policies or create any tangible change for them. Indeed, it’s arguable that black people in America and across the world are equally if not more disenfranchised, downtrodden and disrespected post Obama’s presidency as they were before it.

I speak as somewhat of an outsider being Jamaican-British and I acknowledge that it’s a lot easier for me to have an admittedly more impartial, but potentially less accurate analysis as someone who is largely  affected indirectly by American politics.  I will  hesistantly say though,  that I believe anyone who expected Obama to create any real change for the black community was somewhat delusional. Obama, despite the historicity, despite the tears and moments of pride, despite the cute family pictures and swaggalicious YouTube videos, is a politician. Western politicians, especially at senior levels of government, rarely get there by being completely radical and challenging privilege and power. They get there by acquiescing to it. They might appear, like Trump, to say radical things, but they will almost always either be part of or have to acquiesce to a capitalist white supremacist power structure. It doesn’t matter if they fist bump their constituents or tell them they’re building a massive wall to keep out the rapey Mexicans. At some point they will have to make a choice to play the game.

Obama, as the countries first black president had to be even more careful than any of his predecessors that he was playing the game correctly. He was bound by processes of power that meant that half of his congress had values that despite their protestations were  at least partially rooted in maintaining inequality and upholding white male privilege. He had the burden of not only failing himself, but failing the community. There was a burden of collective blackness that whether or not Barack Obama acknowledged, history would force him to carry. Most importantly, he did not win the election on a mandate of black power – the main groups who voted for him were liberal whites. Undoubtedly, black man and women galvanised around him, but the harsh reality is that a community with very  little economic power has very little political power.

I’m not excusing Obama.  He arguably did more for the LGBTQ community than he did directly for the black community. I agree with every analysis that suggests that he didn’t do enough about police brutality or reverse America’s legacy of destructive foreign policy or dismantle a cruel prison industrial compex. He wasn’t enough. I don’t know that America’s first black president was ever really going to be able to play the game and win if he was publicly seen to be considering the needs of his community as paramount in a country where a significant proportion of the population are deeply prejudiced. Simply put, it was never gonna happen.

Real change has rarely come from the top down, but from the bottom up. It’s the people at the bottom who don’t have enough power and privilege  to be  constrained by the courts and the congresses that can push till the top is forced to look down at them for fear of toppling over. It’s the people who have less to lose that often risk everything to try to change their existence. Desperation is often the fuel that changes societies, not comfort. We, black, white, poor, female , other were never going to find a saviour in Obama because had he had been the radical change you were looking for, he wouldn’t have made it that far.

I remember when Obama got elected for the second time. I watched my Dad, a jamaican man who had come to this country in the 1960’s, walked through the streets of Wolverhampton and had rubbish thrown at his head, stand in the corner of my living room and watch as Obama and his family walked out to a crowd of cheering peooe. I saw the emotion on his face. I saw my Mum’s smile when Michelle Obama spoke. And despite being my usual cynical self, I couldn’t deny the messure of pride and relief when I saw the first family. Entirely black, entirely seemingly in love with each other. Secretly, I wanted my own Obama – or at least what he respresented.

The enduring image from his presidency that I will remember is one of a little black boy touching the President’s head as he bent over in the Oval office. He just wanted to know that the President had the same hair he did. We will never know the countless number of black children across the world who were too young to understand the effects of foreign and domestic policy, but old enough to remember that yes, they can. They can be President. And despite the morality or immoralities of the Obama Presidency, that is in itself significant and enduring.

That’s what Obama’s Presidency meant to me. Not a  departure from neo-liberal values, not a politician that I put my faith and trust in, and certainly not someone who was going to usher in a new dawn of equality or progress.

The Bible says ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s. There are some things that belong to the power  structures of this world. Absolute truth, equity , justice, and complete freedom are not those things.Once we recognise that, we can accept Obama for what he was as well as what he wasn’t.

 

white dance

I think there are a fair few white people (and black people) who quietly read my blogs about race and ask some silent questions. Seeing as Black History Month is like Black Christmas – season of goodwill and all, I thought I’d answer some questions. Some serious, some not so serious. Take the answers with a pinch of black salt.

1) “Obama did it why can’t other black people?” aka “If young black men aren’t achieving then could it be that they aren’t working hard enough?”

There are multiple reasons, including the fact that Obama was brought up by his white, middle class mother and grandparents, personal factors like innate ability and a commitment to hard work, and a mixture of luck (or faith, depending on your belief system). And of course, Michelle (#smartbrowngirls rule the world).

Essentially, institutional racism in the school system, employer discrimination, low expectations, socio-economic conditions and the stress of living in society where you are constantly ‘othered’ are all barriers to success. You can google to discover how significant these barriers are. It’s well documented. Can it be done? Of course. Good parenting, a strong community around you that values education (i.e. church community) hard work, and a thick skin can work wonders. But why should Tyrone have to be good to get to the same level Tim, when Tim can get away with being mediocre? I’m fighting for Tyrone to be able to get a a 2:2 as well, and get called to as many interviews as Tim.

2) Who is your black history month hero or heroine?

I think humans are flawed and we shouldn’t place anyone on too high a pedestal. Having said that…..so many. I love Lauryn Hill. That may be surprising, but I think she speaks truth in a way that is really meaningful and considered. Ruby Bridges showed such great strength at such a young age. Paul Bogle – the Jamaican freedom fighter. Mae Jemison, first black female astronaut – black women (women full stop) in technology and science are inspiring because there is so much ground to break. My grandparents and the whole generation that came to England after the war. they broke down so many barriers for us, and they deserve our respect and gratitude.

3) Why are black people better at dancing or singing?

Unfortunately, growing up in church circles, I can tell you with hand on my heart, signed in blood, that a significant proportion of the black community could wake Martin Luther King from his grave with their tuneless wailing. I would agree though, that if you take a random selection of black women and white women, there would probably be more black women who could sing.

The reasons for this are largely cultural. Quite a few black people grow up in church, so they sing often and to a good standard on a fairly regular basis, from a young age.Aside from church, music is integral to many African cultures in a way that it might not be to many Northern European cultures, so white people have less regular exposure to a certain type of music or singing.

Same with dancing. I can’t dance, because my conservative Christian parents weren’t big on grinding, two stepping and the like. Generally though, African derived music tends to have more emphasis on drumming than European music, so with the musical exposure comes a sense of rhythm that some white people seem to lack. That probably translates into being more likely to dance well. White kids who grow up in black neighbourhoods with black friends from a young age tend to have the same dancing abilities as the kids they grew up around from my observation. So, no, there is no innate sense of rhythm that we have. I will admit though, that the first time I saw a room full of white people dancing, I was slightly amused. Talk about pot calling the kettle black.

4) Don’t you think talking about race so much alienates people? 

White racism alienates me from white people. It prevents meaningful friendships, it causes stress in the workplace, it roadblocks potential romantic relationships, and at worse, it kills people. Literally. It is killing little black boys. If they are alienated by me highlighting it, or if other black people are alienated because it makes them uncomfortable, then may I politely suggest that they label themselves as the problem.

5) Do you hate white people?

I’ve answered this in a previous blog post. If you hate someone they have power over you. I resist white supremacy exerting any power over me, and part of me resisting that power, is resisting hate. I believe love will win the final fight. But love can be angry. And injustice makes me angry.

6) Do you think all white people are racist?

I think everyone who lives in this system has adopted white supremacy as their modus operandi unless they make a conscious decision to resist this. Black or white. Racism comes in varying degrees. From the KKK, to the white girl who partly dates black men because it makes her feel a little bit rebellious but does actually love her boyfriend, to the well meaning liberal who loves Obama and asks me how come I’m so ‘articulate’. I think there is a difference between intentional, malicious racism,  and socialised ignorance.

7) Why are black people obsessive about food hygiene?

I don’t want to offend anyone…..but I don’t think this a complete stereotype. From my experience, my white friends seem to not think twice about buying an apple from Asda and eating it on the spot.  My black friends…erm, no, not so much. They want to wash it, sanitise it, peel it or something. Maybe we just feel like our lives are more fragile. *shrugs* White people on average live longer though, so clearly the buy it and bite it tactic is working for y’all.

8) Do you think about being black all the time?

Nope. Especially not if I’m with other black people. If I’m in a environment where everyone is white, I’m often aware of it. And if I’m not, give it a while and someone will undoubtedly say something to make me aware of it.

9)Why can’t white people say nigger when black people can?

Why would you as a white person, whose ancestors have historically used that word while enslaving, beating, raping, or abusing a black person, want the ‘right’ to use it?  Why would you want to use it knowing that people still use it today when trying to abuse or hurt black people?

The fact that you feel indignant about not being able to use it, makes you an extra shady individual. An individual that needs to have a little talk with Jesus. And your black friend that tells you it’s cool has their own issues. I don’t care if you’re a ‘rapper’ or feel like you’re part of the ‘hip-hop community’.

Some young Pakistani people call themselves Paki’s. It’s never entered my head to want to use that word around my Pakistani friends. They have a right as individuals belonging to that community to address themselves however they see fit. If they call each other that, I respectfully listen and then address them by their names. You should do the same.

10) Why do black people like chicken?

Every race of people likes chicken apart from vegetarians.

Any more questions?

beyonce kelly

 

A picture of two different black women.

Sometimes, when I hear the things people say to me, I wonder if this is my real, genuine black life, or the negro fantasy allotted to me in order to provide me with blog post material. Today, whilst minding my own melaninated business, as I often do, one of my brothers from across the ocean (somewhere in Asia) decided to conversate with me. He smiles at me. I give my best “Hey there, how are ya?” smile back.

His face lights up -“You look like Beyonce!” he says, eyes aglow.

For a moment, time stopped. I was trying to figure out if this man was deliberately trying to mock the life God had given me or if he was genuine in this frankly, ridiculous statement. I reflected for a brief moment. I, a dark skinned black women, fully clothed, with a black afro wig on, have some sort of striking similarity to Beyonce, a light skinned black woman, with a waist length straight blonde weave who frequently wears various bikini like garments when she performs. How was this possible? What was he seeing that I was not seeing? I mean there was this mixed race girl on Hollyoaks that someone once said I was the ‘dark skinned’ version of, but that made sense because our facial features were vaguely similar and we both wore the same glasses at the time. But Beyonce? How? Why? Was she just the first black woman he thought of? Was this his way of trying to break the ice?

Another doctor (who happened to also be black) piped up in his defence “Maybe more like Solange” she laughed…..”He doesn’t mean it badly, he’s just a bit insensitive”.

“I really can’t figure out how I look like Beyonce in any way..but I’ll take the compliment..” I replied. And smiled. (see, I am nice to people).

But the ignorance train continued to chug on, all the way to racial insensitivity station. “Where are you from?” he asked. Knowing where this was going, I internally sighed and then replied “Jamaica.” “Are you Rastafarian?” he asked. *insert black woman look of death*. “No. Rastafarians make up like 2% of the Jamaican population, they’re a minority group”. These conversations are such a regular part of my life, that I can’t even get angry anymore. They’re just funny. They’re just hilariously ridiculous. Bless his little cotton socks.

Let me break it down for those of you who are non-black and reading this blog. You might get confused about the different types of black people. You might not know your Beyonce from your Rihanna. Your Ashley Cole from your Barack Obama. Your Alicia Keys from your Leona Lewis. Your Leona Lewis from your Oprah Winfrey. Your Usher from your Pharrell. Your Tyra Banks from your Naomi Campbell. I personally don’t understand this, because out of any ‘race’ of people on the planet, ‘black’ people are probably the most diverse. Single out any Caribbean or African American person, and they’ll probably have at least 10% European blood, some other stuff thrown in, and as many skin shades in their family as gel pen colours in WHS Smith.

Even within Africa, without the extra spicy flavour of slave master that might have been added to the genetic mix, you get Somalians, who look completely different from Bantu people who look very different from Yoruba folk. Hence, we should be some of the easiest people on the whole of the EARTH to differentiate between. However, if you are having difficulty in this respect, I suggest that you refrain from making bold statements such as “You look like Obama”. Nope. Stop. Think. Does this person ACTUALLY look like Obama, or is he the most famous black man you can think of? If it’s the latter, just don’t say anything. Or just smile and say “How’s ya day been?”.

One small step for you. One giant step for race relations.

Have a blessed, racially diverse evening.