I, like so many around the world, am pinching myself as Barack Obama is elected the 44th US President.
Obama's realised ambition has sent a ripple of hope through neighbourhoods of “colour” and neighbourhoods where racism still threatens to dwarf self determination and aspiration.
My birthplace, South Africa, made sure I was conscious of my colour and everybody else's. People of mixed blood, "coloured", as my mob were referred, were distinct for all the wrong reasons.
Apartheid was like living at a foreign airport, having to go routinely through the ritual of customs. That ritual is characterised by the assumption of one's criminality, of one's shame or guilt. You approach the desk with all your papers intact but with a sense of being called to prove yourself. You learn to be polite, clear and efficient, because you recognise that the other mob have incredible, unilateral power.
Even though South Africa has now been led for more than a decade by black politicians, many South Africans of mixed heritage can't shake themselves free from the internally held propaganda that they are better off being governed by a white fellah. White fellahs are more competent, more market-driven, more objective.
Ringing in my ears are the comments of a coloured relative during a visit to Durban: "They are taking over" he said, referring to black Africans moving in from outlying areas of the city, taking jobs in the trades once reserved for his more exclusive coloured community. "They are a safety hazard. I tell them 'up' and they say 'down'. They're dangerous and stupid."
He told me how he has a gun and it sits between his legs when he drives his battered BMW about town. Trust is a commodity in short supply.
Trust has been critical to Obama's success but he must recognise that the road ahead will not be easy.
Barack Hussein Obama was not surprised that his name became an irresistible target of mocking websites from overzealous Republicans wanting to falsely link him to the world's most wanted terrorist.
As a person of mixed heritage - with a name that occasionally raises eyebrows in Australia - I understand his expectation. But I reckon the most fascinating element of Obama’s campaign was what he did with his “colour”; how he played it and what the African American community made of him as a Democrat presidential hopeful. That story, his story, may tell us something about what means in contemporary USA to be “black”.
What has made Obama's political trajectory all the more remarkable is NOT that he is black but that colour or race does not define him.
He is the Oprah Winfrey of US politics. Oprah, who has famously endorsed Obama and years before admitted she voted Republican, does not put her colour before her gender. She talks mainly to white women and their pain. Obama's constituency is in large part the same as Oprah's - middle class America. Oprah and Obama are comfortable about their past and do not let colour determine their place in the world.
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