When I first walked the streets of
New York as a teenager, I felt I was in the movies. The Manhattan skyline,
the snobbish shop girls, the beautifully displayed stuff, wide roads, shoes,
handbags, clothes, furniture, furs and the big cars. Everything was so
shiny. And I was the star.
What do you expect? I was 16. But I
could never keep up that fantasy for long. I felt different then.
Stars were blonde, blue-eyed, had an
American accent, and an easy sense of taking over their space. Coloured,
brown, Indian, Pakistani, the way I felt perceived. I felt self-conscious
buying an ice cream. Agonised in embarrassment over my mother’s sari and
shawl (so different, so NOT normal), my father’s strong Indian accent. I
tried to fit in by wearing jeans and chewing gum.
This morning on my way to the news
stand, I came across a man sitting on the road with a sign “I am a homeless,
hungry white American.” That made me pay attention to how much has changed
since I was a teenager.
He was trying to stand out in an
increasingly colour-blind generation.
I haven’t felt “coloured” for years.
Because this new America virtually belongs to immigrants. I walk past Asian
faces, rounded Latinos, tall Africans. All Americans.
The people in coffee shops,
restaurants, shops, speculate about me the way I do with them. It’s the new
way to meet people.
“What are you?” they ask and you ask
when it’s not absolutely obvious. Arab, Bangladeshi, Yemenite Jew, Indian,
Pakistani, Spanish, Kenyan, West Indian, Eastern European, Cuban?
The Russian hairdresser came for
better money and to get away from Siberian winters.
There is the North Indian family
with the tiny, cheap restaurant where the wife stands cooking all day,
husband stands on the till and the nieces and daughters serve so they can
send dollars home.
The waitress from Barcelona just
finds it less “stressful” economically.
The Italian hairdresser said there
was too much political upheaval in his country.
They may as well have a sign on
their heads saying “It’s about the economics, stupid.”
They don’t look entirely
happy—homesickness emanates from their skins—but they do look like they’ve
escaped something worse and many take an enormous pride in being citizens.
They take pleasure in rolling the words American, like a rich Godiva
The faces on the streets have
shifted from white to every shade of human skin driving the dream of the
civil rights movement to benefit non-white immigrants worldwide, by creating
an increasingly colour-blind American dream.
Enter into this scenario Barack
Obama, a black man with an African father, and a Muslim name. Initially his
opponent John McCain, perhaps relying on the incredulity that many feel at
the possibility of a black president, perhaps because he too is genuinely
colour blind (he has an adopted Bangladeshi daughter), was gracious.
He told off racist small-town white
Americans (the type Ms Palin seems to love. Doggone it) who called Barack an
“Arab.” But then the stock market went and collapsed, and Wall Street’s
voracious greed burst the financial bubble of America (living off credit, an
unbelievable debt of US$465 billion, mortgaging their bonds to the Chinese
to buy oil from the Saudis), which had a domino effect from Europe to India.
Thousands lost jobs, life savings,
businesses, homes, overnight. A great depression trumpeted itself. Fears of
crime rose. I see it on the increasingly dirty streets, the shut shops, the
desperate look on shopkeepers’ faces, the empty stores.
Obama’s response was to unveil a
financial plan, keep his steely eye on the ball, away from responding to
personal attacks to the average “hurting” American people.
The worse the news got, the less
important race became, the better Obama did in the polls. The McCain/Palin
camp in its desperation got uglier, calling out the blood hounds, not only
implying that Obama was not American, but that he was an Anti-American,
worse, a Muslim associated with terrorists.
It backfired. McCain fell further in
the polls. The Americans couldn’t afford to be racist.
After this last debate, with McCain
looking at times like he was about to explode with rage or have a heart
attack, and Obama remaining steely, eye on the economy, on the people, one
foot in firmly in the White House, not blinking at being personally
attacked, shows more than ever that the presidency will be about keeping
this updated American dream intact, not American prejudice.
And when he walks in with his sweet sweet smile into the
White House in a couple of weeks, people worldwide will feel they are
witnessing the rise of a phoenix out of the ashes of the world’s most
powerful country sinking into depression and taking the rest of the globe
down with it.