Black-white relations dominate discussions of race in America. As Kathryn Schulz wrote in a recent New Yorker article ‘That institution [slavery] was and remains the central moral and political crisis of American history’ I could quite easily suggest how I felt alienated from this because of my Indian heritage, but that would be to occlude the fact of my whiteness or the historical ownership of black people by non-whites. When I lived in the United States I was a participant observer in this dynamic, and while I am not actually white I am most certainly not African American.
In Australia now the question of race focuses mainly on the question of settlement. There is no demographic preponderance of one minority over another, no obvious historical ‘stain’ in quite the same way and so the debate revolves around Indigeneity and occupation. There has been more ink spilled on white guilt, but this has by no means absolved or prohibited people of colour, people like myself, from thinking through and participating in the discourse around our continued presence in a nation whose sovereignty and legitimacy is in doubt. America by contrast never seemed to have an anxiety about its existence when I was there between 2006 and 2008. It had a manifest destiny, which would occasionally be interrupted by lip service about the poor treatment of black folks but not much more.
However, in today’s America, the America of #blacklivesmatter, we might start by asking about settler guilt, including that of black people. People might say that black people didn’t choose to go there. Indeed. But they chose to stay. I did not choose to be born in Australia but I have chosen to stay and that makes me responsible regardless of my race. It is about sovereignty. There has, of course, before and after Marcus Garvey been a question of a return to Africa but that is a peripheral concern. This means people who choose to stay participate in systems of occupation all of which cannot simply be forgotten by an easy race politics, by a narrative that seeks always to be an ‘iron cage’ of oppression. Trauma doesn’t trump trauma, but nor does it erase it. The persistent hegemony of race matters in America though prohibits more than a re-inscription and repetition of many historical antecedents.
Privilege though is about individuals, to which we might cite Ta-Nehisi Coates, and say, his role in Aspen. As Benjamin Wallace Wells writes in ‘The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates’, ‘Aspen is a junket to end all junkets. Tickets cost up to $9,000’. He then quotes Coates as saying:
It would be very easy to come here and then complain about people making me have all these dinners and lunches with sponsors and how I’d much rather be out there standing with the people on 125th and Lenox. But truthfully I’m very happy to be here. It’s very nice.
In other words, Coates is happy with Aspenic capitalism and views being anti-capitalist as easy. It would also be very easy though to ignore being on ‘Indian’ country and forget the way the West, including Aspen, was conquered and is contested. This is why maintaining the conversation that reifies race and ignores settlement is questionable. As the following passage reveals, Coates is not ignorant of America’s origin:
I judged them against the country I knew, which had acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery, against the country whose armies fanned out across the world to extend their dominion.
And yet in the overall assessment one could be forgiven for thinking that the American question is a black and white one, not an empirical concern. Capitalist hegemony whatever its ethnicity or nation should be resisted, and Coates, the new darling, is no exception.
As part of this we might want to de-exceptionalise America. The peculiar institution was not particular and it is a settler colony that can be thought of in some sort of axis with Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and indeed Australia. America is as exceptional as anywhere else. That it has been an empire internally and externally need hardly be mentioned. But as a person of colour who lives in a country not historically my own I need to take responsibility for the being of my occupation. I cannot simply critique white power without addressing the ways in which I am also participating in structures of oppression, structures that are local and global. Black lives matter, but so too does country and nation.
The fact of my Australianness often enabled me to have a different perspective on the United States. Of course, I am not only an Australian. Australianness is part of me but it does not define me. I am also ‘straight’ and ‘male’ and a whole host of other categories that are abstractions, ‘ideal types’ in Max Weber’s definition, yet which matter for the body as a type of shorthand in language games that have material consequences.
In America though my nationality comes to the fore. This was largely because of my spoken accent. Turns of phrase such as ‘heaps’, ‘I reckon’, ‘aggro’ and ‘turn it up’ all marked me as different as did my soft ‘r’ and nasal vowels. I like to think that if I did not speak that I was unnoticeable, that I could pass as an American, precisely because of the demographic openness of embodiment there. Sometimes though it was in my best interests to speak and make it known where I was from. These situations included when I went to black spaces as much as they included being at elite institutions.
I first time I went to the United States was with my family when I was ten. We went to Disneyland and LA, drove to see friends for Thanksgiving in San Francisco and were tourists in Washington DC. I returned again at sixteen for a Global Young Leaders Conference – we spoke at the United Nations and visited the State Department amongst other things. At seventeen, on a gap year, I went by myself and spent four weeks in LA shuttling between South Central and West Hollywood before heading to the Bronx and Manhattan. In 2003 I was a study abroad student at the University of Pennsylvania and lived for a year in a West Philadelphia sharehouse. And I went back to Penn and West Philly between 2006 and 2008 to be a graduate student.
When I lived in Philadelphia, my neighbourhood was a working class black neighbourhood. I moved there because of cheap rent and I lacked any idea of what the place was. It was all America to me, even though I knew the opening lines of the theme song of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and had listened to The Roots, John Coltrane and G Love and the Special Sauce. I vaguely knew of Hall and Oates too. But I did not know about the Liberty Bell or the Declaration of Independence or Ben Franklin or cheesesteaks or the Eagles or MOVE or the fact that almost 400 people a year are murdered inside the city limits. That was new to me.
My Australianness enabled me to access certain places that were off limits for many Americans. I am a person of colour, and proud of that fact, but I seem white upon initial inspection, which I have written about elsewhere. But for everyone in America I was Australian and people were open as long as I could establish that fact. On several occasions I entered places that were not only specifically non-white but also obviously black. These were mainly bars but also barbershops and restaurants.
In West Philadelphia, the drinking scene can be divided three ways, all of which overlap and intersect but not all that often. There are African bars (mainly Ethiopian and Eritrean), white bars (mainly anarchists when I first lived there but gradually gentrified, bourgeois, liberal, craft-beery, increasingly parental, established) and there are black bars, thought of here as African American.
I will never forget walking into a place where every face was black. This was not altogether new for me – I have travelled in sub-Saharan Africa, spent time in South Central and the Bronx and my mother’s family has people with very dark skin – but never had I entered a bar where the music stopped and every pair of eyes turned to me as if to ask ‘what the fuck?’ When it became established though that I was Australian and simply looking for a lager, life returned to something approaching normal. The music started up again. I could become, if not a friend or a community member, then at least someone who was non-threatening. I spent many nights drinking beers in those places. That these spaces mainly correlated with an economics of disadvantage, and hence why I often went there, needs to be mulled over, thought through, unpacked, problematised. My working class experience in America though was an overwhelmingly black one.
By contrast, the spaces of privilege I was in were mainly white, albeit with a significant Jewish presence. Perhaps nowhere was this clearer than my Thanksgivings. I would spend Thanksgiving with family friends at their farm in Virginia. They were Washington insiders who my father had met during his time at Oxford. The main axis of difference between them and me was that I had gone to Penn rather than Harvard. In any case, through them I met Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and Christopher Hitchens. I spent one Thanksgiving evening, and the next day, parked next to Ben Bradlee being regaled by World War II and Kennedy stories. My favourite phrase of his was when he described the navy ship he served on – it was ‘built like a pencil, fast like a bastard’.
These were spaces we associate with power. It wasn’t only holidays though where this happened, but my classes at Penn, which was my professional life and day job. In both spaces though – the black neighbourhood bars and the corridors of power – I was ‘the Australian’ and perhaps such experiences would be irreconcilable except for the fact of America’s settlement. America in its separation and largeness often precludes an ability to code switch, travel, transcend the local. That it is metaphysical and contains multitudes hardly needs be said again.And yet there is an antagonistic collusion that happens between the two groups I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. It is that collusion that prohibits a post-colonial sensibility from being brought into consciousness in such a way that genuinely undermines true enlightenment and advancement. Perhaps we could simply realise that #redcountrymatters.