Barack Obama and the Power of Positive Discrimination

 Obama's victory was not just about color - it was all about color. Whether you're black among white, gay among straight, blind among the seeing, one-legged among bipeds, your difference can  become your biggest asset. In a world becoming vanilla with fear, Obama's skin color is his not-so-secret "weapon of mass construction".

AT ELEVEN p.m. last night, when a voice on the TV said evenly, "Barack Obama, is the new president-elect of America" someone downstairs started banging incessantly on a pipe. He or she didn't let up for a full five minutes.

On any other day you'd assume outrage, a wack job or plumbing in dire need of attention. But today, and especially given the predominantly black  neighborhood I'm staying in (near what is called "the projects"), it could only be elation. The elation of a nation that needs change with a capital C.

"People partied hard," said Pei, a friend who cellphoned me a shot she took at 1.18am in Union Square. I switch on my Blackberry and it fills the screen – in the foreground a pair of hands thrust a full page shot of PRESIDENT OBAMA on the cover of The Daily News. It's blurry with movement; you can read "Nation Changes" and that's all, but you get it.

On the cover he looks poised and presidential already - the image of a black world leader isn't unfamiliar. It's just astoundingly unfamiliar if you're talking about the CEO of certain first world countries -  Britain, Australia and the USA are really the only three that spring to my mind.

In the background, you can make out the small figures who have climbed a statue, arms waving and scarves flapping. They're all white. The big face dominating the foreground is black. For me, Pei's grainy cellphone shot is the yin-yang image of the decade.

I opened my Facebook account and the first banner ad that pops is "Interracial Dating Only – Date Black, Asian, Hispanic …"

Black is certainly the new black.

For people who say this race was "never about skin color but the economy", I say, thankfully, it is about skin color.

Obama's youth and scant experience has been cited over and over as reasons to not vote, or perhaps to vote, for him.

Regardless there are no guarantees that whatever he says he can, will or even want to implement, as has been shown time and time again in politics – at least in a democracy.

As Google told me today, "You tend to campaign in black and white. You tend to govern in gray," said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has worked for four presidents, most recently Bush.

We certainly hope he will do something for the economy, but being black, showing the world that the mindset of America has shifted in this symbolic way – is enough to set the ball rolling. And we just needed to get that ball rolling.

You'd think it got rolling with all these fictitious movies showing Morgan Freeman type actors in the role of President, Overlord, King Cop etc. It always seemed like politically correct fantasizing until now.

I say, Barack being black is enough for me.

"But he's not really black," some of you say. Ya, he's black.

He's black enough to do the job, the job of breaking through one more barrier, one more glass ceiling, one more Berlin Wall, one more Iron Curtain, one more velvet rope.  Even more fortuitous, is his middle name Hussein, which he joked about ("when they gave me that name they must never have thought I'd ever be running for President.") This country needed a double/triple/quadruple whammy of a catalyst – now if he'd been female, gay and in a wheelchair too, or just plain Native American … ok, one step at a time.

For the first time skin color is a real advantage, in the same way that being blessed with good looks can make you a movie star, or good calves can make you an athlete good brains can make you a Nobel Laureate. Being different may shut some doors, but can open bigger doors that lead to better places.

So if you want to make a difference, be noticed, be heard, how can you use your God-givens – even ones you see as a disadvantage - to do it?

Go where you're exotic, different, surprising, delighting -  and stay away from where you're not.

Examples:

Years ago I went for a job in the JET program, as a teacher of English in Japan. I made it through 2 interviews, and was then ruled out the moment they saw my picture.  I wasn't offended - being brought up colored in a white country tends to make you philosophical pretty early in life - I simply mused at how yes, if I was a Japanese person living in an essentially racial monoculture, and I'd been bombarded with dreamy imagery of Paul Hoganish crocodile wrestlers and sun-bleached Kylies tossing burgers on the Barbie talking Strine, I'd want that of my Australian English teacher - rather than be taught English by someone who looked like me.

I am not saying this is right and good. I am just saying what is.

"But you don't look Australian," I still get from surprisingly educated people – even though trans-oceanic transportation has been invented for quite some time.

When in Australia on business with our customers, I keep a lower profile, allowing my swashbuckling American colleague to take the floor. It delights the local troops, whereas I risk been seen as operating "above my station."

"It's because you're not exotic in your own backyard," says my ever-wise boss. "But in the USA, you're this Customer Evangelist with incongruous combo of being small and Chinese with a delightful Aussie accent."

For the same reason, our Caucasian-American Sales Rep - who was actually born and raised in Japan - is doing gangbusters in Asia.

Another example:  one of my customers, a Little Person (this is the correct term, dwarf is another) holds a research position working for a local member in the Capitol building – same office as Arnie Schwartzenegger. He was headhunted out of Washington DC. Dan is 4'6" tall. He wears a suit and rides a bike to work in its. Without doubt he's well qualified for the job, but I had to ask him what most wouldn't unless you're an infernal Aussie – has he experienced positive discrimination?

"Oh probably," he laughs, "And everyone in the building knows who I am."

Like Obama, Dan is achieving great things for himself, his community and his minority group. Equal to the politician he works for, he's a catalyst for change in his own swivel chair. Watch Dan in action

Find out where are you different – do you have a wooden leg? Good … work it.  

McCain and Palin put in a fine effort. I learned a lot from listening to them speak, respond on their feet, deal with the unrelenting pressure we put on anyone who dares rise above their station.

But they never really had a chance this time. Barack was a little too black*, and they were just a little too white.

The Galfromdownunder, often barred by doorman even though she loves to dance, once wanted to become a Chinese Suzi Quattro if only to change the then-perception that Asians are just quiet, studious types who are good at math. Lucky she didn't, but she dreams about it …

* I stopped referring to blacks as African Americans after the last two times I did so I was politely told "I'm Jamaican". 

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Walter Jacques

    Lynette,

    Great piece!

    One thing I love about Obama is that he's making our population think about the race issue for the first time in a long time and like we never have before. Acceptance and tolerance of racial differences are growing, if not being celebrated as you point out. We've needed that for a long time in America. Our economy is important, but our character is more important.

    But the piece isn't just about Obama. It's about how race plays into our criteria for making decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether positively or negatively, like your not getting the ESL job in Japan because in that environment you weren't exotic enough. I applaud you for overcoming the societal expectations in one way or another and thriving despite them - or *because* of them as is now the case with the previously disenfranchised becoming the new in-crowd. It's pretty confusing, fluid and nebulous a topic, depending on your background.

    I served 21 years in the military after having been a military brat for another 18 years. I can tell you that in the military, race is essentially a non-issue. In the military we're all Americans, not blacks or whites or yellows. We’re just Americans, all dependent on each other for our very lives. That bond, teamwork, trust and cooperation are absolutely essential - and pretty much guaranteed. If only that mindset would spill over to the civilian world, where we're all Earthlings trying to survive on this small boat that gets smaller by the minute. To quote from Crocodile Dundee, two countries at war are "like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they're on."

    Keep up the great work, and I thank you for sharing your thoughts in whatever medium! I love reading your work!


    Walter