How Obama Changed Perceptions of Black Americans Around the World

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The beginning. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

“If so-and-so wins, I’m leaving the country,” is often what you hear after an election. A hollowed refrain, rarely followed up on, and Canada is probably the better for it. But five months after January 20, 2009 — a day as frigid as an angry mother’s stare, when I stood on the Washington Mall amid the warmth of a million other people, questioning Ms. Aretha Franklin’s hat choice and watching our first black president put his hand on the Lincoln Bible, holding my breath when the Chief Justice made a minor flub — I did, in fact, leave the country.

I left not because I feared what Obama would do to America, but because America had a new visual power to show to the world, and miraculously, he resembled me. The impact of that can never be stressed enough. In my earlier travels, in many places their only exposure to black Americans was sports, music, or movie stars on TV. But once President Obama was elected, the canvas widened; I wanted to see just how far the new landscape might extend.

I moved to China in 2009 for two art residencies and decided to stay. Many of my Chinese friends felt optimistic about President Obama. He represented the unimaginable, and infinite possibilities, something not always felt in their land of Communist Party “strong control.”

Though I’d always been warned (in a racist way) about how racist the Chinese are, I never experienced that while in China. It seemed to be based more on a perception (also racist) in the States about Chinese people. Rather than hearing screams of “Will Smith,” as had often happened in my earlier travels, now I’d hear “Obama” tossed at me, with a welcoming smile and an accompanying peace or thumbs-up sign. That was change.

When President Obama visited Fudan University in Shanghai in November 2009, many Chinese were surprised that he took questions from the students. The notion of a town-hall meeting was completely foreign to them. No one questions the president.

“Do all American presidents do this or is it just because he is Obama?” a friend asked.

“Yes, they all do,” I said, “Just not as well.”

“Yes. He is cool.”

Yes.

At one point, during the bustle of an apartment move, I lost my passport. I had to go to the U.S. embassy to report it and apply for a replacement. On the grounds, a Jeff Koons “Tulips” is forever in bloom. Hundreds of Chinese citizens were standing in line, hoping for a visa, the prospect of America. Citizens are quickly ushered through. After clearing security, I saw a large photograph of President Obama. I knew all of those waiting to get in would see it, too. It’s a small thing, but it pleased me.

But some things hadn’t changed, despite Obama, when it came to being a black American living abroad. Even after years out of this country, I never came to consider myself a Westerner or an expat. I realized those terms, regardless of who was in the seat of power back home, still meant white, both to foreigners and to my fellow countrymen.

Many times while in Beijing, I questioned whether I was becoming racist. Not toward the Chinese, but toward white Americans. In America, or the West in general, I know the history, how to navigate our stained story, of which I am a part. That was not so easily done thousands of miles away. Many white Americans abroad might have taken pride in having Obama as their president in a way that they didn’t with Bush II and won’t with Trump I. But often, whether passing me on the street or sitting on a bar stool next to me, those same white Americans went out of their way not to see me, which, in a city of 21 million Chinese people, was hard to do. Black people, from any country, always gave a passing nod, an acknowledgement that we are few, in a foreign place. The nod says, “I see you.” When it came to white Americans, I often felt as if my presence irritated them. I snapped them out of their pure, exotic experience with China, because as a black American, I was exotic too, just in the wrong locale.

When in foreign lands, I was always aware that I was representing my country, blackness, and, in that, perhaps, even my president. I wasn’t the most powerful man in the world, but I, too, was a visual. But white people didn’t seem to feel the need to represent anything. History told them, no matter where, they could just be.

When President Xi Jinping came into power in 2013, there was a feeling among many Chinese that Obama’s presence on the world stage would encourage the new Communist Party leader to loosen the governmental leash. He did not. After four-and-a-half years, I knew it was time to leave.

I’d gone to Tunisia to work on an art project shortly after the Jasmine Revolution, which began when a fruit vendor set himself on fire after being humiliated by police, and kicked off the Arab Spring. There was a sense of great possibility in Tunis, even levity. They’d overthrown their president and were getting their first glimpse of freedom. I’d met some artists and through them I secured an art residency.

There are very few Americans in this North African country of 11 million, nestled between Algeria and Libya. Unlike the Chinese, who tend to curb their talk of politics, the Tunisians, now free, were quick to speak. Eventually, a friend told me everyone in the village I lived in, El Marsa, just north of downtown, thought I was a spy. Why else, of all places, would a black American decide to come to Tunisia? I had been in China. Check. Now Tunisia. Check. Black president. Check. Spy.

Often, when it pertains to blackness there has to be a reason why you are in a certain place, which has little to do with me, or even our president. It’s because of how we are all initially viewed. Suspect.

Yet ironically, my blackness also kept me safe in Tunis in some ways. Tunisians were not very happy with American policies toward North Africa and the Middle East. The war in Syria and the conflict in neighboring Libya had a direct impact on their lives. Though everyone now had to walk through airport-like security simply to enter the nearest supermarket, I never felt any anti-American sentiment toward me. “Because you are black,” said a friend.

At the same time my Americanness spared me much of the racism that other blacks in Tunisia felt every day. Despite living in a North African country, many Tunisians didn’t consider themselves African, because African means black. “We are racist, yes, more than ever because more blacks” — from countries like Ivory Coast and Nigeria — “are coming in,” a Tunisian friend told me. “But it is different for you here. You are American.” There was nothing President Obama could do to change perceptions like that, just as it was becoming clear that there was little he could do to change many Americans’ fraudulent parsing of his identity.

America is a young and hopeful nation. For many places, steeped in centuries of cultural norms and the mental toll rooted therein, hope seems naïve. I could be down to my last pack of ramen noodles, not knowing when the next would come, but when things weren’t going well for my friends in China or Tunisia, I’d try to encourage them by saying, “It’ll work out.” In response, they’d often look at me, eyes clearly saying, like three pitying pats on the shoulder, “Oh, you Americans and your hope.” In those moments, even I had to recognize my American entitlement.

I returned to New York six months ago with the same two duffel bags I’d left with seven years ago. I was pleased to be home and curious about the ongoing political changes in America. Like many people, I was disheartened by the results of November 8. And like many people, I was not surprised. Once it jelled, I felt what was almost a sense of freedom: familiar and foreign simultaneously. When you are “Other,” you just go about the business of moving forward. It’s those, for the first time, realizing they are “Other,” and trying to figure out where they belong now who are more likely to be shocked by what is clearly a hard transition.

Visuals do matter, whether here or abroad, and President Obama was a strong visual. After the election, a Tunisian friend sent me an SMS: “Americans are amazing. They can elect a black as easily as they can an orange.”

How Obama Changed Global Perceptions of Black Americans