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Obama's victory for African Australians


'Obama rising' by Chris JohnstonBarack Obama's historic triumph was not only a watershed moment for African Americans.

Australian African communities celebrated long into the night in Sydney's Blacktown, and an 'Obama Street Party' was held in Victoria's Noble Park by South Sudanese youth. Melbourne's South Sudanese shop keepers even got involved and gave away free soft drinks to customers.

Why the fuss?

While political pundits harp on about America's political realignment, Africans are celebrating the global mental shift President Obama represents. Obama has re-balanced the scale of black role models in the public sphere, which have been confined to actors, pop stars and sports people.

The mild mannered 47-year-old is not a Will Smith, a Stevie Wonder or a Usain Bolt. His success was not triggered by a natural or prodigious talent. Instead, it was Obama's powerful intellect and commitment to hard work that captured the world's imagination and respect.

Of course, Smith, Wonder and Bolt possess these qualities too. But in terms of media representation, Obama's electoral victory is the equivalent of watching the moon landing. It compensated those who were not yet born to witness Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, or Nelson Mandela when he became South Africa's first black president.

The galvanising effect this had on Australia's African communities has been immediate. The media coverage, with its constant reference to Obama's Kenyan heritage, made this heritage the dominant talking point among African Australian youth.

'Every day we would talk about Obama', said 21-year-old former Eritrean refugee, Magdi Yasseen, a biomedical student who lives in the North Melbourne housing commission flats. 'Before, you found people my age only talking about which group fought who, and which guys got in trouble with the police.'

A Somali youth told me that Obama's victory broke down an 'invisible wall' within him and he found a new confidence he has carried ever since.

Such examples may seem insignificant, but they go a long way to short-circuit the negativity in African Australian communities, bred by historical grudges and ineffective social services. Obama's victory has helped defeat a ghetto philosophy that emphasises survival over achievement, and the deep rooted belief you are inherently less likely to achieve because you appear different.

This belief system is primarily passed down by parents who formerly lived under a racist, colonial rule. Upon hearing my ambition to become a journalist, elders in my community quietly suggested I adopt a western pen-name to increase my chances of employment.

Such thinking is also supported by handsomely funded job network agencies that channel refugees into low-skill, dead-end jobs despite their qualifications. Hence you have factory workers who were formerly doctors, economists and diplomats. Their children view their plight as damning evidence that education is an ineffective pathway to financial and social success.

Such beliefs are reinforced by a complacent media where black intellect is predominantly overshadowed by images of mad dictators, violent youth, misogynistic pop stars and of physical prowess on the sporting field.

Obama's success in politics — a field that minority groups have long viewed as the final frontier — helped to alleviate the fatalism of these communities towards political participation.

In the UK, African and Asian youth, already dubbed by the press as the 'Obama Generation', began enrolling in community programs looking at political and social empowerment.

If Australian social services are indeed serious about social inclusion, they need to recognise this development and create programs harnessing this new wave of optimism among minority groups. As racial barriers fall, their aspirations will increase. Programs that link them to society's leaders are crucial in nurturing that growth.

Operation Black Vote, in the United Kingdom, is one such program. Established in 1996, it has senior Welsh politicians mentoring young political hopefuls from minority backgrounds. Similar Australian programs would allow our multiculturalism to escape culinary and sporting confines to reach our most important social arenas.

Spurred by the enthusiasm of Obama's victory, such programs will cultivate within minority groups a new frame of reference in which to view themselves. Ultimately, it will allow them to achieve their goals with their dignity, and their real name, intact.

Saeed SaeedSaeed Saeed is a Melbourne writer and youth worker.

Topic tags: saeed saeed, barack obama, african australians, minority communities, social services



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Existing comments

Thanks to Saeed Saeed for such an informative and encouraging piece.

Chris Watson | 20 January 2009  

Obama is as yet a completely untested figure. One of the very few pieces of evidence that we have to go on so far - his silence in the face of the ongoing Zionist oppression of the Palestinian people - suggests that the slogan of his election campaign - 'Change' - will remain just that, a slogan. Adulation of Obama by ethnic minorities simply because of his skin colour in places like Australia and Britain, disconnected as they are from the American political process, suggests a disturbing drift towards race-based politics.

Sylvester | 20 January 2009  

I agree with Sylvester. this is a new era of race based politics. For 13% of the US population it will be interesting to see how many jobs now go the 'boys'. !

philip herringer | 22 January 2009  

If Barack Obama inspires a sense of what is possible for young African Australians that is to be welcomed and celebrated.

This is not race-based politics, Sylvester and Philip; the election of a man with an African name and ancestry moves politics and achievement beyond race. Barack Obama inspires hope in many because of his intelligence and insights gained from his diverse life experiences and education, which shape his world view and policies.

The fraught history of race relations, in the US and in Australia, inevitably makes his election even more significant. To have someone in the White House who truly understands this is progress indeed.

Kate | 30 January 2009  

I am by and large very happy to see Obama elected President of the US. I wish him all the very best. However, Kate, to make a fuss over him simply because of his racial background manifestly does not '(move) politics and achievement beyond race'. Quite the contrary.

Sylvester | 04 February 2009  

Great Reading!!

I'm sending you a copy of our publication 'Afriqan Times' - hope you enjoy the reading. We're in our infancy but things are looking good.

Von Hobson | 28 July 2010  

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