by the reluctant coconut
I have just recently come back from a research trip in the US. I was in Washington, DC for a little over a week and then New York City for a few days. This trip came with a lot of anxieties and trepidation. With the election of Donald Trump, the brown body has become synonymous with a racialised impurity and disgust. As a brown woman, visibly Muslim, I feared discrimination and backlash.
My last trip to the US was last April to Chicago. During that trip, I was essentially racially profiled and searched prior to boarding. It stands to say that the rest of my white colleagues went by without any hassle and I was the only person of colour.
Naturally, I imagined things would be a lot worse under Trump’s presidency. The Muslim Ban and its ad hoc implementation, whilst at first targeted seven Muslim majority countries, was then revised to a ban on five Muslim majority countries, an electronics ban, and subsequent blocks and revisions placed by the American judicial system.
The stories of those who were detained and interrogated purely for the colour of their skin despite nationality or citizenship remained in the forefront of my mind. A British Asian man going on a school trip to Disneyland, Florida and being denied entry, was one such example.
I decided to be practical and brave and proceed with my trip despite the political climate. After all, this was vital research for my PhD and everything had been booked and planned months in advance.
I shared my worries with those closest to me and saw my fears etched in their faces. We took it in turns to reassure each other and ensure all practical solutions were explored to any possible outcome. I was flying through Dublin and so would go through US immigration – at least if I was turned away – it would happen a little closer to home and I could return safely is what I told myself.
With great trepidation (and excitement), I travelled to the airport for my trip. To my pleasant surprise, my last visit to the US (Chicago) meant that I was able to skip a queue and no searching or suspicion took place! Relief!
In the US, I was greeted with the overly friendly American manner, something I appreciated given that I was going to be alone for two weeks. There were many acts of kindness, from people reading the lost expression on my face and offering me directions, to someone giving me their metro card so I could ride the subway, as well as a bus driver who took pity on my inability to work out change for my fare and so let me ride for free!
All positives which greatly improved my research trip and my discovery of DC and New York.
Yet, there were clearly signs of Trump’s presidency in DC. On my way to the Library of Congress, I passed the White House, giant, looming and very American. Cordoned off with police everywhere. Armed police, I should add. Snipers on the roof (my first exposure to snipers). It was unnerving thinking this was where Trump makes his decisions, when not golfing or in his Florida resort, that is.
Further, reading American news in the US was terrifying to say the least. On my first day there, I sat in the canteen of the Library of Congress, eating a subway and watching CNN – as you do. It was breaking news at the time that North Korea had begun missile testing. Hurriedly, I turned the news over and vowed not to read or watch for a while. The proximity to Americans who may be a danger to someone like me felt too unnerving.
Notably, almost outside every museum, souvenirs were sold by itinerant sellers. The general flag based merchandise, America imprinted on t-shirts and postcards ready to be displayed by their proud owners. Disturbingly, almost every stall sold “Make America Great Again” merchandise. And there were more than a few tourists wearing them. Whilst seeing this sign of the racist, sexist and unqualified president’s slogan plastered on people unsettled me deeply, I was told by a local American that it was customary for these sellers to sell merchandise of the current government and did not necessarily reflect a political allegiance. Phew.
Even worse and more disturbing was that many of these vendors were black men. It made me uncomfortable to think that these men, just to make a living had to sell the ideology of a president that denies their very right to existence. Existence, in anything beyond squalid conditions.
And this brings me to my final point in this blog about my recent trip to the States. The socio-economic inequalities created by institutionalised racism were exponential and hyper-visible. In both my trips to the States, I was shocked and taken aback by the innumerable homeless people, almost always black men, the clearly intoxicated or mentally impaired black men and women who roamed the streets trying to be ignored by pedestrians.
A point of reflection that was raised in the brilliant BBC series, Roots, which tells the story of a Mandinka Warrior from West Africa who was sold into slavery. The legacy of this genocidal story in our past is well and truly living. There are very real and very unavoidable consequences of this violent and racist history. There are those who are still suffering from the legacies of African American slavery – a suffering that has been institutionalised in the American way of life – a suffering that needs to change.
The story of a brown woman travelling in America with a British passport and a Brummie accent is a fairly positive one. The story of African Americans living under Trump is still unfolding.