Reflections from Australia: An American First and then African American?

I just returned from my trip to Hong Kong and Australia.  I attended the Australian Race Studies and Whiteness Conference, held in Mandurah Australia, Dec 5 – 6th.

My presentation was well received, and  I will be posting a scripted audio version in my slideshare account soon.

Although the language that is spoken is english, there were many times when I needed to recompute or slow my mind down to understand what was being said.  For example, the term “Uncle” and “Auntie” is used as a sign of deference and respect among Aboriginal folk, or indigenous people. Actually, the non-indigenous and indigenous term/designation was apparently driven by the Australian government and so this is a contested term as well.  In the United States, my reference to the word, Uncle, harkens back to Uncle Tom and subservient usage of this term to African American enslaved men.  I had to recompute the meaning and association of this term.  Instead of saying ‘to go” when ordering fast food, it is “take out or dine in”….The biggest shock was the use of the word, “mob” which is similar to saying a person is part of this group, tribe.  It doesn’t mean crime activity as it might for us here in the United States.

Having traveled abroad in the past, (Spain, Italy, London, Paris), being treated as an American first and then secondarily as an African American was a bit of a relief but a little startling too. I got plenty of polite, wonderment, types of stares in Hong Kong airport…I had a layover and took a quick visit into HK to the financial district and pier.  That was as far as I could go given the splinter I had in my foot and my stumped small baby toe, which is not broken but may have a tiny fracture.

I am a tall, football player sized, 6ft 1, African American man.  The people going to work in Hong Kong, wore mostly black, and dark colors, and walked together in a choreographed way.  There was an eery and subdued pace of the workers, very ordered and quiet. Out of the hundreds of people, that appeared to be of Asian descent, no one looked like me.

I flew from NYC to Hong Kong and the differences between the airport are like night and day; Hong Kong clean as a whistle, pristine, shining floors, and NY-JFK, floors are dirty.  In Hong Kong, the signs and directions of where to go are clear and the TSA and immigration custody personell, professional, respectful and efficient.  In NYC, the passport folks were a little professional but a TSA person was rude and condescending in tone…”Put your bag over there:, etc.

I felt a very sinking feeling, because if we are to be a global world leader, finessed, and assume leadership in the world, we really need to act like it.  I could sense the irritation with others in Australia, and this is what privilege feels like, a first feeling of being slighted and then a verbal command and then a instruction.

I rarely have had experiences where I could get in touch with my American privilege (perhaps a form of White privilege) I am not sure. At any rate, as an American, as shared with me by the Australian wait staff, can come across as loud, entitled, crude, and a bit crass. Really powerful experience of seeing and getting in touch with my Americanness….and having the opportunity to be treated or perceived as an American who was African American. A mixed bag of feelings.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Leah says:

    I have yet to travel outside of the USA, so it was very interesting to hear your experience. Thank you for sharing.


    1. brianlragsdale says:

      Thank you Leah. I appreciate the connection. If there is something more that you would like me to write about please let me know. Thanks again, Brian


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