By Susan Merrell
It was a year ago, almost to the day that I first travelled to the United States. It was President’s Day weekend (third Monday in February) when the plane landed in Los Angeles. It was the first Presidents’ Day where the White House incumbent was black. So, did the election of Barack Obama to the most powerful position in the country, if not the world, signify that racial prejudice and the white superiority complex was a thing of the past in America? Did it hell.
Not a cloud was in the sky the Saturday morning we left Los Angeles for San Francisco. From the warmth of our train carriage you could be forgiven for thinking it was summer. It wasn’t. The temperature was hovering around freezing. The weather in stark contrast to what it appeared to be – as, we found, were so many other things here.
It had taken only a few hours on US soil to ascertain certain vital things. Like ‘regular’ coffee is undrinkable. If you really want to drink the coffee rather than just use the cup for warming your hands, ask for ‘espresso’. Neither is there such a thing as a ‘small’ size. Small equates to large and the sheer volume of liquid in a ‘large’ could break the drought in country Victoria.
Having only one night in LA, the ‘loved one’ and I spent it at the theatre. Playing was a musical comedy, Minskys at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles – just a pleasant stroll from our hotel. Pre-theatre, we’d dined at a charming French Bistro nearby.
In the theatre foyer during interval, we amused ourselves people watching. Americans speak English, but not as we know it.
“Where yer headed?” for instance, was a question that would stump my husband time and time again.
“He wants to know where you’re going,” I’d translate.
But, be that as it may, things in LA had a certain air of familiarity grace of our televisions and movie screens. And some of those television characters were right there in that foyer. I swear, if I’d only heard her voice and not seen her face to convince me otherwise, I could easily have believed that the actress who played Robert’s mother-in-law in Everybody Loves Raymond was in that theatre foyer. You know the one – she has a high-pitched, little girl’s voice. Her voice so exaggerated that you’d think nobody could really speak like that. Wrong.
There was something disconcerting about this theatre audience that we couldn’t immediately quite put our finger on. Ditto the congenial crowd at the bistro. In a ‘light bulb’ moment it came to us. Almost everyone was white. (The exception was a couple of Rastafarians sitting in front of us at the theatre.) Where were all the dark-skinned Americans?
It’s not surprising that we, as Australians, took so long to become aware of their absence as, grace of the now defunct ‘White Australia Policy’, (Australia’s very own substantial contribution to racial discrimination) Australia’s contingent of dark skinned people, especially African, is still not large. There’s no expectation that we will encounter many in our everyday lives.
But African/Americans make up 13.5% of the population of the US and that night in Los Angeles, African-Americans were grossly under-represented in the few places we’d been: a four-star hotel, an upmarket French Bistro and the theatre.
The next day, in the early hours of Saturday morning, cocooned in our warm, comfortable taxi en route to Union Station we found the missing Americans.
The taxi meter had not clicked over very far when mean streets replaced the congenial boulevards of downtown LA. They were bustling with humanity unlike the still empty weekend streets surrounding our hotel. Clearly homeless, these people were wrapped in blankets against the cold. It seems when you’re homeless and it’s freezing sleeping late is not that desirable.
And it was very cold. Warm breath turned white when it made contact with the icy LA morning. People blew this warmth onto their hands to thaw out rigid fingers. They were queuing. I don’t know why. Perhaps for food, perhaps for work. There were few Caucasians. Poverty and skin colour seemed to be bedfellows in downtown Los Angeles.
To give further credence to this developing theory, in our first class cabin on board the train to San Francisco all were Caucasian.
Notwithstanding this, the people with whom we struck up a conversation were nice, decent, friendly people…except…when we started to talk politics their necks grew increasingly red.
They had an evangelical approach to democracy. Wishing to impart their beliefs worldwide they favoured doing so whether the recipients of their largesse wanted it or no. It was their justification in advocating the right – nay the duty – of America to intercede in global skirmishes and, if necessary, to invade other sovereign nations. “It’s for their own good, you know.”
Opinions were resolute even after I’d identified myself as an Australian journalist and asked if I could record the conversation and quote it in future articles. They were delighted to cooperate and it wasn’t too long into the conversation that I realised their ease in expressing their prejudice had a lot to do with the colour of my skin. They’d assumed because I was white I was simpatico.
The scenario was akin to the episode in Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Borat movie where a bunch of young American men’s reactionary views escalate into something grotesque with the encouragement of Borat and alcohol. I wasn’t encouraging them, in fact I struggled to remain neutral, to rein in my often shocked reaction in order to let their voices through.
Only one of my co-travellers suspected that I might in the future betray them in print.
“You’re going home to tell of these cock-sure Americans. I bet,” he said to me as he left the club carriage. Bingo!