“On dogs??” Danny asked, aghast, from his apartment in Boston.
“On dogs,” I affirmed.
Throughout the two months so far of my year-long journey across the world, I have been stunned at the level of awe and adoration that people have for African-American culture. In the African-American music realm, Japanese twenty-somethings sport Tupac shirts, Cambodian street children sell pirated rap CDs, and Thai cafes blast Beyonce. But what has been especially stunning is the race-based reactions of European, Australian, and Israeli fellow travelers when I say I’m from America: a mix of passionate reverence and complete ignorance surrounding African-Americans.
“You are American!” gasped Serge, the Ukrainian-Israeli solider, when I met him on Ko Phangan beach in Thailand. “So you live near the Black people!” I didn’t quite know what to say. “I am obsessed with the Ghetto Life,” he explained. “I watch all the movies: “Boyz N da Hood,” “Dangerous Minds”… I worry about the Ghetto children. How will they know right from wrong if all they see is the Ghetto violence and pregnancy?” I stuttered something about how there is a wide range of experiences in America, and how “Dangerous Minds” is often seen as a racist movie.
Serge continued, though, deep in his train of thought: “But you wouldn’t know about this,” he said, “Because Boston doesn’t have a lot of Black people. Boston doesn’t have ghettos.” I coughed up my Pepsi in a flood of protesting words, but Serge continued, thick with passion: “But I LOVE the Black Americans. I think they are so tough and cool. So real. So–” suddenly he was seized with a fit of food poisoning and began vomiting violently in the sand.
As I watched Serge throw up, I pondered: here was a man who had fought in the Israeli army, using heavy guns and artillery in a very real, very dangerous war. And yet, this man was both scared of the American “Black Ghetto”, and obsessed with it. Fascinating.
Myself, having worked in a majority African-American school for over six happy years, I really miss Black Americans out here! Asian countries are almost totally Asian (sounds obvious, but in practice it’s jarring after America’s diversity), and most world travelers are White. Through this absence I am truly appreciating how fantastic African-American culture is (beyond the “Ghetto” or Music/Sports stereotypes!), and how uniquely AMERICAN it is. Often the first thing a person says when they hear my country of origin has to do with Black Americans, and rightly so: African-Americans have completely shaped America and its identity.
My purpose in this article, and through much of my blog, is to explore racial perceptions around the globe, but also to encourage people of all backgrounds to consider traveling the world. Not only does it expand your own perceptions, but it also illuminates the perceptions of the people you meet!
(Thanks to Danny, Ashley, Sade, Travis, and Durell for contributing their photos to this article!)