Ask Your Barber For "an Obama"

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In line with the maxim that the cheapest part of a town is invariably the most interesting, it is not surprising that the cheapest hostels in New York City are concentrated in Harlem, which remains one of the most fascinating corners in a city filled with fascinating corners.

People who choose to stay in Harlem are still rewarded with a gratifying look of alarm when they inform anyone of the fact, but the truth is the area has gentrified rapidly over the last few years. However, whilst the WiFi crowd (as I like to call them) is slowly encroaching upon Harlem, it hasn’t stopped being a noticably "black" part of town. So much so that when I arrived there recently after spending four months traipsing across South and Central America as an obvious gringo, I realised I was still in an ethnic minority by opting to stay in the northern Manhattan neighbourhood.

It wasn’t long into my time in Harlem that I caught sight of myself in the mirror looking a bit like a participant in some radical hair growth experiment and decided to get a haircut.

Determined to make it somehow interesting, rather than just an hour wasted on personal grooming, I searched high and low for a genuine barbershop, fondly imagining my barnet being attended to by a jive-talking hepcat who argued with the other barbers, as much like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America as as possible.

When I finally found such a place, I was at once thrilled and (I’ll admit it) disconcerted to find that I was indeed the only white man in there, perhaps the first for some time. It may not have actually happened this way, but walking in there it felt like everyone fell silent and watched my entrance, not unlike an old Western where a particularly loathed gunslinger walks into the town saloon and the honky-tonk pianist stops playing. In reality, my entrance probably barely raised an eyebrow.

Soon enough, a young man in a white t-shirt took me to one of the barber chairs and did the necessary. I paid him $13 and subsequently blew any chance of appearing cool as he tried to pull me in for a fraternal, shoulder-to-shoulder man-bump and I gave him a well-mannered-white-boy handshake. Later, in the mirror back in my dorm, I got a pretty accurate picture of what I’d look like as a bald man.

I’d been unaware until then just how close to the skull black men are able to cut their hair thanks to their dark skin, and found myself looking a bit like a skinhead – a bold move considering I still had to spend another week in Harlem.

My new hairstyle was an "Obama". While trends in personal grooming would hopefully be the least of the changes he’d bring if he became president, Obama would be the first genuinely stylish man to take the oath, mainly because he won’t look like he’s wearing a dead dog on his head. Whereas most presidential candidates over the last 50 years have opted for the traditional Kennedy-esque coif, Obama has maintained what could almost be termed a crew-cut, something he pulls off with considerable aplomb for a career politician.

Needless to say, it doesn’t have quite the same effect when carved into the cranium of a painfully alabaster backpacker from Australia. In my defence, right at that moment I wasn’t really in a position to make a better choice of hairstyle – I was too rocked by the barber’s use of what CNN anchors gravely refer to as "the N-word".

When it had come time to select a style, I was asked to pick from a chart next to the mirror which showed a range of numbered pictured demonstrating the different cuts on offer. Each featured a grinning man positively orgasmic at the funky do he was now sporting. All of them were black. All of them had haircuts I had seldom seen outside of a Snoop Dogg clip.

"What’ll it be, man?" my barber said.
"Er…maybe number 9?" I said without much conviction.
"Oh, you mean this nigger right here?" he said, pointing to the corresponding picture.
"Um, yeah, like that g-guy," I managed to stutter in reply.

Naturally, being Gen Y, I’ve grown up hearing the N-word being thrown around with gay abandon by black musicians and comedians, but it was still a little surprising to hear it used in real life, in a conversation I was part of.

I was to discover, however, that not only do black people really use the N-word, they use it a lot. I heard it used on the subway and at the laundromat, used by men and women, used in anger or merely vigorous debate (overhearing the phrase "Nigger, he ain’t even got a job" particularly sticks in my mind, for being so absurdly Jerry Springer-esque).

The politics of "the N-word" have been tricky ever since the term was claimed (and contentiously rehabilitated), by the black community, but the debate has had a fresh outing ever since it was announced that there was a *N-word* running for the presidency. [Note that it is traditional for the white folk among you to drop your voices an octave and a couple of decibels when using The Word.]

During my stay in the US, it was hard not to be struck by how the media’s obsession with the touchy issue of Obama’s race meant that they never shut up about it.

The same week I received my regrettable buzzcut, the New Yorker famously copped some stick for putting a cartoon on its front cover depicting Obama and his wife as terrorists, bumping fists in solidarity whilst standing in the Oval Office. An issue of The New York Times from the same week also bore a front-page article about how none of the late-night talk hosts were making cracks about Obama, supposedly because none of them wanted to be seen ridiculing a black man.

And this week there was much attention devoted to the suspension of a Florida teacher who described Obama’s platform for change as an acronym for "Come Help A Nigger Get Elected", as the media went strangely nuts over the existence of a bigot in a southern state.

A Republican-affiliated women’s group in California got the same treatment when they distributed a newsletter picturing Obama on a fake $US10 bill adorned with a watermelon, ribs and a bucket of fried chicken. And on the consumer side, YouTube has also been inundated with videos depicting so-called incidents of racism at Republican rallies, with titles like "’Good American’ Holds Racist Obama / Monkey Doll at Palin Rally" notching high view counts on the site.

Such is the level of scrutiny devoted to racial politics in this election, one wonders how anyone can regard it as a sensitive issue.

Most pundits have been focusing recently on what has been termed "the Bradley effect", referring to the California gubernatorial candidate from 1982 who was deemed to be in an unlosable position by the polls prior to the election, only to find his apparent five-point lead wasn’t enough, since many people had lied about their willingness to vote for a black man. He lost, and to make matters worse, subsequently had one of the world’s most inefficient and therefore reviled international airport terminals named after him, ensuring that his name went even further down the crapper.

One might therefore see this election as a referendum on just how far America has progressed in the last 26 years.

It may be that the media’s obsession with trying to spot racism in this campaign is due to its usual tendency towards sensationalism, but there also seems to be an element of anxiety – anxiety that the nation hasn’t really progressed at all and that Obama will indeed be condemned on the basis of his race. The media’s obsession with race is essentially rooted in the moral belief that whilst race may be an election issue for some, it really shouldn’t be.

In my opinion, the fact that the media has been sufficiently comfortable with the issue of race to talk about it incessantly means that America has progressed, probably enough to ensure that we won’t be talking about "the Obama effect" in 20 years’ time.

As for "the Obama" – from personal experience I don’t see it dominating global hairdressing fashion anytime soon. Us whiteys just can’t pull it off.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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