I had the privilege of being aided to travel to the USA (the southwest) for the past month in order to perform poetry, give talks and facilitate some workshops. It was an unexpected opportunity and one I saw as a real blessing and chance to expand my understandings and perceptions of the world. However, the USA threw me. I thought I knew what to expect from the way US media overwhelms us in the UK and from the fact I had had the chance to visit New York City the year before; but being there (predominantly California but also Colorado and New Mexico for a short time) for a longer period of time, living in ordinary people’s homes, travelling alone and thus being forced to talk and interact with people in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise, meant that I saw a USA that I had not anticipated.
After a brief and extraordinarily lovely few days visiting some friends, I stepped out of familiar surroundings and found myself dragging my suitcase to an Airbnb in Oakland, California. Having lived in London for the past year I assumed I was familiar with and unfazed by big cities. I assumed I was familiar with the visible wealth disparities of big cities, the way racial politics and identities embed themselves in big cities, and familiar with navigating them in my body and my skin. But, to misquote Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I wasn’t in London anymore.
“A state of broken promises and dreams” was how my Airbnb host, Ken, introduced California to me. That line of his played on my mind for the whole month I spent in the USA and by the end of my trip I was glad he had framed it as such from the very start. In fact, what hit me that first night as I dragged my suitcase through Oakland was very much the “broken promise” of the capitalist center of the world: the extent of homelessness. I thought I had seen homelessness in London, but nothing could have prepared me for California. Perhaps the extent of the problem is also heightened by the fact that there is a different understanding of public space in California. Most people depend on their cars in a way that surpasses levels in the UK – in fact, without a car in somewhere like Los Angeles you are seen as somewhat of a maverick. But that context just means that in my experience there, sidewalks (pavements) and streets become the province almost solely of those without homes. Perhaps this exaggerated the extent of the problem, but walking to my Airbnb the first night, this was what hit me.
In Los Angeles – a more sprawling, artificial and less hospitable city – it overwhelmed me. One evening before an event at a Church, someone volunteered to show me their mission on “skid row”. I had heard about skid row – an area of downtown known for its massive homeless population – and I thought I had conceptualised it, but my first thought upon seeing the tent-packed area of L.A. only 8 miles from Beverley Hills was to draw comparison to the only imagery I had seen that it remotely resembled: a refugee camp. The comparison is not particularly helpful except to emphasise the enormity of the problem and the unsettling sense of permanent impermanency. It was clearly a world apart and the majority of those made homeless were black. I am certain this informed the heightened sense of fear and stigma there seemed to be around homelessness in California as compared to the UK and this brings me to the thought and experience that was most inescapable to me in the US: race.
“Race is so different here” was something I said to almost everybody who asked me what I thought about the USA. I am still processing that difference and it’s many facets because I experienced race both as an outsider looking in, but also as a racialised body in a space it is unfamiliar with. Whilst I knew the US had a different racial history to the UK, of course, I did not realise how visceral that difference would feel.
To put it crudely, in the UK, when I see a “brown” person I can in most cases assume they have South Asian heritage of some kind. Moreover, in most big cities in the UK I can confidently assume that I will not be the only visibly Muslim person in the vicinity. Neither of these things were true in the US or my experience navigating it. Instead, there, brown skin could indicate a whole world of different possible heritages than it does in the UK. Yes, it could and sometimes did mean South Asian, but it more often meant Mexican, Hispanic, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, East Asian, mixed, or something else entirely. That fact exposed the historical reality that I still cannot get over…
Here, in Britain, the British colonised other lands and people and whilst the legacy of that is overwhelmingly present, geographical distance has some impact on our understanding – both as people from former colonies or as those who are not. But in the USA that distance does not exist. It feels surreal to realise that the USA remains both politically but also very physically, a colonial land. The fact that the USA comprises both the colonised and the coloniser still, as well as the descendants of both slavers and the enslaved – blows my mind. It was most evident to me in my brief trip to New Mexico where the artificial and colonial imposition of the USA was most obvious, it is incomparable to anything in the UK. And a similar story seemed true regarding African-Americans in the USA; whilst being racialised as black has a general history, blackness in the UK and blackness in the USA, to me at least – as an outsider and a non-black person, seemed wildly different.
Having grown up in Leeds and spent the last year in London, I know black identities to be essential aspects of Britishness. Whilst the same is obviously true in the USA – and perhaps even more so due to the history of slavery in that space – it appeared to me that black identities were much more physically separated and segregated from others in the US. Racist fear of blackness was also much more palpable in terms of the racist warnings and comments about “safety” that non-black people offered me. One white woman in particular embodied the unthinking and uncritical “fear” of blackness that devastates and kills so many black lives in the US. Her fluency in the language of normalised dehumanisation chilled me to the bone and it did appear much more visceral and explicitly violent than what I have known people to exhibit in the UK – though I say this as a non-black person.
The same woman – who was giving me a lift home – also shared some very limited and prejudicial ideas about Islam and Muslims. Her ignorance tallied up with many of my other experiences talking to and meeting non-Muslim Americans. Of course, I have tackled prejudice, ignorance and misinformation about a Muslims almost constantly in the UK, but I still feel there is some semblance of knowledge of the basics of Islam or at least the consumptive habits of Muslims amongst Britons (ie that Muslims believe there is one God, fast in Ramadan, attempt to pray 5 times a day, ideally eat “halal” and tend to try to avoid alcohol/intoxicants). My experience in California exposed the opposite – general awareness about Muslim behaviours seemed amusingly absent. It was a strange experience to me to hear and see the obvious and widespread Othering of Muslims that was rarely accompanied by any actual knowledge of or interaction with them. Perhaps this is an irrelevant point since that is how Othering works, but to me, in my limited experiences and interactions, it felt different in the USA due to the overall lack of numbers of Muslims in general.
My lasting impression of the USA is the truth of the fact that America was not, and has historically never been, white. The America I saw, spoke to, traveled in buses with, got Lyft-rides from, shared homes with, performed poetry alongside, bought food from, stayed up late talking to and broke bread with was every shade of brown and black. That reality was invigorating, almost amusing, and a testament to the artificiality of contemporary Trump-esque narratives being promoted about the USA.
The USA is a massive contradiction and so was my experience there. Alongside the crude capitalism, artificiality, racism and disenfranchisement I saw, I also experienced overwhelmingly beautiful natural landscapes of mountains, forests and ocean; talked to and trusted more strangers than I have in perhaps all the preceeding years of my life; enjoyed a solitude I did not know I could even experience; and experienced some of the kindest and most generous acts from hospitable strangers who inspired me to be better and kinder too. Those kind of experiences I had are often limited to those who are travelling through, rather than those that live there, though. The USA was no American dream, no melting pot or “country of immigrants”. It was and is a colonial state full of different worlds depending whose perspective you get the privilege to see it from. I thank all the people I met who shared their different perspectives with me. Ultimately I think Ken was right all along though, far from being “great again”, the USA’s contradictory projection of itself leaves space only for it to be a place of “broken promises and dreams”.