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In my lifetime, there have been very few of those moments: the first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the terrorist attacks of September 11, the capture of a former Iraqi President, and now the election of the first non-Caucasian to lead the United States.
Granted I am not old enough to have experienced separate water fountains and sitting at the back of a bus. Granted I have effectively been colorblind for all my life, with friends of many races and genders and orientations and economic backgrounds and levels of education. Granted just because of my own skin color and lifestyle I have straddled socioracial and even intraracial expectations for my entire life. Damn this feels good -- really, amazingly good -- but at the risk of being insanely pessimistic, I am also fearful, based on personal experience. With 9/11, the "Other" was raised in this country as the specter of everything bad and potentially even evil, and those who looked different were attacked or killed, or at least run out of town. In 1995, I was fortunate enough to live in Paris during the presidential campaign which ultimately saw Jacques Chirac elected to his first term as the President of France, and because I clearly look different from the majority of people in France, during that eye-opening period of my life, I had to always look over my shoulder at all times, night or day, in every neighborhood of the vast city and its suburbs, because of a few diehard radicals across the country who were attacking those who did not look like them.
This nation has definitely come a long, long way. Before his illness, my grandfather would spend time tracing the family genealogy as a hobby, and while I never cared much for genealogy, I wonder now what the earlier generations of the family would think of this moment. I wonder what my great-grandfather would think, for, having been born in 1900, he saw so much of history which actually mattered: airplanes revolutionizing travel and effectively shrinking distances between places and peoples, global-scale death and destruction in two World Wars, the end of colonialism, the rise and fall of greatly-held ideologies and forms of government, the right to vote given to those who were not Caucasian males in this country, women being heralded and respected as rightful leaders on the world stage.
My great-grandfather and my ancestors did not live to see this day. They would certainly be proud of how this country -- and ostensibly this world -- changed tonight. Yet I fear that they, like me, would also recognize the danger that they would face, as I do again now, just as I did in France thirteen years ago.
That last point is what I fear most, both for the Obama family and for everyone who looks "different." In 2001 and for many years afterward, I lived in the Southwest -- not a place with a historical trend of prejudice and violence toward minorities -- and cringed at reports of those who looked "different," especially those who "looked Arabic," being attacked or killed just for how they looked even though they might not have a single drop of Arabic blood. That is the risk that this groundbreaking election has now unleashed upon the United States: another sad period of danger, with minorities, but especially those of African descent, always looking over their shoulders for a time, always fearful that a diehard radical will strike and that they will be the victims. That fear must certainly be prevalent for the Obama family, and the Secret Service definitely has a major challenge ahead for the next four or more years.
Then again, this country was not founded without significant and life-changing risk.