Can Obama change the world’s perceptions of black men?

As today’s Pew Research poll of two dozen nations shows a shift in America’s image around the world, there’s no doubt that the international community’s view of President Obama is high. The world is enamored with Obama, and perceptions of America and Americans have changed for the better since he was elected.

As a black Briton, I will be the first to admit that I was skeptical about whether Obama was going to make it to the White House. But the closer he got, there more it dawned on me that having a black man as president of the most powerful country in the world would have a knock on effect not only on Americans but on the rest of the world. His every word and deed would be watched as the ultimate image of what a black man could be. I wondered what this would do for the image of men of color around the world.

As a professional speaker I get the opportunity to travel around the UK and the world and inspire audiences about possibilities. On a number of occasions people have made remarks about my voice, my vocabulary and the ability to command the attention of audience. Often I have to suppress the desire to ask “What do you mean I speak so well?” as if this was not expected of a speaker, least of all a black British man. The reality is that there are still distorted perceptions about the image of a black man especially for those who don’t have much interaction with one.

In Obama’s recent visits to Europe, the Middle East and Africa both traditional and online media reported widely on his enigmatic leadership. Polls have rated him as one of the most popular leaders ever and many people fell over themselves to describe his likeability. But will Obama really have an impact on how people will see black men internationally? Frankly I don’t think so.

Firstly even though President Obama describes himself as African American many people internationally see him as mixed-race as opposed to black. Secondly although he has risen to a position of excellence this has been on the back of a rather privileged education and life. Thirdly one man in the White House is not overnight going to change the views, whether private or public, that many people outside of America have about black males.

From Martin Luther King to Michael Jackson any deviation from the norm of what is the acceptable face of black man is dissected in the media to either reinforce stereotypes and misconceptions of men of African descent. Unless you are winning trophies, awards or doing some major achievement for your country then the likelihood of positive reportage on a black male is about as distant as peace in the Middle East.

Here in the UK we have a huge task on our hands with a heavily-reported yet minority of disenfranchised young males. Overrepresented in the media as over sexed, violent and uneducated, great efforts are made by successful middle class males to bring them back on the straight and narrow. This can often be deemed as a way to readdress the imagery of what black males are like in the UK. Unfortunately these middle class black men are the exception rather than the rule and more often than not cannot connect with disenfranchised youth. If there is an image problem from within the community how can the leader of the western world be expected to have an impact for other males?

Recently reading an online article on Africa and its problems one commentator suggested that nothing good can come out of Africa. They listed despotic governments and their leaders as the best that can ever happen. This kind of story rings out across the internet and if we were to be honest would be placed in the mainstream media if people could get away with it. What lies beneath is a fear of what black males stand for, and as slick and calculated his marketing machine is for Obama, it will take a lot more than one man to change the perception of black males on a global stage.