Wednesday, January 21, 2009

let's not pretend

Yesterday much of the hype surrounding the inauguration centered on the fact that we've elected our first black president. One media commentator pointed out that the White House was built "on the backs of slaves" and that not far from where Obama was taking his oath, black people once stood in chains in the slave market.

I started to feel a little nauseous. Though slavery is indeed nauseating to contemplate, I realized that was not what was making me feel sick in this instance. It was the tone of the commentator--absolutely soaked in self-congratulation. The whole, "look at this amazing, incredible thing we've done."

"Look how far we've come. Man, we've arrived."

"We used to be a nation of ignorant, prejudiced fools, but now we've shown them! We've elected ourselves a black president."

It was remarked upon repeatedly in the media back when Obama gave his race speech that he mentioned that his white grandmother admitted to being nervous when she walked by a black man on the street. When people talked about it, it was always in a condescending tone of, "Poor, old woman. But we really can't blame her because of the times she lived in."

Because we, of course, are beyond all that. Right?

Wrong. Studies show that the vast majority of people, whatever their skin color, have the same reaction to black men on the street that Obama's grandmother did. The only difference is, we're not willing to admit it. We thicken our veneer of politically-correct attitudes and push racial prejudice deeper into the subconscious. Doesn't mean it's not there. It is there and we act on it every day.

Back a couple years ago when all the talk was about illegal immigration, (whatever happened to that topic, folks?) I fairly frequently heard or read statements that were overtly racist. However, the people making these statements would often in the same breath deny that they felt racial prejudice toward Hispanics.

That's not progress, in my opinion. If we really want to become less racist, we need to first admit there's a problem.


Mama Ava said...

I agree, they did seem to go a little bit overboard...but I wonder if African-Americans who were listening felt that way. On that day, I do think it was a cause for celebration...I heard so many people interviewed since he was elected who said that they had had marched for civil rights but never believed that they'd see a black president in their lifetimes. Obama himself in his speech spoke to what you're saying--that whilet his election marks an historic milestone, there is still much work to be done.

I do hope, though, that Obama isn't the "black president" forever. How burdensome it would be to carry the history of an entire culture on one's shoulders all the time. I would rather see him as good president, a strong president, an ethical president, rather than the black president.

ML said...

I agree with your comment Mama Ava, especially your last paragraph. "I have a dream...."!

Gabriela said...

I know what you mean-it did seem a bit self-congratulatory.

I remember when I met a Mexican expat woman when we first got to Venezuela. I could not make myself say "Mexican" without feeling like I was saying a bad word. It took living there for a while to lose the denotation that that word carried for me. And I didn't grow up in what you think would be a very racist area-my point being-we've all got underlying prejudices-and your right, it helps to be able to admit it.

I hope for all the best with Obama-he's got an incredible story!

Brenda said...

What bothers me is that it seems to be said that "we" wouldn't elect a person of color because we were predjudiced against doing so. BUT I like what Colin Powell said today that he didn't have the passion within him to run for President as Barack and McCain and Bush and Clinton have/had. I believe we would have done so before this had the right person campaigned in the intelligent passionate way Obama did. But he is the first so I guess he gets that spot in history. I like to think that I don't look at him as black but just the other day I heard him say on Extra that "brothers should pull their pants up" and I uttered a resounding "Amen" so maybe I take advantage at times. But my optimistic nature thinks we are further ahead than we give ourselves credit for (esp in media). I am happy to call him a great role model for all.

Anonymous said...

Probably the saddest part of yesterday to me was when they interviewed students from a couple of inner-city schools who all said, "Oh yeah, now I believe I can do something with my life!" I mean, it's awesome that he has inspired so many underprivileged kids, but it's sad to think that they couldn't decide to be great before that - that they had already decided to NOT be the role models.

I love your last paragraph there, Ava!

Mama Ava said...

I think those of us who grow up in the majority have a hard time understanding how it is hard to find role models until someone like Obama steps up. I know in the black community there is a message of being proud of being black and those symbols are often at odds with what the "mainstream" considers successful, that kids are often derided for being "white" because of the way they dress or study or whatever. Add to that the undercurrent in our media that says that blacks don't measure (which I'm sure they hear in ways we can't imagine or understand) and really, how many scientists, authors, business leaders, etc. of color do we see? Not enough, which is why they get identified as "a leading black scientist" or something like that.

I understand Gabriella. I used to just DIE when my gardener would insist on carrying even the smallest items for me. I felt like he was "doing for" me and I had all the antebellum images in my head. I finallly did get more relaxed, but I did work to explain to him that in our culture I was perfectly able to carry a grocery bag on my own!

Michelle said...

Although there is still racism, no question about it, I think that the election of Obama does provide a benchmark to show the enormous progress from where we have been in our recent past. About 12% of the population is African American, yet 54% of Americans voted for him. I think that this is progress.

I also agree with Mama Ava--having a smart black man as president as a role model for black and other minority youth will help open their minds to the possibilities of what their lives can be like.

But also, I think his presidency, if he does a good job, will help all Americans to view minorities more favorably, not in a conscious "I am not racist" way, but subtly, in the way we perceive members of minority groups.

Calandria said...

"About 12% of the population is African American, yet 54% of Americans voted for him. I think that this is progress."

I think for many white Americans, the fact that Obama is black or "biracial" as he self-identifies, was a point in his favor. I think it goes with the "look-I'm-not-racist" mentality. I'm not sure what I would call that. Maybe assuaging of white liberal guilt? I'm not sure it's progress.

Michelle said...

So, do you think he got votes from whites simply because he is biracial? I don't quite understand.

Calandria said...

No, I don't think it was simply for that, but I think many considered his race a positive factor instead of a non-issue. Maybe if he were not black people wouldn't have found him as compelling.