Barack Obama, the Icebreaker

Psychologists and sociologists have long drawn a link between the amount of anxiety that occurs in interracial interactions and one’s previous exposure to the other race; a guiding principle of desegregation was that it could help detoxify race relations by making whites more comfortable with blacks in daily life. — The New York Times, January 14, 2009.


In fact:

We must come to see now that integration is not merely a romantic or aesthetic something where you merely add color to a still predominantly white power structure. Integration must be seen also in political terms where there is shared power, where black men and white men share power together to build a new and a great nation. — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "The Other America" April 14, 1967.

The New York Times article's angle (Barack as an icebreaker to conversations about race between the races) is a fascinating one, but it quickly devolves into a
white optimism v. black skepticism without any real acknowledgement of
why such a disconnect exists. This occurs far too often and actually ends up reinscribing this notion that White people are reasonable and Black people are irrationally holding onto some silly grudge.

A couple of thoughts occurred to me that might have made this article work better. Like how come its assumed that its a bad thing for White people to be uncomfortable talking about race, that they should think before speaking on any topic related to race?  To my mind, this is true progress.  Race so colors everything in America that we all, but White folks especially, should think before speaking.  I'd be worried if White folks felt free to just say whatever stomps through their brain at any given minute.  Often, what White people do display when they aren't aware are the implicity biases and stereotypes that racism has taught them.  Being made aware of them is actually a good thing because then the person has the opportunity to unlearn these things. 

The challenge for America then if Barack is some kind of icebreaker is to not allow his symbol of progress to inhibit the kinds of conversations and interactions that could challenge racism and stereotyping.  I think this is what the Black folks at the end of the article were getting at when they talk about this notion of "transcending race."  There is a tendency with White folks to see every individual Black person as an exception that proves the rule (the rule being that Blacks are inferior).  Barack could potentially just be the next in a long long line.  Resisting that tendency is very important.

To that point, how come equal attention wasn't given to how uncomfortable talking about race is for Black people?  Is it because the author might have had to acknowledge power dynamics?  That one can be punished for it?  It might have been interesting to see the contrast between perceived punishment from Black people when White folks say something crazy versus real punishment from White people if you speak too much about race (or, more pointedly, blackness) in a way that makes White folks uncomfortable.

The point here is that power's role in social interaction is completely obscured here.  To the point where we have yet another article about race viewed entirely through a rosy white lens where the complexity of race, it's power
dymanics, are subsumed in a cloak of "we need to just get along."

The other thing, perhaps equally as irritating and dangerous, is the subtext of the quoted portion above, something that appears far too often in articles of this type  — white self-aggrandizement.  These articles on race tend to be about White people, not Black people. Black people are always juxtaposed in such a way as to make White folks feel better about themselves.  They end up reading like some kind of psychological balm to White fear ("don't worry you don't have to deal with racism, not now, things are so great!").

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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