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Monday, January 18, 2010

Two Sides to the Same Racial Rhetoric

There's a lot of noise that's been made this week about comments made about Barack Obama, by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over a year ago, and by former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. To my mind, they are just two sides of the same coin.

Reid, it is reported in a book, referred to Obama as a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." It's in the same category as Joe Biden's 2008 description of Obama as "clean and articulate." Whereas Blagojevich suggests that he is blacker than Obama in a recent interview.

What Reid (and Biden) were saying is is that they were comfortable with Obama because he is more like them than other black people they have known. They are more comfortable with someone like that. I think they were speaking the truth, but the truth is not politically comfortable. And I dare say that much of the United States felt the same way; Obama was not a "scary black man" who sounds like - heaven help us! - Jesse Jackson, so we can vote for him and pat ourselves on the back about just how enlightened and "colorblind" we are.

Blago was questioning the AUTHENTICITY of Obama's blackness, that there is a checklist of things that makes a "real" black man, from the way he talks to the beliefs he has. Hey, Obama plays basketball and likes jazz; shouldn't that count for something?

It was the Blago remarks that affected me more personally. There seemed to be this notion, at least when I was growing up, that certain features signified a real blackness. My father used to make a point of my sisters and me speaking "traditional" American English, not some sort of Ebonics. This worked well in surviving growing up in my predominantly white, Slavic neighborhood. It wasn't as successful in dealing with some of the black kids who would mock my bookish ways and my "white" way of talking. Heck, some of the white kids that hung out with the black kids would suggest that they were "blacker" than I was, because they talked "ghetto"; some of them would put their tanned arms next to mine to check THAT aspect as well.

I mean, I listened to Motown and Atlantic, but I was fans of the Beatles and folk music and classic music. There seemed to be these rules that "authentic" black people could only like certain kinds of of music. That lineage of blues, r&b, soul to hip hop and rap were OK. Classical was not. Neither was rock, which made NO sense to me, since rock and roll evolved from blues and R&B. The artists that performed the outre music like Dionne Warwick (pop), Charley Pride (country) and Jimi Hendrix (rock) weren't considered "black enough" by some folks, and this really ticked me off.

There was this Red Cross training event at Manlius, NY near Syracuse. I went as my high school's representative. On the penultimate evening, there was a talent show. I got on stage with a pick-up band, and everyone thought I was going to sing. Instead, I got out a comb and a piece of paper and played a couple minutes of blues riffs. I got a standing ovation; it was one of my favorite moments in my life. The next day, everyone was signing photos and booklets. This one young woman signed my booklet,m on the back, "You're a nice guy, but you're no soul brother." You could have taken a baseball bat and hit me in the solar plexus, then hit me again, and again, and I doubt it would have hurt as much as that one sentence did. I probably looked at that piece of paper periodically for the next couple years, and if it has left my possession, it's because I lost it, not thrown it away. The ultimate lesson, I suppose, was that I couldn't worry myself with being "black enough".

My (condescending, black) godmother died about a decade ago. A year or two before that, I saw her for the first time in many years at the (black) church in which I grew up. She asked me what church I was going to in Albany, and I told her. "That's a WHITE church, isn't it? " I said, "predominately." There was a point when her disapproval could, and did, really wound me, but not by thast point, fortunately.

There seems to be these periodic calls for "racial dialogue in America". Yet the Reid comment, which seems to me like a pretty good opportunity, was was largely quashed with an apology and "let's move on." I found it particularly interesting to hear conservatives like Lynn Cheney trying to make the most hay about this, and me ending up largely agreeing with George Will. Premise: almost certainly, the color of his skin and the way he speaks made some people more comfortable with Obama. Discuss.

That said, I've become increasingly convinced that what's made Obama "not scary" has also made him possibly less effective as President. I've heard those on the left say he should be cracking heads to get the Democrats in line on health care, and those on the right say he should be taking names over the Christmas near-airline disaster. I think it's not affectation but self-training that has made Obama preturnaturally calm. He HAS the office; maybe it's time, if he can, to get just a little bit scarier.



Greg said...

A couple of points: I saw that a couple of black kids in South Carolina won a settlement because other black kids were saying they were "acting white." Their lawyer argued that it was racial harassment even though all concerned were the same race. You should have sued somebody back then!

I also saw something in the paper that some black writers love the word Negro, because it sounds more regal. One said he wanted to be a Negro writer like Langston Hughes, not a boring "black" writer. I thought that was interesting.

david brickman said...

Great post, Roger ... I have always wished the "dialogue on race" that Bill Clinton's presidency was supposed to spark had really flamed up, but now maybe it is starting under Obama. Our nation needs to sort it out some day somehow. Meanwhile, you know things are weird (and maybe even wonderful, but probably not) any time you find yourself agreeing with George Will.

So, yes, President Obama, please grow a spine and start cracking some heads, etc. etc. And while you're at it, allow me to suggest you pull out of Iraq and/or Afghanistan and spend that money instead by rebuilding Haiti (for starters).

One more thing - regarding relative "blackness" as defined by love of jazz or basketball. Those are two perfect examples of American cultural phenomena that were started by whites, came to be dominated by blacks, and have had a huge, lasting impact on much of the rest of the world. To love those things (among countless others) is an American emotion, and to be American is to be - culturally - part black. I think the election of Barack Obama, who is of course half white and half black, shows that many of us are ready to own both of those aspects of our identity.

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

This is hypocrisy plain and simple. BUT it may just back fire on the bleeding limousines (I just now invented that term hope you like it ; )

Up to now, hypersensitivity has proven to be a powerful and effective weapon for "protected" classes. So much so that homosexuals are lobbying for the same double standard treatment: Leagalized marriage but different rules for divorce, the F word (They can say it but no one else)

By giving Harry Reid a pass for his comments provides a chink in the armor that may just lead to a gaping hole down the road.

Watch as previously restrained tongues and pens start lashing out using language that was deemed politically incorrect before the Reid watershed comment.

Roger Owen Green said...

Earl- Your inability to recognize context is legendary.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I've been thinking the same thing about President Obama, Roger: I hope he gets tougher in his second year (he's already scary to a politically boisterous minority in the country).

During the campaign there were black folks who said Obama wasn't "black enough", and for some of them it was because he didn't have slave ancestors. That conversation was also shut down quickly, but it hinted at a black-on-black cultural prejudice that your own experiences growing up seems to suggest really exists.

Everyone knows that white folks have a lot of emotional baggage around race that they're not dealing with, but form what you're saying it sounds as if black folks do, too. So: How do we make it safe for people to talk about it?

This was a first: It's the first time that I've seen anyone claim—apparently seriously—that "homosexuals" are lobbying for "different rules for divorce". Clearly utter nonsense knows no limits.

Anonymous said...

Ya know, while I was growing up in NH there were Blacks in the population, and they were always just "tanner" than us.

Years later I would move to the I95 corridor to take advantage of the higher earning levels I needed as by that time I was a single mother raising two children.

I would soon learn the difference between "Black," and "Black Trailer Trash," just as I knew what White Trailer Trash was in NH.

I worked for a police dept. within a municipality, and parked my car every day in the projects across the street.

Most of the residents were minorities, and actually looked out for me, and my property (veh). However there were dialect barriers, which would never fail to entice a chip on the shoulder of the chosen few. When the "street" language was prevelant, and one actually could not understand what was being said, due to lack of pronunciation, I was subjected to "Yo, White Cracker Lady blah, blah, Yo don't unnsun unglsh." Yuh. Yo,(yo) not that kind.

There are educated Black and White people. Per the usual the uneducated are the most noticable, and I might add, the most vocal.

The horrendous difference is that I cannot make up my mind WHO the actual RACISTS are anymore.

I can be called "White Cracker Lady" and numerous other choice names for my COLOR, which by the by, is accidental at best, yet of I accuse one, just one mind you, black person of being a racist, I am looked upon as some sort of bigot for it.

Get real folks, when I was looking for a job at one point, I was told I was the right sex (female) but the wrong color (white), when I was better qualified for the job.

My children were denied scholarships from the United NEGRO (I do believe THEY still use the term!) College Fund.

WHO are the racists, I ask you?