On the Nose: President Obama

It’s difficult to describe how annoyed I am with all the calls, especially from the so-called left, for Obama to be “bolder” in the face of such complicated problems at home and abroad. It’s depressing and suggests that while Bush’s politics may have been abhorrent, too many people who should know better actually seem to like his style! Our cowboy culture runs so deep that many of us don’t know how to cope with a president who is methodical who is, to borrow words from John Hodges, a nerd and not a jock.

I would like to blame the press, but that’s too easy. They are a large part of the problem because jocks and cowboys are more fun to report on than nerds, and covering real policy making must be like watching paint dry. But (and it’s important here to recall that “but” and “butt” sound the same and that “butt” is another word for “ass”), we make choices and keep ourselves overstimulated by listening to the rhetoric of folks like Bill Maher, forgetting that first and foremost the man is an entertainer who makes his living by arguing against whoever is in power. He is, as I wrote to a friend recently, a professional malcontent, and a very wealthy one who lives in a bubble where his “liberalism” is rarely challenged. All the analysis, even from those who the left-leaning among us might agree with, is less important than we realize, and it’s time to calm down and refocus. It’s time, I think, to read more books and watch less television, and, I think, it’s time for all of us to remember and embrace what Obama told Chuck Todd during yesterday’s press conference:

“I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I’m not. O.K.?”

He’s not, and we shouldn’t be either.

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100 Days: A View from Canada

I am very pleased to have a post from a good friend from the North. We talk politics, clothes, and pop culture, and I promised her that if she wrote about the President, I’d put together my thoughts about the First Lady. She finished first…

I didn’t watch the U.S. Presidential election coverage on November 4th, 2008. I couldn’t. In fact, I was on a complete, self-imposed, media blackout that day. As a Black woman, that may seem shocking. But, the dream of an African-American becoming President of the most powerful nation on earth was too overwhelming, too tantalizing, too impossible for me to take the risk of watching that dream not become a reality. After all, this election came on the heels of not one, but two elections that took place under, shall I say, “suspicious circumstances.” That, coupled with the vitriol and hatred being spewed by Obama’s detractors, made choosing not to watch the election coverage a no-brainer. Of course, on November 5th, 2008, I watched every online video of that historic moment that I could find!

Fast-forward to 100 days later, and I feel as though I am in a dream. I’m not African-American – an important distinction that I’ll elaborate upon in a minute – but the fact that Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American man, is President of the United States of America is incredible to me. The fact that, by any thinking person’s standards (so, yes, Rush, Ann, and all your “sheeple,” this does not include you), he is doing a great job with what is – as my colleague Nicole would say – a “hot mess,” leaves me in awe… even though I’m not at all surprised. The fact that leaders around the world appreciate and respect him (even my own country’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper who, if he turned out to be a borderline sociopath, I also would not be surprised) fills me with such hope for a better political and socio-economic future for our world.

And, as someone who makes a living from researching and analyzing the intricacies of race and racism, the fact that the whole world wants to claim Obama blows my mind. Everyone…from the Trinidadians


…to the Irish

The fact that countries the world over want to claim Obama is, to me, the most telling thing about the power of his presidency. Here’s why:

As I said above, I’m Black, and not African-American. (If asked, I would identify as Canadian. If pressed, as so frequently happens, I would identify as Caribbean-Canadian.) This needs explicit mentioning because too often “African-American” is used as a catch-all term for everyone who is Black, or who appears to be so. In my view, this is mostly due to the fact that the United States’ biggest global export is their culture: their norms, values, and terms of reference. This is problematic for many reasons, but mostly because it ignores the diversity within the African Diaspora, thereby denying the specific historical, political and socio-cultural experiences of people of African descent. It sends the message that all Black people look the same, think the same, live the same, act the same… in short, are the same. Newsflash, world: we aren’t (and never have been. This explains, for example, the existence of Black Republicans).

What ties Black people together is a shared history and experience of systemic racial discrimination and oppression.

This is why, when I saw that PowerPoint presentation of the racial history of African-Americans, set to Sam Cooke’s “Change Gon’ Come,”* I could relate to it, but not identify with it: I have no actual lived experience of those events–and neither do my parents and grandparents, because their experiences with oppression took place in the Caribbean, which is a different racialiazed context than the U.S. This idea of “relating to”, but not “identifying with” is key, because it goes a long way to explaining why so many people around the world endorsed Obama, and effectively claimed him for their own.

Since he doesn’t fit neatly into conventional categories of racial difference– born to a Black African man and a White American woman; raised by a White American mother and grandparents; spent his formative years in “exotic,” non-mainstream U.S. locales; identifies as African-American–Barack Obama, himself, becomes a catch-all: in this case, for everyone’s racial hopes and desires (or, fears and horrors, but that’s a conversation for a different post). People of colour relate to him because they know that he has faced racism, yet his success signifies an end to it. White people relate to him because he gives them hope that maybe – just maybe – they’ll finally get to stop worrying and feeling guilty about racism, because his success signifies an end to it. I get that. I really, really do. I also want, more than anything, to live in a world that’s free from racism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

But, the significant thing about the Obama presidency is not that it’s going to usher in this post-racial utopia that we’re all envisioning: it’s that it won’t.

It won’t, unless we decide to make it happen. It won’t, unless we are brave enough to start having those difficult and painful, yet honest, conversations about how we are all complicit in maintaining racism. It won’t, unless we acknowledge that racism is connected to, and supports, the other “-isms.” And, it won’t, unless we refuse to continue making excuses for, or otherwise covering up, racism when we witness and/or experience it, in all its myriad forms.

The real power of the Obama presidency is that we now have a common point of reference from which to begin.

*

Dominique is a Canadian researcher who focuses on equity and social justice in education. So, she knows that terms like “Black”, “White”, “African-American”, etc. are not neutral and shouldn’t be used uncritically. She’s hoping you’ll cut her some slack, though, because she was trying to keep her post short.

100 Days; 100 Words: Barbara

An Acrostic

Before Barack, we were locked in a red/blue struggle

Against each other, against other nations, against our principles.

“Restored” is how I feel now. We can thrive — not just endure.

After Election Day, we woke like children on

Christmas morning. Even Republicans looked happier.

Kids love Barack. He makes it cool to be smart, work hard.

One hundred days, each bearing progress, transparency. The

Black experience, the spirituals, the blues, woven through our tapestry

And now fully claimed. I breathe easier now, on the streets, in the world.

Melting cynicism, igniting dreams,

America surprises, delights the world.

100 Days; 100 Words: Debra

I am very impressed with President Barack Obama. Wanting the job of president, knowing the many outstanding negative issues that he would inherit, says a lot about his integrity, his intelligence and his confidence. Being the president in good times is no easy task. Being president, who happens to be black, in these very tough and uncertain times makes it that much more difficult.

I like the fact that with the name Obama, there is NO mistaking that he IS a Black Man! And a good looking one too. Maybe the positive Obama family with help change the negative stereotypes that so often cloud our African-American family image.

I don’t follow all of the reports as I should; however, I think he’s doing a fine job. I believe God has a plan for President Obama and this country ~ a plan that will open many eyes and surprise us all.

Let us all support President Obama and the decisions he has to make for each and every one of us. After all, we are The United States of America, aren’t we?

100 Days; 100 Words: Renee

Dear President Obama;

Thank you for 100 good days. I mean genuinely good days, they’d hold up as such even if they hadn’t followed 2,922 really horrible days. I believe again. You’ve signed orders to close Gitmo, and to expand medical research, and a law supporting equal wages for women. And that was just January. I believe your economic plan is sound and compassionate. Now please help me believe that there will be justice for our war criminals. I believe in the possibility of America again. I don’t believe I can thank you enough for that. To believe – how joyous.

100 Days; 100 Words: Leonie

One hundred may be just a number
But our country was in a slumber

Until the president with a heart of gold
Got into the seat and went on a roll

He lifted the ban on a bill or two
Plants to close Gitmo, which is long overdue

Encouraged women by signing a bill
For equal pay, which gave them a thrill

Warned the scums that they’d better fly right
But told the rest of the nation that he is on our side

Thrilled ALL of Europe with his brains and charm
With lovely Michelle by his side

Go, President…

Monkey Business; or, Why the “New York Post” Cartoon is a Good Thing

Okay, it’s not actually a good thing. Depicting the author of President Obama’s stimulus package as a chimpanzee shot for assaulting a white woman is not a good thing. Regardless of who authored the bill, it’s HIS bill and it’s not okay to compare black people to monkeys, chimpanzees, apes, or gorillas. It wasn’t okay to do it to the Jews. Or the Irish. It’s just not okay. And it makes me wonder who was in the room when the decision was made. Seriously. Who thought this was a good idea? I mean this isn’t like saying something offensive on television without thinking. Someone sat down and drew that cartoon and someone else put it on the page. And yet a third person proofed the page! That’s at least three people. Come on!

And like The New Yorker, the The New York Post initially refused to acknowledge that freedom of the press does not mean that the press has pure motives. It’s not as if the cultural biases that infect us all magically disappear once one puts on the hat of journalist.

I’m not at all surprised at the denial and confusion. No one ever thinks they’ve committed a racist act. Even racists don’t call themselves racists with any earnestness. It’s also not surprising that for every person who gets it, there is at least one person who is offended by those who are offended.

But I’m telling you it’s a good thing. For far too long, far too many people have been able to wander around thinking that racism is a problem of the past, and the election of the first black president sent a vocal segment of society into denial: “See! Racism is over. If they just work hard, black people can do anything!”* The Myth of Meritocracy reigns. Pollyanna rules! Of course anyone paying attention knows that it will take more than the a month of a black president and his perfect black family to rid the world of bigotry.

In fact, their presence in the White House is causing the opposite effect in certain corners of the country. I think of it as a kind of Racial Turrets Syndrome (RTS) that plagues those who have studiously avoided any genuine conversation (or confrontation) about race. The more they’ve been in denial, the more apt they are to release CDs like “Barack the Magic Negro.” The only way for this to be cured is for it to come out. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant. These outbursts force us to have conversations about difficult subjects and serve as indicators of how far we have, and haven’t, come since we elected Mr. Obama. It allows us to have an open, if sometimes messy, debate about a topic many of us would like to avoid.

The trick is to actually have the conversation. Those who “get it” don’t get to feel smug (because trust me, even if you “get” this, you’ve missed something else) and must learn to explain without preaching, to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and explain our point of view without demonizing the person who is on the other side of the conversation. Those who find themselves criticized need to take a deep breath and open their minds to the idea that even good people make comments or gestures that are offensive.

The other reason this is a good thing is because it might finally help people learn how to apologize. The New York Post has shown us the wrong way:

It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.

Period.

But it has been taken as something else — as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.

This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.

In the first place, apologies should not be offered defiantly. Secondly, intent is a given in our culture; even those who intend to offend get to say they meant no offense. The New York Post should have simply said the piece was careless and did not recognize the power of such imagery and then apologized for being sloppy and, yes, racist. It happens, and the sooner the offenders own it and learn from it, the better off everyone will be.

Now just because a thing is called racist does not make it so. I actually felt very sorry for the poor cable anchor who used the term “Colored People” when talking about the NAACP. “Colored People” is dated, but the organization is called The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People!” He apologized, but he didn’t need to–at least that’s what I think. Maybe you think something different. Perhaps the NAACP should change its name. It’s a thing we can chat about. See how that works?

*It’s worth noting that some of the people making this claim are black people.