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.