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25 July, 2008


One of the high points of my conversation with a blog-friend whom I met IRL the other night was talking about post-colonialism, race and identity. We only touched the surface, but it was exciting to be able to discuss such things. Doing so makes me feel connected to the wider world and also tends to inspire my teaching. It was also a timely conversation, given Obama’s European Adventure, on at a news channel near you. We know that race plays a large part in this election, and Obama himself has been very good about not “playing the race card” (I’m putting it in quotes because I hate that particular phrase). Except that he has, or at least I think he did in the speech he gave in Germany yesterday.

It’s a funny thing. I think that concepts of race are different in the US and in Europe, partially because of the difference in colonial and post-colonial experience, and partially because the US has for most of its history had to deal with the tensions roiling beneath the surface of its identity as “a nation of immigrants.” I would also argue that a lack of historical knowledge and different generational experiences also play important roles, but admit that those things are harder to generalise. Whatever the reasons, though, I do think that there are differences that don’t always translate clearly.

In the case of Obama, there has always been a question of authenticity — is he Black? is he Black enough? If we listen to Jesse Jackson’s latest foot-chewing, Obama is neither. It’s an issue that has drifted to the background in a lot of the political rhetoric surrounding his candidacy. Realistically, he has not had the same sort of experiences and background as someone like Jackson. Obama is African-American in a different sense — arguably his formative experiences of the US are more those of recent immigrants, rather than those of people who have the mutual ties of having descended from slaves and being treated as lesser humans for several centuries. On the other hand, there’s the whole skin color thing, which is key for a lot of people (and again, there’s the “black enough” question, where actual shades and tones of skin color really can make a difference in social status and assumptions of group identification and authenticity in the US African-American community). If there’s a test there to be passed, I think Obama’s strength is in the fact that Michelle Obama does fit in. And by marrying her, Barack Obama has linked himself to that community. I don’t know if it’s a conscious choice, and it really doesn’t matter. I mention it only because I know that, for some, there is a conscious choice not to blur the lines and let skin colour be the default.

I admit, it’s anecdotal, but I know that the members of my family from the Caribbean have been fairly adamant in sticking to their own community; if pushed to identify with somewhere other than St. Lucia or other Caribbeans descended from slaves, they default is England (despite the fact that they speak a French patois). When I have taught students from Africa (mostly East Africans), most of whom have emigrated to the US, I’ve noticed the same phenomenon — these are immigrants, and they consider themselves a separate community even while there is some assimilation going on. (I’m not even going to get into assimilation, except to say that I was raised to believe in a US as salad bowl, rather than as melting pot). I think that, for many USians, the concept of ‘lots of kinds of people who just happen to have similar skin color’ is touch when the color is the range of browns that come from the largest continent. It’s sort of ironic, given that so many white people get cranky that they can’t put “Irish-German mutt, with some French in there somewhere” on government forms. The idea of different European heritages is pretty well ingrained. USians who have been exposed to Asian immigrant communities seem not to have problems recognizing that there are many different cultures and nations represented there, as well. But black people and Hispanics (who really just aren’t all Mexican, folks!) are sort of lumped together (in their separate groups — I’ve worked with a couple of Dominicans and Brazilians, and it’s fun to watch people try to categorize them).

It’s all about categories and fitting people into a place that suits the cultural comfort zone, I think. The recent New Yorker cover that caused all the ruckus (because you know? there’s no way it wasn’t offensive) had more truth to it than I’d like to think. The inability of the media (and likely many voters) to decide where Obama fits, racially, is a problem, and one that has been getting mileage from the pro-Obama people and his opponents. The arguments cut both ways, though. Scared or offended by the idea that Obama will be the first black president? Eh, he’s not really black … he’s of mixed race, and has lived abroad. Scared he doesn’t understand the experiences of your average African-American? Look at his wife! (on the other hand, clearly Michelle Obama is supposed to be scary to the first group). But … he’s not really a proper Murcan, then, is he? In fact … he’s really more like the people it’s ok to hate and fear these days — Muslims! And of course various media and smear campaigns have been all over that one. It’s in their interests to convince voters of exactly what the New Yorker cover implied — Barack Obama is a terrorist of the new school, while Michelle Obama is going to be the next Angela Davis.

In an atmosphere of ignorance, and where there is a lack of historical context, it’s pretty easy to do this. But it did surprise me when I heard Obama speak yesterday. Speaking to the US, while pretending to speak to the citizens of Germany, Obama redefined Us and Them, with an Us that crosses racial and cultural boundaries, and a Them that ignores them. I suppose you could argue that it’s the same on either side, but I’m not so sure. Because Obama’s Us was one that claims cultural similarity despite skin color or heritage — it’s an optimistic Us, and the one that most people I know would like to see exist. But his Them … they’re Muslims — and really, I think that the image (and you have to take this in context of his trips to Iraq and Israel leading up to this European trip) is that they are Arab and (maybe) South Asian Muslims. They are the Muslims = Terrorists = people from the Middle East, and Obama conveniently bypasses the questions of how different cultures and traditions play into the development and practice of Islam, instead relying on popular stereotypes to promote a negative and monolithic Them while reinforcing his position as a member of a new Us — an Us that can only exist in the US when looking beyond the borders. It’s subtle, it’s savvy, and I think it is to some extent “playing the race card”, even if it’s in a games with a different set of rules than we are used to.

Me, I’m still voting for him. But I think that it’s naive to think that the only kind of racism playing a part in this election is being perpetrated by Obama’s opponents. I can see an argument that it’s not about race, but I think that here race is the shorthand that many voters understand best, and using that shorthand will have long-term effects that are Not Good.

I realise I’m saying nothing particularly conclusive here, but then I think that it’s far more important to ask questions and remind ourselves that there is a lot going on, than it is to make any kind of statement. Think of it as just one more set of steps on the path of “what the hell does all this mean, anyway?”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 July, 2008 3:51 pm

    There’s not a lot I didn’t love about this post. It reminded me of two novels (I’m in a novel state of mind lately)…one of Maya Angelou’s autobiography (on second thought, it may have just been an article I read…), where she talks about going home to Mother Africa…how she didn’t receive the welcome she had someone thought she would. And White Teeth by Zadie Smith. The whole idea of post-colonial Britain and a new National Identity that has no real choice but to be born from it. I’d like to believe in an optimistic ‘Us’ as well. I don’t know if Obama can bring us to it…but I think he’s the sort of man who could. And this comment, was so spot on….”so many white people get cranky that they can’t put “Irish-German mutt, with some French in there somewhere” on government forms”. You’ll find as well that these lot will often be the sort who sit wary of Mr. Obama. But I ramble…Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  2. 25 July, 2008 4:10 pm

    Thanks! I always like it when a post starts a conversation.

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