Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Black and White

"Whites, on the other hand, are engaged in a paroxysm of self-congratulation; [Barack Obama] is the equivalent of Stephen Colbert's "black friend." Swooning over nice, safe Obama means you aren't a racist. I honestly can't look without feeling pity, and indeed mercy, at whites' need for absolution. For all our sakes, it seemed (again) best not to point out the obvious: You're not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves. You're replacing the black man with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened. If he were Ronald Washington from Detroit, even with the same résumé, he wouldn't be getting this kind of love. Washington would have to earn it, not just show promise of it, and even then whites would remain wary."

--Debra Dickerson, Salon
Americans have always had a rough relationship with race. Each new wave of immigrants, from Irish to Mexican, has been targeted by the most vile kind of bigotry. But eventually, immigrants become absorbed into the American mainstream; except for fringe racists, America becomes colorblind until the next generation arrives.

The exception are blacks, whose integration has been legal at best. We--Americans--hold blacks in a special category. And it's not just whites who maintain this cultural apartheid--Dickerson's piece, widely reviled in the blogosphere, isn't isolated. We have constructed elaborate projections about not only what race means, but what it means to people on the other side of the aisle. We have boxed up what it means to be black and white and sealed it in a time capsule. Whites can either admit to their racism or displace it while blacks must embrace a preset definition of "blackness" or stand accused of complicity with white racists.

Last week, Stephen Colbert had Dickerson on his show and managed to expose these ridiculous dichotomies. Listen:
DICKERSON: Well, I think that's what's going to happen. I think Barack Obama is a wonderful person, we're proud of him, but--and this is not a critique of him, what this is is a critique of white self-congratulation, of saying we're embracing a black person, when we're not really. It's a way of--if he were sub-saharan African--

COLBERT: Well listen, if you hadn't told me he wasn't black, I would have thought that I was supporting a black person. And then I would have been supporting all black people. But now I won't because he's not.

DICKERSON: (Laughs uncomfortably) Well, then that would make you a racist.

COLBERT: (Ponders) Hmmmm. If I were white.
COLBERT: So it sounds to me like you are judging blackness not on the color of someone's skin, but on the content of their character. Which I think realizes Dr. King's dream in a very special way.
Barack Obama's candidacy is going to create a lot of discomfort as we work through these issues again. That Obama's black, far more than that his middle name is Hussein or that he's a moderately liberal Democrat or that he's relatively inexperienced, is going to make it nearly impossible to get elected. He's getting strafed by the Dickersons of the left even while Fox News has set up an entire bureau devoted to slandering him. But what comes out of his candidacy may have some positive results. Maybe we can break out of these ancient boxes.

Incidentally, here's the clip of that Colbert-Dickerson interview.


iggi said...

i am really, really perplexed by this whole fiasco. it makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever...even in a humorous context.

Anonymous said...

I have two words for Debra Dickerson on the topic of authenticity: Condoleezza Rice.

Chuck Butcher said...

Seems to me the racist in the picture is Dickinson. What I like about Obama is his charisma and, so far, his ability to handle difficult questions without weaving all over. His skin color and non-slave ancestory and middle name are immaterial to me. If ancestory has something to do with it, I'd guess mine fighting on the American side of the Revolution, Union side of Civil War, Allied side of WWII exempts me from having to consider race or religion or nationality origin and able to call her a butt-head. But since I don't think ancestory has anything to do with anything - I get to call her a butt-head because she is.