reflections on why the election of barack obama affected me so deeply
As is likely true for many of you, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about President-Elect Barack Obama's historic win this week, and how it has profoundly affected me. And I realized that if I don't get these thoughts down on paper, I'm probably going to remain a bit muddle-headed and unable to concentrate going forward. So I thought I'd share a few thoughts here. I know I said that I try not to talk about politics on this site, and I'm keeping to my word: this isn't about politics.
It's about race.
I became a fan of Barack Obama's about a year ago when I read his book, The Audacity of Hope. I, like many people, didn't really know that much about Barack Obama, and purchased the book to find out a bit more. And while, certainly, I do find I agree with much of his politics, something else struck me as I read the words:
He's just like me.
Well, okay, he's not just like me: for one thing, he was born in the United States, and I wasn't. But he's a multiracial person who self-identifies as black, just as I am. He's spent significant years of his childhood living outside of the United States, just like I did. He has family members who don't look anything like him from a racial perspective, just as I do. He has an American law school education; so do I. He seems to have very little tolerance for gross generalizations based on race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation; and in this aspect, we might differ: I have NO tolerance for such generalizations.
Still, even as I go through life as a multiracial person, in an interracial marriage, with a biracial child, with very close friends and family members of many nationalities, races, creeds, cultures, religions and sexual orientations, even as I live my life ensuring that I relate to people and judge them "not on the colour of their skin but on the content of their character," the truth is that it is not always easy living in a country where you "look different." I moved with my family to Texas in the late seventies/early eighties, and I remember as a child being made fun of for being the only black kid in class, especially because I "sounded funny" -- and I was picked on, not just by fellow students, but by teachers, as well. In the nineties, often people didn't believe I was an engineer ("you mean a draftsman, right?" was the inevitable response). And in early years of this century, there was the occasional person who didn't believe I was a lawyer ("a lawyer? Or a paralegal?" was a common need for clarification). And, in fact, as recently as about 6 weeks ago, an executive at my former employer looked at me and said with kind eyes, "Well, Karen, you're not really black" -- a comment I'm sure he meant as a compliment, since I know he likes me, but while saying it in no way realizing how potentially insulting his statement was. For this reason, while I've only rarely been the victim of outright racist hostility, I certainly believe I have more commonly been the subject of ... racial skepticism, let's say. Has this affected how I interact with people, whether they be friends, coworkers or strangers? Not really, I don't think -- I've certainly had, and continue to have very rewarding relationships with 99% of the people with whom I come in contact. But still, yes, I certainly do understand the sentiment behind the comment, "If you're black/a woman/gay/Arab/Muslim/foreign/Jewish/whatever, you have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good." I get that.
So. Now a multiracial, self-identified-as-a-black-man, has-experience-living-overseas, man-with-a-funny-name is the President of the United States. And what do I feel? Elation, yes. Moved, certainly. But even more overwhelmingly, and what I believe was the root of my spontaneous tears the night of November 4th, 2008:
I feel relief.
I'm relieved that maybe, just maybe, characterizations like "well, you're not really black (or white, or hispanic, or straight or gay or whatever)" will start to quietly disappear. I'm relieved that maybe, just maybe, comics and comedians are going to have to come up with new material -- material that doesn't include gross sterotypes about how blacks perceive whites, or whites perceive blacks, or how any race of people perceives any other race of people. I'm relieved that maybe, just maybe, the skepticism or wariness that so many people feel when relating to someone who doesn't look like them, or sound like them, or pray like them, or love like them has diminished, if even a little bit.
And I'm so relieved that maybe, just maybe, the world my little girl will grow up in will be one where characterizations and reactions like the above are just distant, ridiculous memories.