The revelation that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid commented on Pres. Obama's brown skin and non-Negro dialect have sent pundits once again into a racial free-for-all. There are those who are calling Reid a racist; others are calling for his resignation; and some are simply calling the entire issue much ado about nothing.
While it is clear Reid's behavior was anachronistic and insensitive, his actions actually leave me far more puzzled than pissed-off. For the entire affair highlights what has always been one of the great unspeakables of the Obama presidency: How else is the man supposed to speak?
Indeed, the facts...pardon the pun... speak for themselves. Barack Obama is the son of a white mother and absentee African father raised in Hawaii -- perhaps the most un-black state in the union. That he would speak -- to put it bluntly -- "like a white guy" is both logical and organic. Speech is an acquired characteristic with zero race or genetics-based pre-determinants. The president's speech patterns betray the culture and geography of his youth -- spent far from the centers of African American life in exotic Pacific Rim locations. There is nothing controversial here -- just factual.
Reid's sheer surprise at Obama's diction -- and the resulting disgust by many black commentators -- display an equal disregard for the truths of Obama's past. They also -- finally -- reveal America's unease and unwillingness to honestly accept the president's bi-racial background. Indeed, Barack Obama may be righteously touted as the first African-American president, but I have always found this title plainly problematic.
Convenient at best and spurious at worst, an "all-black" Obama allows Americans -- of every color -- to freely overlook Obama's complex historical background in return for an easily-brandable racial identity that is not entirely on point. Culture (as much, if not more) than color help shape and steer identity and individuality and when it comes to Barack Obama, the culture that defined the president's upbringing was not African-American.
This truth may be difficult for many, but it is a core truth. Pres. Obama may be married to an African-American, have fathered African-American children and have steeped himself in African-American culture -- but his predominant formative experiences were predominantly non-African-American. Many, of course, will say "so what, it doesn't matter" -- particularly because of the racial awakening the president underwent during his early adulthood.
But I am certain this matters greatly to the president himself. For just as social scientists argue that gender is as much psychological as physiological, so too is race. A racial identity is comprised not just of pigment and shade, but the societal, cultural and spiritual experiences associated with that coloration. Both may certainly exist separately. But remove one and you inherently affect the other.
This is particularly true for native-born African-Americans, whose legacy of slavery and ethnic disenfranchisement has denied us much of the cultural specificity enjoyed by whites (i.e. "Italian-American," "Irish-American," "Jewish-American" customs and traditions). Glenn Beck may claim it doesn't exist, but African-American culture is very much alive and well. What has been lost, however, is the more precise links to our histories that would allow African-Americans identities rooted in distinct cultures/nations rather than a racial monolith.
Which leads us back to Pres. Obama. I have never met the Commander-in-Chief, but I've always felt a strong kinship with the man. I, too, am bi-racial, was raised by a single white mother and grew up out West in predominantly non-black, majority-Asian surroundings -- in my case, San Francisco.
Like the president -- at least according to Reid -- I am "light-skinned" and do not possess a "negro dialect," And like Pres. Obama, discussions about my speech-patterns are both boring and banal. Many observers have wondered why the President seems so disinterested in this entire matter. I, however, find it plaintively clear: Folks (both black and white) have harassed Barack Obama for "speaking white" his entire life -- Harry Reid is simply the most famous.
Pres. Obama's speech patterns are an organic, integral and essential component of his background and those who question this -- both black are white -- are equally confused and misguided about his identity. For whites, this confusion suggests, once again, that people of color are to be suspected and dissected despite their obvious achievements. It also reveals a deep unease with the access earned by folks like Barack Obama -- brown boys who speak like the white guys.
For black people, the focus on the Obama's dialect is also concerning. Being badgered for the way you speak is no less painful when that bullying comes from blacks. Moreover, it also raises offensive and unnecessary issues of "authenticity" where they do not belong. One doesn't have to "speak black" to "be black" -- or at least to claim their foothold in the African-American community. Moreover, as Obama confirms, one does not need to "speak black" to proudly serve as America's first black president.
Well aware of the societal hurdles ahead of me, my wise mother used to say "you have to be a million different people to a million different people." Sadly, at least in this case, Mom was wrong. Mixed-race people must establish a core sense of self that is anchored from within -- and never determined by external surroundings. Failing to do so would not only leave us unfulfilled, but downright schizophrenic.
I speak the way I speak -- and whether in Harlem, Hells Kitchen or the Haight-Ashbury, it's all the same. As for Barack Obama: He doesn't speak like a white guy or a black guy -- he speaks like Barack Obama.
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