Why is Everything Obama Does Considered so, well, Exotic?

06/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is a column I originally wrote for the St. Petersburg Times a few days ago, about what I called the fist pound explained 'round the world.

When Barack Obama exchanged a playful touching of fists with wife Michelle before going on to announce his historic ascension as the Democratic party's first non-white nominee for president, he did much more than prove he's hipper than most of the political class in America.

He also inspired an explosion of mindless explanatory news stories.

Nevermind that athletes and black folks have been giving each other "dap" by touching fists for something like 30 years. Two characters even exchanged the greeting in Winona Ryder's seminal movie about angsty white teens, Heathers -- a film released nearly 20 years ago.

No matter. When Obama the phenom unleashes a bit of pop culture flash to the masses, the political media can't help but explain it to us; even when it's obvious we already know what it means.

So Time magazine gave us "A Brief History of the Fist Bump," nearly 600 words on the origin of the move just stiff enough to leave readers uncertain if they were joking.

The Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also weighed in (though I loved writer Ta-Nehisi Coates' observation to the Post that, for bringing such black-isms to the political world, "Barack is like Black Folks 2.0.")

Cable news channels discussed the bump for days, with U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kay Bailey Hutchison painfully re-creating it on CNN.

And, of course, Fox News Channel anchor E.D. Hill stepped in it big-time when she seemed to suggest one interpretation of the move could be as a "terrorist fist jab." She has since, mercifully, apologized (Hill also lost her 11 a.m. show Tuesday in a move Fox News says is not related to the comment.)

Still, to prevent further confusion, perhaps we should go over a few more nuggets from black culture that Obama might reference as the campaign progresses.

"Brother" -- When black folks use this term to refer to another black person, they are not necessarily talking blood relations. The likely reference: a shorthand for the old-school term of affection, "Soul Brother."

"Diss" -- Shorthand for "disrespect," this is a term used when someone insults another, disparaging their status. So you might say John McCain's recent words about the Democratic candidate's lack of foreign policy experience were a serious diss to Obama.

The hand clinch leading into a one-armed embrace -- This is a move light years beyond the "closed-fisted high five" Obama brought to the nation June 3. Here, the clincher executes an open-ended hand clasp with his subject, then pulls the person in for a one-handed hug. For extra cool points, make your fingers snap with the subject as you end the hand clasp. Novices should not attempt this without a third party spotting.

"Whassup" -- Black folks stopped using this greeting when its widespread use in a Budweiser Super Bowl commercial made every Caucasian with ESPN sling it at their acquaintances of color. Still, if anyone can make its use cool again, Obama's the man.

In seriousness, his use of the dap seems much more about his generation -- blending ethnic cultures in a way some academics call "post racial." So it's odd that an action that has been mainstream for so long suddenly takes on an exotic quality because Obama does it.

The truth is, it's just a cool handshake.

I hope journalists learn to save the thumb-sucking explainer pieces for when they're really needed. Because Obama's appeal isn't in the exotic way he brings black culture to politics, but in the seemingly effortless way he navigates black and white culture, suggesting a comfortable common ground.