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Gail Vida Hamburg Headshot

Everyone Blunders on Race Until We Don't

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I spent my childhood in Malaysia, a multicultural, polyglot fusion chamber skewed towards polytheism, where people gave their due to all the gods in order to hedge their bets and cover all the bases. A Unitarian worldview had its advantages even for the secular minded: extended public holidays, every month it seemed, for everything from Wesak Day to Diwali to Christmas to Hari Raya, and festive meals that would make Antony Bourdain swoon. Pained to hear about the recent church bombings by Malay Muslims over the use of the word, Allah in Indian and Chinese Christian literature, I spoke to Malaysians of every hue -- Malays, Chinese, and Indians -- over the weekend. All were stunned by the bombings in their secular melting pot democracy. One friend text messaged back, "We thought we had race all tied up and resting in the shade. What happened?"

We in the US also thought we had race all tied up and resting in the shade after the election of Barack Obama. Those of us who supported other candidates out of pragmatism -- there's no way America will elect an African-American as President -- abandoned our losing propositions in Iowa to throw our support behind candidate Obama. The more Americans embraced him, the more confident we felt about his ability to win the election. Along the way, when race reared its ugly head or polls showed Obama taking a beating, we engaged in heated discussions about his self-identification as an African-American: He's not African American. He's not black! His mother was white! He needs to show his white side. He needs to say he's bi-racial. Barack Obama won despite our fears that he'd lose because of his race. America is a post-racial society now, right? Close but no cigar.

We all blunder on race. Take Lena Williams, an African-American reporter at the New York Times who wrote a widely publicized book on race, It's the Little Things: Everyday Interactions That Anger, Annoy, and Divide the Races. "When it comes to race matters, perception is reality. Racial misunderstanding is mutual ... An innocent gesture can be misconstrued as a calculated insult," she wrote. Williams than went on to explain that blacks find it offensive when white women run their fingers through their hair or shake their heads and hair because "the hair thing" is so loaded with racial politics and historical meaning. This is absurd of course. Shaking or touching one's hair is not a slight against anybody.

In a recent article on this site lamenting the lack of black prospects for ABC's Bachelor contestant, a blogger writes: "There's also something else very noticeably missing: black people. Wat up with dat, ABC!? There was one Asian woman, but she totally freaked out poor Jake with her bizarre Vietnamese flirting, like she was Linda Blair in The Exorcist speaking in some demonic tongue." Wat up with dat? I don't know any black people who speak like this. And what's bizarre Vietnamese flirting, exactly?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's two-year-old remarks to the authors of Game Change about President Obama's "light skin and lack of a negro dialect," have given Michael "Honest Injun" Steele and the GOP their talking point for the week. While Sen. Reid should have chosen a considered argument about the reality of race and electability instead of his crude, truncated "he could pass," compliment, I don't think he's a racist, as much as he is a man shaped by his upbringing and time. Separate note to Sen. Reid: Did you fall off a turnip truck? There's no such thing as a private conversation with two reporters.

Also, reportedly referenced in the book are disturbing remarks about then candidate Obama made by President Clinton to the late Ted Kennedy. According to the authors, our first Black President (as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison once described Clinton) told Kennedy, "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee." So, according to Clintonian logic, illegitimate sons of traveling salesmen and alcoholic stepfathers can aspire to the Presidency, but the President of the Harvard Law Review who graduated magna cum laude and was a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago is good only for fetching coffee? President Clinton, 21st century silver fox globalist, is really your parochial grandpa from 1950s Arkansas. Who knew?

The GOP can make political hay out of Reid's unfortunate remarks as they wish. For Steele, who was pilloried by the GOP only last week for incompetence and selfishness, this is a gift from Loki, the Norse god of mischief. Newly minted civil rights activist Liz Cheney and blustering Al Sharpton having a Vulcan mind-meld moment is one for the ages. But let's get real. We're all dumb and as elegant as Bigfoot on the question of race. We all blunder on the question of race until we wise up.

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