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Keli Goff

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Is Racism Actually Worse in the Age of Obama?

Posted: 09/27/11 12:00 AM ET

There are plenty of downsides to racism, but the biggest is perhaps the fear and paranoia it instills in those who have experienced it or seen it up close and personal.

More than skin color or even the growing racial wealth gap it is this fear that remains one of the greatest unspoken gulfs between racial minorities, and everybody else. I say this because I -- someone who is occasionally criticized for presenting an optimistic view of race relations in my writing that is increasingly common among my generation -- have experienced this gulf with my white friends. They will simply never know what it's like to assume that the overly attentive sales associate following you around the store (without ever offering to assist you), is following you because she's worried you may steal something because of your race. It's a thought that will simply never cross their minds. (And yes for the record this has happened to me more than once. I've even been followed out of a store so an associate could "double check" that I had "remembered to pay," and this was after I had begun appearing on television regularly and had actually patronized the store several times before.)

But when your parents grow up in the segregated South and you grow up in the age of The Cosby Show, you remain conscious of the fact that being followed in a store will always pale in comparison to being called the n-word every day at school (which happened to my mother) or taunted with the threat of lynching (which happened to my father.) Yet the further along we go into the Obama era, which many assumed would mark the start of a new chapter in American race relations, a provocative question has emerged: Is subtle racism actually more damaging to black Americans than blatant racism?

I had never really considered this question until a panel discussion for the new book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? by cultural critic Toure. (Click here to read my interview with Toure on race in the age of Obama.) Among dozens of questions he asked over 100 influential black Americans one was, "What's the most racist thing that's ever happened to you?" Though some shared incidents of breathtaking, blatant racism and of course the N-word made an appearance or two, the most popular answer was what Toure dubbed "the unknowable;" a moment they cited that may have negatively impacted their lives in an incredibly significant way, such as a lost job opportunity, or home loan, that they suspect was tied to their race yet ultimately they will never know for sure and never be able to prove it, so there's nothing to be done about it. But it haunts them, in a way that being called the N-word by some jerk out in the open, no longer does.

In the age of Obama in which even David Duke has enough sense not to use the N-word in public, "the unknowable" has become the most common form of discrimination, unknowable, and thus un-provable. It's therefore become a bit like a form of slow burning psychological torture for those who believe they've endured it. After all, it's one thing to struggle to find a job in a horrendous economy -- something people of all races are grappling with. But it's another to know that studies have confirmed that even today just by virtue of being black you are less likely to get a job opportunity than a white male with a prison record, even when you don't have one.

But part of the torture is knowing that because we finally have a black president, accusations of racism are looked upon with more suspicion, eye rolling and dismissal than ever, which only further perpetuates the fear and paranoia. In other words, unless someone actually calls you the N-word, no one wants to hear you whine about racism. By the same token most people -- even racists -- are too sensible to use the N-word, which leaves those who face any form of subtle racism caught between a rock and a boulder. So victims of subtle racism may begin to feel a bit like the Ingrid Bergman character in Gaslight. For those who consider that reference too obscure, here's another. According to recent reports spies for the Russian government have begun aggressively targeting U.S. and British diplomats and journalists with small-scale psychological torture in an effort to drive them insane and ultimately, from the country. The torture in question? Breaking into their homes and moving pictures and other small personal items around. Though there is rarely any real threat of physical danger, the threat of the unknown and the impossible to control, combined with the inability to prove they are being targeted has begun to have the intended effect: driving some from their posts. In previous regimes some targets were even driven to suicide.

I'm far more privileged than most people -- of any race -- and yet I can relate. I recently had an experience in my professional career in which I sensed I was being treated differently than a white counterpart, to my detriment. But I only felt confident enough to confront the issue head on once I shared my concerns with two white friends in the field who assured me that I'm not crazy. Only that's precisely how I had been made to feel when I initially tried to broach the issue with those involved. (No I can't share the details yet, but perhaps one day if my life turns out to be interesting enough to warrant a memoir I will.) Throughout this experience, I've lost count of how many times when discussing the situation with a friend or family member I asked, "Am I crazy?" I may not have been when it all started but I could see how one can literally be driven insane by subtle injustice, in a way someone like me might not by simply being called a racial epithet by someone everyone agrees is a jerk.

It's unlikely that President Obama sits around asking himself "Am I crazy?" as much as the rest of us. Not just because he enjoys the power and privileges that come with his office. But because growing up in a household with white Americans it is unlikely that the fear and paranoia passed down to some of us, was passed down to him. In fact he probably spent much of his life simply assuming that the salesladies following him around stores just had a crush on him.

For the rest of us, though, the "unknowable" can be pretty daunting.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't trade places with what my parents and grandparents went through for a second. Those of us who are living in the age of Obama are incredibly fortunate. On the other hand, life is a lot less complicated when you know without question where you stand with people -- good or bad, right or wrong. Because when your imagination is left to speculate it can drive you crazy.

You know what they say. "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you."

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com, where this piece originally appeared.

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