Sunday, January 17, 2010
The Irrepressible Power of Blackness in the Age of Obama or Day to Day Racism in 2010: It Ain't Going Anywhere
I don't generally use this project as a location for personal venting and revelation. In fact, I do not have a preference for those blogs that are "today I had a bad day" or "now I am sad because X, Y, Z happened." I get that those types of projects are worthwhile and meaningful. Moreover, in an Internet of nearly endless possibilities there is room for everyone. But as we approach Dr. King's birthday and the 1 year anniversary of Obama's presidency there are moments when personal openness seems to be the most appropriate way for reflecting on how race remains operative in American life. It would seem that the personal remains political.
In "post racial" America we are told that race no longer matters. Most of us know better. Race has certainly changed over time. Race is a paradox. It is both unstable and stable. Ultimately, race is what scholars Omi and Winant in their groundbreaking book Racial Formation describe so deftly as a "changing same." Privilege, professional accomplishment, wealth, and pulling up oneself by their own bootstraps is not an insulation from the daily indignities of racism. These seemingly benign inconveniences are cumulative proof of how deeply rooted white supremacy is in this country.
We get followed around stores (ask Oprah, there are times when even she didn't get let in). We get asked for our id's when using credit cards while white folk who are in fact more likely to commit fraud go unmolested. Students and clients alike often look surprised when we walk in the room as their teachers/advisers. We have paid the cost to be the boss. But now we have a higher mountain to climb in order to earn many a person's trust. And as I have said elsewhere, for me, the greatest, most practical power of whiteness is the ability to ensure for its owners the ability to choose the time and place of their discomfort. Black folk have to prove our worth--in fact more than our worth--even while the most mediocre of others will never have their competence questioned. People's exhibit number one: Former president George W. Bush.
Those people of color who have achieved despite the obstacles in their path have a thick skin by necessity. We are too "white" for some. We are too "black" or "brown" for others. Damned if we do. Damned if we don't.
To point: in my neighborhood there is a shuttle bus service that undergraduates and graduate students alike can make use of. Alumni are also allowed to use this shuttle service. Tonight I quite innocently approached said bus in order to ask how long it would take to get to my apartment. One would have thought that I was a brigand, a thief, one of those many heretofore indistinguishable masses of negritude that supposedly live to rob, rape, cajole, panhandle, and disadvantage the good undergraduate students of an elite university. At that moment, I have never seen such fear. I was Black Frankenstein. The dozen or so students on the bus were the little white, black, brown, red, biracial, and yellow kids near the lake innocently playing with a flower before I threw them to their death. For the fear in their eyes I could have been The Terminator:
Fear is infectious. The bus driver, an African American himself, was also intoxicated by their terror. Sad.
Yes, I am a bit older than the late teens, early twenty somethings on the bus. No, I am not threatening. No, I was not hostile. No, I was not drunk or disorderly. And yes, I spoke in my best of the King's English. I am not a bad man...although I have fantasies of being one--one part Stagolee and one part John Henry if they had been given a part in the movie Unforgiven. In the real world, all five foot nine of me is not too imposing. Ironically, I have taught these students. Most certainly, I can intellectualize their fear better than they can. Not ironically, in the wrong context I am just one of those black folk in the neighborhood they are told to fear.
I did not know that I had such power in Barack Obama's America. With his election, I thought that I would be neutered. But tonight I felt like Nosferatu peering in a woman's window. Who would have known that blackness was such an irrepressible force? To terrify, frighten, chill the blood, and intimidate all who dare oppose its power? I must ask, how many of us, (myself included) in moments such as this have experienced a moment of pause where we ask ourselves, "did I do something wrong?" " Was I "aggressive?" "Did I frighten someone? Hell, is this a projection of my own racial insecurity?"
Ultimately, it seems that we are prisoners of our own efforts to justify the credos of colorblind, post-racial, race blind, playing "the race card," 21st century America.
Sorry, but today I do not feel like following that script. As Brother Malcolm said, "what do you call a black man with a PhD? You call him a nigger." What do you call those of us without one? I can only imagine...
Indulge me. Help a brother out if you can by completing the following sentence: The irrepressible power of blackness in the age of Obama is....