Obama, Psychic duality & Race

Where charity and love are, there God is.
The love of Christ has gathered us into one flock.
Let us exult, and in Him be joyful.
Let us fear and let us love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love each other (and Him).

As a young woman working in New York City, I watched a lovely, brilliant middle-aged black woman struggle to maintain her dignity and forbearance when she was told, by a youngish white woman who seemed to love her, that she — the white woman — could not invite the black woman to her wedding reception because she’d been told by family members that they would not attend the wedding if the black woman came.

The black woman bowed her head at her desk, as though she’d been dealt a blow to her solar plexus, and she breathed deeply, and when she raised her head, she said, “someday, we will get past this, but not today.” She meant “we” as a nation, but also “we” as people living and working together. She was very forgiving to the white woman but the relationship was could never be the same. She explained to me, “Yes, she hurt me, but that family put both of us in a terrible position; forcing her to face her new life that way, with all those bad feelings, forcing me to either forgive her or burden her with my anger. She doesn’t have to live with me, but she has to live with them.”

She could not return in kind, or hate the young woman, she said, “because that will only hurt me, in the end.” And besides, the woman said with her eyes brimming, “I have loved her.”

Witnessing all of that, I came to understand that the burden of the black woman, whom I adored and hurt for, was a complicated one. She had been rejected because of her race, by someone who genuinely liked her; for a very stupid reason, she had been wounded. As a Christian woman, she wanted to forgive, both for God’s sake and for her own, but as a black woman, she was fed up with having to deal with clumsy whites. “I do get tired,” she said to me, “of wondering whether people are taking me at face value, or if they’re seeing me first as black, and then as a woman. I just keep on being who I am – it’s all I can do.”

I was very young at that time, and I don’t know that I fully appreciated then — or even if I fully understand now — the maelstrom of human feelings and contradictions that inhabited the world of this wonderful lady. I knew that she got hurt over that incident, and had probably been hurt a thousand times before, for no other reason than because her skin was black.

I knew the white girl got hurt, too, because she was ashamed of herself and what she had felt she had no choice in doing. And I believe it hurt her very much to have created a breach in their friendship. She left the job for another opportunity not long after — in fact no one from our office got invited to her wedding.

I do not know if the “friends from work” table at her reception included any black friends from her new job; I’d like to think it did. I’d like to think her painful experience with the first job had strengthened her resolve not to have her friendships dictated to her by her family. Another part of me wonders if she simply didn’t allow herself to get close enough to any black co-workers for it to matter, so as to avoid hurting anyone, anywhere, including herself.

The issue of race in America is complicated, painful and far from settled; and while it remains unsettled, it wounds us all. I think it would be very, very difficult for any white American to fully comprehend the ache and anger of blacks in America, even the “middle class” blacks who share many of the same values as their white counterparts.

I wasn’t going to write about politics from here through Easter — I was going to keep it strictly religious, but I realized, in reading Bob Owen’s piece here, that the story of Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah White is not strictly political.

From a sermon 2 years ago, by Chicago Baptist Minister (and Obama delegate) James Meeks:

“We don’t have slave masters, we got mayors,” Meeks said then while preaching. “But they are still the same white people who are presiding over systems where black people are not able to be educated. You got some preachers that are house n——. You got some elected officials that are house n——. Rather than them try and break this up, they’re gonna fight you to protect that white man.”

About 22 years ago, my husband and I were looking to move from our tiny house into something bigger. A realtor brought us to a very nice center-hall Colonial that was really too big for our pockets. The welcoming homeowner was an African-American engineer, and he told us to feel easy as we looked about because his wife was at work and his kids were all off at college. I peeked into the daughter’s room and saw her photos and collection of Barbie dolls, and I was surprised and a little sad. I had enjoyed the company of black friends at school, but our socializing had been limited to extra-curriculars and parties; we’d never visited each other’s homes, and it had never occurred to me that young black girls were playing with white, vapid Barbie — who gives white girls enough self-esteem problems — because back then there had been no alternative.

I remember wondering: what must it be like, to be a little girl playing with dress-up dolls, these absurd ideals of “beauty”, when none of them looked remotely like you, had hair like your hair, or eyes your color? What was it like to be a little boy playing with action figures or GI Joe’s and seeing in none of those “heroes” anyone who looked like you, like he might have come up from your background?

Dolls and action figures have changed, of course, but both this incident and the other, at work, made me think of the psychic duality that must be part and parcel of being black in America. You’re not simply a man or a woman, you’re a black man, a black woman, and when people see you it is what they notice first, and then their brains begin to process stereotypes and horror stories or stories of ridicule. And the psychic duality is that your fundamental personhood is being challenged daily, by a thousand little unintended insults — like the lack of a black doll to play with — that you’re supposed to overlook, and by other, more overt and intentional insults that you are supposed to transcend, all while maintaining your dignity.

Some might say all of that is not limited to the black experience, that a fat person faces those same snap-judgments and stereotypes, and that is true, but only to a point. A fat person may shed the extra poundage; a black person cannot shed the skin.

There is absolutely nothing simple in the matter of race in America, and I don’t envy any black man or black woman their daily grind.

It has been exceedingly difficult to discuss race in this nation for about 30 years, because anytime anyone, white or black, has tried to make a serious point, the word “racist!” is immediately flung out; lasting and damaging labels are instantly attached to people, and so everyone just shuts down. People guard their words and swallow provocative debating points — even if their aim is to generate a real, open and honest forum of ideas — because no one wants to be called a racist.

This happened to Bill Clinton and to Bill Cosby; it happened to Rush Limbaugh and Geraldine Ferraro. It happened to me, actually, last week, when I was called a “racist” on another blog for writing this; I was also deemed “hypersensitive” about being called a racist.

To which I replied, “I don’t think you’d like it.”

But see, I didn’t think anything I wrote was “racist.” I simply made the mistake of trying to discuss race at all.

“Black” America is forced to live a psychic duality, but in a way, “white” America is, too. We are supposed to somehow split our brains into never even noticing that there are racial differences between us, unless we’re working in praise of those differences. So, there are no differences between us . . . but we celebrate the differences . . . but there are none, and if you think there are, you’re a racist. Now celebrate!

Does that make sense? No wonder the national psyche is so battered. No wonder Obama is having difficulty straddling this chasm, despite his long legs. No wonder issues of race are distracting us from a much larger issue, which is whether he is competent to be our president and CIC.

No one likes being called a racist, and fear of being so labeled (or called “sexist”) is part of what is roiling both the nation and this particular election. You cannot talk “race” (or gender) without being denounced by people who don’t want to shatter their own illusions about their own “righteous” ways, or who don’t want to enter the discussion because they might be called “racist,” or a “sexist” too. Toxic, toxic.

Obama’s candidacy has, for better or worse,
— I think probably for better — revealed the complicated and shaky state of race-relations in America. Middle class “white” America had not realized just how touchy things were, perhaps because we hadn’t “wanted” to see it, or perhaps because in our minds, with our kids rapping and adopting “street” clothes and lingo, and the popular culture seeming fairly ingrained with a “multi-culti” mindset, it simply seemed like race had become a secondary or tertiary matter. Or, perhaps, we hoped it had.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King waited for the day when his children would be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. That day seems very far away, right now, and “white” America — even “well-meaning” white America — shares blame in that. But perhaps “black” America does too. Dr. King was not, I don’t think, exempting blacks from the challenge of considering a man’s character before his skin color, but modern reverends like Wright and Meeks seem to be teaching otherwise.

At Easter, we have many reasons to be joyful, and our prayer is “Alleluia,” but this Easter I am going to offer my prayers up for all of America, and for everyone who is being touched or hurt by the issue of racism.

And I am going to pray for the churches, particularly those churches that preach about the color of skin over the content of character, who preach racial identity over the transcendence of the Christ, who was born, died and rose for all of us, in our myriad shades and hues.

I will pray that Jesus’ own desires may be fulfilled: that all may be One.

Christopher Hitchens notes Rev. James Meeks as well.

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About Elizabeth Scalia