Obama, Psychic duality & Race

Ubi Caritas

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 home-owner 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 gone to middle school and high school with black students but our socializing had been limited to after-school clubs and dances; 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 over-look, and by other, more overt and intentional insults (or buffooneries) 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, and driving today I heard the word spat out at Sean Hannity. 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 – apparently – 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 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.

Here is Tom Maguire on the talk about race we’re not having

Where charity and love are, there God is.
Therefore, whensoever we are gathered as one:
Lest we in mind be divided, let us beware.
Let cease malicious quarrels, let strife give way.
And in the midst of us be Christ our God.

Where charity and love are, there God is.
Together also with the blessed may we see,
Gloriously, Thy countenance, O Christ our God:
A joy which is immense, and also approved:
Through infinite ages of ages.

Christopher Hitchens notes Rev. James Meeks as well.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • chuck

    I believe that the Gen X (and Y) are much better than my generation (which is older than yours)

  • TheAnchoress

    Yes, I agree with you. I think the kids coming up are in much better shape than my generation or the ones before. They don’t carry the baggage of the last 50 years with them.

  • ruthie

    This is a wonderful post.

  • Sue

    Thank you Anchoress for this wonderful post.

  • http://jscafenette.com Jeanette

    You forgot to mention what a picnic it is to be an American Indian (not Native-American for me, please) raised on an Indian reservation and being told in first grade, “I hate you, you black-headed Indian!

    To this day if I go to a store to make a major purchase to be delivered to a loved one on the reservation the clerk is very nice (I don’t “look” Indian) until you give her the address for the delivery. Then you get the same old feelings you thought you had forgotten.

    When my daughter got married at least 50% of the guests we invited were black. My son-in-law’s family is prejudiced and didn’t like it, but he’s not prejudiced and these were friends from work who had watched my children grow up just as I watched theirs grow up.

    My six year old grandson and his ten year old sister from that marriage have black children as their “best” friends and never mention their color.

    I think the generation we raised is more open and therefore their children are. We will soon fulfill MLK’s dream.

  • http://hootsbuddy.blogspot.com Hootsbuddy

    One of your best essays. Thanks for your candor and insights.

    As I listened to a radio talk show host yesterday spilling out negative poll numbers showing a sharp rise in Obama’s “favorable” numbers it was clear that he was giddy with excitement. What he left unsaid was more painful and embarassing than the smoothe manner he was spinning the numbers.

    I had the image of a playground merry-go-round already turning with a satisfied Pappa smiling at a toddler having a good ride. Those endless out of context snips from Wright’s sermons are like a snow storm on television. Barak Obama is being buried alive by the impact as he campaigns now against two opponents: one Republican, the other another Democrat. He’s advancing a good fight, but he’s maintaining whatever dignity he has left.

    As an Obama supporter, I feel sad and helpless watching him go down. And no, I’m not a victim. I’m a comfortably placed white man in his sixties looking forward to retirement. I see Barak Obama as the most decent public servant to receive this level of popular support. Candidates not bought by special interests are few and far between. It will be another long season before we have the chance to vote for another.

  • Caustic Conservative

    Thoughtful post, as always.

    As long as race remains a focus, the tensions will remain, representative of the chicken-and-egg paradox our nation’s long struggle with race issues has created. Currently, frank discussions of race are not possible without a racism charge coming from one quarter or another, indicating that we are nowhere close to putting this behind us.

  • igout

    I dunno, Anchoress. I’m feeling major guilt-fatigue. If black people want to believe white folks infected them with AIDS, conspire to get them addicted to drugs, and that we buy Tide to keep our Klan robes spotless, fine. Great. Wonderful. Hope it’s working for you. I don’t care anymore.

    Obama is slippery goods, but Rev Wright is an honest man. Thanks, Rev, for liberating my middle finger.

  • http://www.justgrits.wordpress.com Obis_Sister

    Yes, it makes perfect sense. It’s the day to day life here in the South. Celebrate our diversity, but YOU are required to feel GUILTY because of YOUR skin color and what YOUR (collective) ancestors did to MY (collective) ancestors.

    And if you complain one tiny bit, you’ll be branded a racist.

  • monsignor-pat

    This story is why I read The Anchoress every day. My children do have a better chance to overcome the race issues that, despite good intentions, will plague our generation to the end. But for all of us the struggle to treat all of our brothers and sisters on either side of the ever more blurry racial boundary with the dignity and love that they deserve, despite our shared history, is a journey and goal worth striving for.

  • http://www.spiritualthingsmatter.com Viola Jaynes

    Anchoress, this is a wonderfully written post. I also love how you ended it. Those words are beautiful and so profound.

    Not having grown up in this country, I did not have a real good understanding first hand about the racial divide. However, in my 30′s, I worked in an office that had about half white employees and half black employees and it was in that office, during the OJ trial, that I began to see this divide first hand for myself. I remember thinking that this is an issue that will have to be dealt with again.

    Regardless of what the outcome will be in the election, I do think it was a good thing that this has come out so clearly and strong. It is truly something that each individual, black and white alike, will have to look deep into their own hearts and in complete honesty deal with what they find. Thank you for this post!

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  • http://donsingleton.blogspot.com/ singleton

    If the word racist is going to be applied to people, like yourself, that definitely are not racists, just because they write something that someone disagrees with, then what are we going to call people who really are racists?

  • http://notsothoreau.com terip

    I went to a segregated grade school. (And your Indian friend might be interested to know that they attended my school, not the black school.) I find it odd that we never seem to have any recognition of how far we have come since the 1950s. Instead, we are supposed to believe that no progress has been made at all.

    I’ve said it on other forums and will say it here: I would never support Obama because he is one of the most liberal members in the Senate. Having said that, just once I would like for him to stand up and say, “Isn’t this great? Our country has come to the point where a black man of mixed parentage is being considered for the highest office our country has. Both my wife and I have high paying careers and a good lifestyle. Our daughters can expect even more.” And to date, I haven’t heard that from him. I’m also waiting for him to tell his people that they are going to have to take some personal responsibility for broken homes and black sons being raised without fathers. I can’t fix that for them. If I heard those things from him, I would be willing to give him a fair hearing.

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  • wilmagerlsma

    Terip, he did say that in his speech and the fact that he said those things in his speech is what made the whole thing a very good speech on race regardless of who you’re supporting in this campaign. It’s only that good a speech because senator Obama acknowledges that society has changed for the better and can continue to change:

    ‘The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow. ‘

    ‘For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past … And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.’

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  • fraydna52

    I enjoy your writing very much, but this scenario really stood out to me:

    “I peeked into the daughter’s room and saw her photos and collection of Barbie dolls, and I was surprised and a little sad… 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.”

    There were dark-skinned Barbie dolls 22 years ago. I know because my blond-haired fair-skinned daughter had some in her collection. I wonder if you are projecting onto that child your own feelings. As Byron Katie (www.byronkatie.com) would say, “Is that true? Do you know that is true? ” Maybe the child liked the dolls. I also question whether it is true that Barbie dolls give white girls self esteem problems. It’s too much of a generalization for me. My own experience is that I played with them for a short time, thought they were ugly-looking, and never gave them a second thought.

    I like what this pastor wrote recently about race relations:

    What is needed in the racial divide that continues to exist in this country is re-creation. In this I draw on the original Latin root, recreare, which means “to create anew.” Re-creation draws on the Christian understanding of the new covenant as an example for the healing of the nations that must occur in our world today. That understanding recognizes Jesus as the “new Adam” coming into the world to re-create that which had been broken in creation. It is the power of the redeeming and re-creating Christ that offers us the possibility of re-creating the relationship between white and black, in essence the possibility of a do-over in which we get things right this time.

    I am not suggesting that we ignore the history of oppression that exists. Sin always bears scars, and the scars from racism and slavery will never leave us. Yet, in the same way that grace offers us forgiveness of sin in the face of those scars, grace also offers us the opportunity to get things right this time in the face of our history.

    Part of this re-creation involves the theological concept of redemption, that is, to make right what has been lost or broken. As I have gotten older and studied the scriptures, and as I have seen the redemption story played out in the world, I continue to be amazed at how God regularly takes bad things and redeems them for the good. There are too many stories of God taking something that looks horrible on the surface and transforms it into something of beauty or goodness. How is it that God can take our story of oppression and hatred and redeem it into something good? How is it that God can see our division and say, “I can work with that…” creating great art through God’s loving embrace?

    These are questions that we all must ask, for if we don’t, then we have little hope of seeing the reality of God’s kingdom come to fruition in our lifetime.

  • Terrye

    I was born in 1951 in Oklahoma. There were Mexicans, Indians and black people in that state, not just white faces.

    There was also racism. I remember when I was a little girl we had stopped to get a sandwich at a drive in. In those days there were some Dairy Queens, but most places were owned by individuals. We were sitting in the parking lots with the windows down on a warm spring day and an old black man walked up to the window. The girl working there told him they did not serve his kind. My Dad got out of the car, walked up to the old guy who had turned to walk away and ask him what he wanted. The man said a cheesburger and a cup of coffee, my Dad turned to the girl and he said, Give me a cheeseburger and a cup of coffee and I hope to God I am white enough to get it. He did. He gave the food to the black man who gave him the money to give the girl. When the man tried to thank my Daddy he said, he did not owe him any thanks. He had only done what any decent person would do.

    That is how I learned that racism is wrong.

    I do not think that Obama has helped the race discussion and I do not think his impact has been positive. In fact I think he has probably sit back race relations in this country.

  • Terrye

    BTW, I don’t intend to vote for the man in any event. I dislike his politics. Too bad that is not the issue rather than his race. I thought he was supposed to transcend all that. But then again, I am just a typical white person.

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  • john31415

    But perhaps “black” America does too.

    Perhaps? Look, I have two sons the age of Obama’s daughters. Surely as a Catholic you know the power of what we learn as children. Do you think it out of the question that one day my sons might be refused an invitation to Obama’s daughter’s wedding because they are “God damn typical white American racist slavers who created the AIDS virus to kill Blacks” and therefore unfit for polite company? By allowing his daughters to be taught such nutter swill as children, Obama has demonstrated judgement which should render him unfit to serve as neighborhood assistant vice president, let alone be a US Senator. Words can be wonderful and powerful, but they do not replace actions. Obama can’t have it both ways, and he has spoken more persuasively by his actions than by his words.

  • http://cobb.typepad.com Cobb

    It has been a while since I’ve been by and these days I regret having taking you off my RSS list for efficiency’s sake. I should have known you’d show a bit more probity than the average bear.

    What I have been most surprised by is the extent to which so many Americans are content to leave their thinking simplistic and the quickness with which such simplistic thinking has cast Obama as a racist. I am thus convinced that the majority of Americans are not only ignorant but obstinate in their ignorance. Who among those pointing fingers is willing to ask the man himself exactly what kind of Christian he is, or indeed what kind of church Trinity is which is so near and yet so far. Last week I heard a chorus of Americans cry that there are no bigoted white grandmothers in America and that they know Obama’s better than he does. That’s some powerful denial.

    But it should not come as a surprise nor am I sure if it’s much of an indictment. A society such as ours, content as it is with how a quarter of our girls have STDs, and how powerless parents seem to be in a face of an admittedly degenerate pop culture is not likely to be well-suited to reform any of our deep ills. And if we can roll up a solution into one candidate, or one election, if we can have one Wizard of Oz to be for us our brains, hearts and courage, why not? Are we really so disappointed? Can’t we all just admit that there is no solution – can’t we all just get along in futility? That is the resigned state of America today, at once shallowly self-righteous and incapable of repairing. We know all the right answers, and none of the discipline or courage to make things robustly right. So Obama got a 400 on his racial SAT score. Next.

    I’m one of them. You know. One of those race men who spent years trying to generate a positive praxis. I’m like the PhD in Mathematics who actually decided to teach in a highschool math class. I walked in with no illusions and got frustrated nonetheless. I realized that people didn’t want to do the homework, that they figured they’d never have to do the proofs in real life and that they could just get their MLK calculator and have the right answer. It’s not about the right answer, it’s about coming up with the solution – about understanding the theory and working through it. About recognizing the beauty of God’s mind in the very essence of it, of the intellectual rigor and the satisfaction of understanding why. It’s never about being, but about doing. It’s about the work – work that few people wish to be bothered with. Work so many Americans thought could be outsourced to Obama, until they found a blemish on the resume of one of his references.

    Obama got a lot of things wrong, but he got one thing right. He told us all that he cannot bear the burden of this symbolism and that his campaign is not the solution – that the blueprint was written a long time ago. That the proof of the equation of equality is written in the Constitution. But now we’re all too lazy to do the math and we pretend that there is no solution. For shame.

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