Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Between Barack and a Hard Place
Last Saturday during the forced downtime of Snowmageddon Part 1, my mother and I were discussing President Obama’s recent woes. “Why don’t they just leave that man alone and let him do his job?” Mom asked. “How come they have to pick apart everything he says? Don’t they know he’s only human?"
“Well Mom,” I replied, “it’s because he’s President and not only that, he’s the first Black President, so of course they’re going to pick apart everything he says.”
She heartily agreed.
During her highly anticipated (and compensated) Tea Party keynote, Sarah Palin derisively referred to Obama as a “charismatic guy with a teleprompter” and a “law professor at a lectern” as if being charismatic and having a formidable intellect were somehow undesirable qualities to have in the leader of the free world.
But, ironically, these are precisely some of the qualities that make Obama such a perfect opponent for Palin and her compatriots — or indeed make him an opponent at all. Because if Obama had affected the folksy, befuddled persona of say, George W. Bush, during his campaign, he would have never been elected. Seriously. Think about it. If Obama (like Mary Poppins) hadn’t been nearly perfect in every way, if he hadn’t gone to Harvard, made Law Review, had an expert command of the English language, many voters would have never given him a second look.
Even though Obama doesn’t like to highlight his race, the fact that he is Black immediately places him under incredible scrutiny. Whether he likes it or not, his words are never entirely his own. When Barack Obama speaks, many Americans don’t see just a man speaking, they see a Black man speaking and his words are parsed with all the unspoken baggage that fact brings with it. He can’t, for instance, make a grammatical error, and have it just be an innocent (and maybe even an endearing) mistake. For some that error may just prove what they unconsciously have believed all along: that’s he’s Black, ignorant and therefore unfit for his office.
Being a Black woman who’s spent most of her life in extreme minority situations, I am quite familiar with that kind of pressure. From an early age, my parents taught me that it was not enough to merely be good; as the only Black kid in the school for much of my academic career, I had to be the best. So-called Black English and slang were discouraged even during casual family gatherings. If you didn’t learn how to properly read, speak and write the King’s English, the cruel White world was never going to give you a chance. If you dressed sloppily, had even a hair out of place, no one would bother trying to see your true potential. In short, you had to be perfect — just to have a crack at being human.
My lack of an obvious “ethnic” accent and command of standard English has allowed me to do some pretty amazing things like attend excellent schools, publish in an elite academic journal and do a two-hour telephone interview with a local skinhead with him never suspecting he was speaking with the enemy. It’s also gotten me labeled as uptight and elitist. (“You actually spell-check your e-mails?” a co-worker once asked me in disbelief.)
Similarly, President Obama’s considerable strengths cut both ways. The qualities that helped get him elected, namely his exceptional oratorical skills and quick mind, also get him labeled intellectual, elitist and out of touch with the people, even though before the sales of his books, Obama was a man of relatively modest means.
Recently Obama has been letting his hair down, speaking in his shirt sleeves, using more casual diction in his speeches in an effort to prove that yes, he hears us. But even this more populist Obama chooses his words deliberately and is keenly aware of the effect his language has on his image — which is as it should be. The President of the United States is not your beer buddy; he’s President and should carry himself as such. But I also suspect he knows — whether he likes to discuss it or not — that as a Black man his every word and deed are being watched and that even on a bad day, he has to give 120% just to break even.