For my write-up today on Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Obama says on page 85:
“We were always playing on the white man’s court, Ray had told me, by the white man’s rules. If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher, or Kurt, wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had power and you didn’t. If he decided not to, if he treated you like a man or came to your defense, it was because he knew that the words you spoke, the clothes you wore, the books you read, your ambitions and desires, were already his. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. In fact, you couldn’t even be sure that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self—-the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass—-had been freely chosen by you. At best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.”
In my latest reading, Obama talks about how he was insulted for his race by white people, and they were puzzled when he got mad about it. But Obama also mentions a time when tactful education made things a little better: When Obama’s Kenyan father spoke to Obama’s class and answered questions, including one about cannibalism. According to Obama, his class was very impressed with his father.
I can understand somewhat what it’s like to feel powerless and to think that people smugly look down on me when I react angrily to that powerlessness. But, as a white person, I cannot comprehend that sort of scenario at the level that Barack Obama talks about: to be part of a race that is looked upon with contempt by the larger white society, which has power. Whatever things I do that turn off others, I do not have to work as hard as many African-Americans to gain the respect of society.
I wish that white people would take into consideration the struggles of African-Americans rather than dismissing the African-Americans who are angry and bitter. When Barack Obama gave his speech to the 2008 Democratic Convention, right-wing pundits called it angry and bitter. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. But what I didn’t hear those right-wing pundits ask is: Why would an African-American be bitter? Were they to do that, perhaps they’d see that there are African-Americans who are angry for a justifiable reason.
I myself need to work on understanding. I have problems being around African-Americans who are so angry. But what should my approach be? I don’t want to be a patronizing white liberal with white liberal guilt, since that makes me (and even some African-Americans) sick. But I also don’t want to be a conservative who doesn’t think there is a race problem in the United States.