Is water wet?

September 16, 2009

On the chatterbox, they keep debating whether there's a racial element to the criticism of President Obama. The coverage makes me wince. It's like the reporters leading the dialogue have never had to talk about race in any real way. It's even worse than coverage of religion.

A lot of the problem has to do with the word "racist," which, no matter how it SHOULD be used, always ends up connoting some guy with a swastika carved in his skull or a KKK member. It's very easy for any average person to take great umbrage at being lumped together with white supremacists.

I wish we could suspend the use of the word in discussing center, center-right or even far right responses to the President, because the word does nothing to illuminate the far more subtle and insidious dynamic that's really at play.

Before I go on, let's be clear that there is something unprecedented happening, here. Yes, the left hated Bush. And yes, the right hated Clinton. But just so we're clear:

- Death threats against Obama are up 400% since his inauguration. The Secret Service says the number of death threats against Obama is unprecedented, far outstripping anything they've seen with previous Presidents.
- Yelling out invective against the President during an address to Congress is unprecedented in modern history.
- Protests against Obama and his policies are more plentiful and more well attended than anything we've seen since Vietnam, and this is a presidency thus far free of scandal. The signage and sentiment at rallies is particularly bilious. Guns are often present.

There's more, but this is enough to argue that we're in new territory.

I think the current treatment of Obama by political opponents and some allies illustrates what many who've been minorities in positions of leadership already know: the willingness of a group to place you in a position of leadership does not guarantee the group's willingness to bestow up on you, as a minority, all of the authority or deference that the position is normally due.

Authority is a complicated thing. There's a complicated morass of factors that cause us, as individuals or as groups, to bestow authority upon a person, and those factors aren't always benign. There's a lot more to authority than qualifications or societal sanction. Here's what I mean:

As a country, we have traditionally made our President into a Big Daddy.

He leads our armies. He keeps us safe. He is supposed to be optimistic, tough, strong-willed, and in control. He's not supposed to take any crap from anyone.

On a purely rational level, we have elected a President, and the President is qualified, even-tempered, likable, and competent.

But on a psycho-social level, Big Daddy is black.

Here's a little confession:

I remember the first time I had a boss who was a woman. I had been born and raised into a certain kind of throwback household, and in a church and community where men were accorded a certain deference--a deference that I had TAKEN FOR GRANTED TO SUCH AN EXTENT THAT I WASN'T EVEN AWARE OF IT.

By the time this job came along, I was college-educated, well-read, pro-choice, openly gay, and boasted many feminist friends. I would have balked at any label like "sexist."

But the workplace had, up until then, been a male thing. My job, like everyone else's, had been to do all those things we do to jockey for position relative to the alpha male. Having a woman in charge threw me off.

Thankfully, I liked my boss, and she liked me. I knew she was my boss, and I did what she asked of me, but it was awhile before I realized--and really internalized--that she was due the same respect that I would give a male in the same position. (Frankly, I finally accomplished this by reducing the amount of respect I would give a male in the same position. Hi, William! Hi, Mark!:D)

Acknowledging that a minority or person of color is in a certain leadership position does not mean you have necessarily done the self-examination and made the adjustments necessary to grant the full measure of authority to that person.

The deference that we, for good or ill, offer to other Presidents has not been extended to Obama. "You Lie" did not happen to Clinton (who, by the way, lied).

There is a white male vision of authority that certain minorities simply cannot fit, however they might try.

It is no accident, for example, that Hillary Clinton faced constant pressure to appear "tough enough" for the job, and that the pressure had a lot to do with the public image she put forth. Consequently, she has endured jokes about being too "manly," rather than criticism about being too "soft."

And it's no accident that the black man who finally got elected to the highest office in the land seems to wield his power lightly, rarely asserting authority in an aggressive or imperious way (lest he be called arrogant).

It's difficult to see one's own privilege. It's like a fish trying to see water. But most minorities I've known in leadership positions have understood that the respect automatically given a white man isn't so automatic for them.

Is it obvious to me that we've not as a society given our first African-American President the full measure of respect we normally give our Presidents? Is water wet?

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