Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Irrepressible Power of Blackness in the Age of Obama or Day to Day Racism in 2010: It Ain't Going Anywhere

I don't generally use this project as a location for personal venting and revelation. In fact, I do not have a preference for those blogs that are "today I had a bad day" or "now I am sad because X, Y, Z happened." I get that those types of projects are worthwhile and meaningful. Moreover, in an Internet of nearly endless possibilities there is room for everyone. But as we approach Dr. King's birthday and the 1 year anniversary of Obama's presidency there are moments when personal openness seems to be the most appropriate way for reflecting on how race remains operative in American life. It would seem that the personal remains political.

In "post racial" America we are told that race no longer matters. Most of us know better. Race has certainly changed over time. Race is a paradox. It is both unstable and stable. Ultimately, race is what scholars Omi and Winant in their groundbreaking book Racial Formation describe so deftly as a "changing same." Privilege, professional accomplishment, wealth, and pulling up oneself by their own bootstraps is not an insulation from the daily indignities of racism. These seemingly benign inconveniences are cumulative proof of how deeply rooted white supremacy is in this country.

We get followed around stores (ask Oprah, there are times when even she didn't get let in). We get asked for our id's when using credit cards while white folk who are in fact more likely to commit fraud go unmolested. Students and clients alike often look surprised when we walk in the room as their teachers/advisers. We have paid the cost to be the boss. But now we have a higher mountain to climb in order to earn many a person's trust. And as I have said elsewhere, for me, the greatest, most practical power of whiteness is the ability to ensure for its owners the ability to choose the time and place of their discomfort. Black folk have to prove our worth--in fact more than our worth--even while the most mediocre of others will never have their competence questioned. People's exhibit number one: Former president George W. Bush.

Those people of color who have achieved despite the obstacles in their path have a thick skin by necessity. We are too "white" for some. We are too "black" or "brown" for others. Damned if we do. Damned if we don't.

To point: in my neighborhood there is a shuttle bus service that undergraduates and graduate students alike can make use of. Alumni are also allowed to use this shuttle service. Tonight I quite innocently approached said bus in order to ask how long it would take to get to my apartment. One would have thought that I was a brigand, a thief, one of those many heretofore indistinguishable masses of negritude that supposedly live to rob, rape, cajole, panhandle, and disadvantage the good undergraduate students of an elite university. At that moment, I have never seen such fear. I was Black Frankenstein. The dozen or so students on the bus were the little white, black, brown, red, biracial, and yellow kids near the lake innocently playing with a flower before I threw them to their death. For the fear in their eyes I could have been The Terminator:

Fear is infectious. The bus driver, an African American himself, was also intoxicated by their terror. Sad.

Yes, I am a bit older than the late teens, early twenty somethings on the bus. No, I am not threatening. No, I was not hostile. No, I was not drunk or disorderly. And yes, I spoke in my best of the King's English. I am not a bad man...although I have fantasies of being one--one part Stagolee and one part John Henry if they had been given a part in the movie Unforgiven. In the real world, all five foot nine of me is not too imposing. Ironically, I have taught these students. Most certainly, I can intellectualize their fear better than they can. Not ironically, in the wrong context I am just one of those black folk in the neighborhood they are told to fear.

I did not know that I had such power in Barack Obama's America. With his election, I thought that I would be neutered. But tonight I felt like Nosferatu peering in a woman's window. Who would have known that blackness was such an irrepressible force? To terrify, frighten, chill the blood, and intimidate all who dare oppose its power? I must ask, how many of us, (myself included) in moments such as this have experienced a moment of pause where we ask ourselves, "did I do something wrong?" " Was I "aggressive?" "Did I frighten someone? Hell, is this a projection of my own racial insecurity?"

Ultimately, it seems that we are prisoners of our own efforts to justify the credos of colorblind, post-racial, race blind, playing "the race card," 21st century America.

Sorry, but today I do not feel like following that script. As Brother Malcolm said, "what do you call a black man with a PhD? You call him a nigger." What do you call those of us without one? I can only imagine...

Indulge me. Help a brother out if you can by completing the following sentence: The irrepressible power of blackness in the age of Obama is....


macon d said...

Great reminders in this post for a white person, thank you.

I tried to complete your half-sentence, and all I could come up with was, "The irrepressible power of blackness in the age of Obama is a white pathology that's so deeply embedded in the white psyche that as long as 'white' and 'black' people exist, it will never go away."

When such realizations strike, they're so sad and maddening and nearly depressing that I hate to even type them out. But then I turn around, get all Churchillian again, and carry on as best I can.

gordon gartrelle said...


Same neighborhood about 5 years ago. I was walking to campus in the afternoon and I saw a (white) fellow Humanities/Core instructor I knew from the University. I thought I'd be uncharacteristically social and chat with him. I said hi and tried to make small talk. He looked like he had seen a spook (wink wink).

It weirded me out because I saw him in staff meetings every week, yet hen he saw me away from the University, I was just a random--and therefore threatening--black man approaching him.

When I saw that he was scared, instead of trying to reassure him by saying, "Hey, it's me...We teach the same class!," I just stood there staring silently. I wanted to make him as uncomfortable as possible.

That campus can be too much to bear: a lot of the students are annoying, sheltered geeks and the town-gown bullshit never ends.

Anonymous said...

hey, that's funny. The 'power' is in the privileges of reverse-racism. Obama got elected in a real wet-behind-the-ears Cinderella story because he is black, not despite it. He's the ultimate beneficiary of unofficial Affirmative Action. Like most AA hires, he doesn't actually know how to do the job.

Meanwhile, anybody with a tv set can see that when there's a vicious, violent crime committed, the criminal is very likely to be black. Blacks have a culture of amorality, crime and violence. It's embodied in your rap music.

OTOH, blacks are quite proud to say that a black guy can beat up most white guys, blacks are tougher, etc. You want the best of both worlds.

To keep getting the privileges of the reverse-racism that dominates the country, you must insist that reverse-racism doesn't exist at all. Sometimes some of you say that you don't know what it is, or that it's impossible for it to exist. But the average naieve white voter is learning to not buy that anymore.

Tell me, were you one of those who jumped up and cheered when OJ got away with murder?

Anonymous said...

more instant evidence: "and you know what happens when we get angry" in your sidebar

yes, we know very well what happens: blacks riot and kill innocent people who are not black. Or they engage in property crimes against non-blacks and throw in gratuitous violence against the victim, to somehow get even.

Sure, your words quoted above were tongue in cheek. But they still indicate that you yourself like to perpetuate the image... when it suits your aims.

gordon gartrelle said...


Why do only your posts draw the cowardly knuckle draggers out from their caves?

I'm a little jealous.

Anonymous said...

and there you have it, the black racist responds like a lowlife and a fool.

you, 'gordon', are a cowardly fool no less who uses an assumed name and photo to blog with.

there is no one more deluded and ignorant than a black racist who swims in his imagined victimhood. Consequently, you have not one cogent argument. No wonder your blog is a ghost town.

Bmore Belle said...

What an idiot anonymous is.

Anyway, I live in Baltimore and this situation sounds a lot like something that might happen in the neighborhoods around the Maryland Institute College of Art and Johns Hopkins University and School of Medicine. So I have mixed feelings about Chauncey's experience. On the one hand, I totally get his anger and pain about being "Frankenstein" -- it's an awful burden black men in this society are forced to bear and it sucks.

On the other hand, students at MICA and Hopkins are regularly mugged and sometimes assaulted in the neighborhoods surrounding their schools and the assailants are invariably black men. So the fear is reflexive.

Granted, it makes no sense to fear ALL black men because some are dangerous. No more than it makes sense to fear all white men because some are dangerous. But in certain environments people respond before they are able to think this through.

History is the perpetrator -- we are all, to a greater or lesser degree -- its victims.

Big Man said...



Have you perchance noticed what happens on white campuses when their teams happen to win a major sporting event?

I'd wager no.