By Marcia Alesan Dawkins
The second decade of the 21st century has ushered in changes in technology, economics, politics, culture and narratives of identification. From the advent of social media, to the Great Recession, to health care reform, to the revised racial categories on the U.S. census, American lives are faced with increasing tensions and ambiguities. No single icon reflects these tensions and ambiguities, and the paradigm shifts they are inspiring, more cohesively than President Barack Hussein Obama.
Many argue that Obama’s election to the presidency and status as global “supercelebrity” are signs that we have entered a post-racial moment in which everyone and everything are mixed. Among these believers is Chris Matthews of MSNBC. Matthews, in a very different take on Obama’s public image than that offered by Sen. Harry Reid, said Wednesday: “I forgot he [Obama] was black.” How could we forget this important aspect of our president’s racial identity? What does Matthews’ statement mean?
“I think Matthews intended this to be a positive statement,” says Dr. Rebecca Herr Stephenson, a media effects researcher at the University of California, Irvine. “But I doubt whether audiences will receive it as he intended.” In other words, while the racial climate in the U.S. does show some signs of progress, as Obama’s status demonstrates, the idea that race and/or racism is dead ignores the salient fact that we continue to live in a society deeply influenced by race, with material consequences that affect life chances and have implications for contemporary race relations that go beyond black and white. Matthews jumped to this conclusion while ignoring the daily reality of many Americans. He admitted as much when he declared: “I felt it wonderfully tonight, almost like an epiphany. I think he’s done something wonderful. I think he’s taken us beyond black and white in our politics.”
“While there is some truth to the issue of progress in Matthews’ post-racial thesis, it is grounded in a privileged perspective that ignores what still needs to be done in order to achieve liberty and justice for all,” says Dr. Ulli Ryder, a professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. “From a lesser- or nonprivileged perspective, post-racial politicking is wishful thinking and must be mitigated by a closer look at social, political and cultural contexts. If we look at the ways in which we have dealt with events like Hurricane Katrina, increasing educational segregation, wars against Islam, immigration reform and the privatizing of our prisons it is easy to see that we have much work left to do.”
So why, in the face of such turmoil, is there such a fascination with mixed-race icons like President Obama? In a post-race nation, mixed-race people are presumed to be beyond the traditional concept of race as an observable set of fixed biological and transhistorical characteristics. If this is the case, then race can be considered a costume that can be put on and taken off whenever necessary and convenient. Within this context, Matthews’ comments make a bit more sense. Here’s more of what he said: Obama “is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he’s gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it’s something we don’t even think about.” Post-racial by all appearances. Let’s think about it.
“Because of their supposed superpower to transcend race, mixed-race people are touted as a new model minority and can be propped up to denigrate other groups of color,” warns Dr. Ryder. “From Vin Diesel, and Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) and Keanu Reeves to Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey and “American Idol” ’s Jordin Sparks, mainstream society is reminded that multiracialism is not only our destiny but our reality.” Popular reality television shows like “America’s Next Top Model” have even gone so far as to steer contestants through a makeover process in which they become biracial because the ethnically ambiguous look is the latest trend in marketing.
A quick look over recent decades reveals that this is actually old news. We’ve been asked to celebrate several milestones of mixedness to prepare us for this alleged post-racial moment. Two milestones are virtual miscegenation in the form of a computer-generated “image of the new Eve” as “the new face of America” on the cover of a November 1993 issue of Time magazine and the model of digital pastiche on the cover of Mirabella in September 1994. Another milestone is the “check all that apply” option on the 2000/2010 U.S. census as an opportunity to refute the need for future race-based government initiatives. A fourth milestone is the public presentation of race as a figment of the social imaginary per PBS in its 2003 three-part series entitled “Race: The Power of Illusion.”
The latest milestone is the election of President Obama, whose image in the national imagination is interpreted, by commentators like Matthews, as one of racial transcendence instead of an invitation to frank deliberation about the complexities and contradictions of race in America. Rather than simply declaring that considerations about racism and race are either wrongheaded or unnecessary, perhaps we can use Matthews’ gaffe to explain that we must contextualize race and racism, use logic to understand how conflicts and inequities emerged, and then make progress through honest communication. Perhaps then we will see that Obama’s image is better interpreted as a starting point for interracial dialogue rather than a post-racial epilogue.
White House / Pete Souza