Monday, August 11, 2008

White-bread vs. white trash: let's call a spade a spade (alternate title: "cokie roberts complains that Obama ain't acting white enough.")

The kind and talented folks over at Talking Points Memo have noted the asinine statements by cokie roberts suggesting that Hawaii is too foreign and exotic for Barack Obama to chose as a vacation destination. She thought Myrtle Beach would have been a better choice.

They sort of dismiss it with casual, bemused derision; asking for suggestions of better, more 'white-bread' destinations he might vacation at to please the pundinistas. Casual derision is all her stupid-ass comments deserve, but I think it ends up glossing over a couple of things illuminated by her statements.

Let's ignore how retardedly patronizing cokie is being in suggesting that she knows better than he where he should vacation. Actually, maybe we shouldn't ignore that. Would she have said that Hawaii was too exotic a locale for mccain to visit? No, of course not. And why not? Because he is white. For Barack Obama, with his brown skin and non-European name to be considered for president, folks like cokie roberts want him to jump through extra hoops to prove to them that he is American enough, white-acting enough, un-ethnic enough for them to dein to grace him with their votes.

This is the quiet, irritating racism which threatens to derail this race. I would bet a dollar that cokie roberts doesn't think of herself as racist. I'd even bet a second dollar that she thinks she is quite progressive. And in the larger sense of the world, she probably isn't an outright racist. Most of us, most Americans aren't. But it is the little, sometimes subconscious things which get sticky and can really get so irritating. Honestly, sometimes it is easier to deal with someone who will come right out and say, "I'm not going to vote for a nigger," than someone who says, "There is just something about him I just don't trust."

Is cokie saying she doesn't trust him? Not per se when she's positing that he is vacationing somewhere too exotic. Why is it too exotic for him to vacation there while it wouldn't be too exotic a place for john mccain to vacation? Because for a person of color, the general damns the individual. For Obama to vacation somewhere ostensibly 'exotic' is to be in danger of being seen as 'exotic'. If mccain visited an exotic locale, its otherness wouldn't become associated with him the individual. I'm ignoring of course that Hawaii is an American state and Obama's family is there, but again, if mccain had been born in Hawaii, his association with an exotic locale would be considered something that gave him extra dimension rather than a way to dismiss him as different. Because he is white, for all appearances fully of European decent. This is also why Barack's preacher was more of an issue than mccain's crazy preachers: with those in a different group than us, the sins of an individual become the sins of the race while the sins of someone in our same category are their own, not so easily contaminating those around them. So the actions/beliefs/statements of one black man, Rev. Wright, are considered indicative of the actions/beliefs/statements of another black man, Barack Obama, above and beyond their relationship and what either has said to the contrary. mccain's preachers shamed themselves, and only considerable flogging made the public conflate their actions with the candidate and so now are mostly forgotten to anyone who doesn't watch the campaign obsessively.

I don't mean to sound high and mighty in all this, like I'd never make such subconscious judgements. We all do. It is the nature of in group and out group relations. You are going to more readily identify with someone in your in group, with whom you recognize shared traits and so more accurately read between the lines with them and catch nuances. With people with whom you identify similarities, you are less likely to conflate negative aspects of an individual with the entire group because it also damns you and if it truly isn't a trait of the group you can recognize the lack of said trait in yourself. What makes this sticky and a bit nauseating while discussing this presidential race is how we are drawing the lines around 'Us' and 'Them'. This is part and parcel for the republican party to try to make their opponent into 'Them'. Their whole shtick is whining about how those people are ruining or threatening to ruin the country, and puffing out their chest and saying, "but we won't let them get away with it!" If mitt romney had been a viable candidate outside of just having a shit-ton of money to throw away on a vanity project, mccain et al would have hit him harder and done all manner of insidious thing to remind people that he was a Mormon, that he was different, that he was one of them. In the last election Kerry was a Northeast liberal elitist, and bush needed to be elected again to protect Us from all those scary brown people who hate our freedom and the gays that want to destroy the institution of marriage and corrupt the children. And now, mccain and friends are going to hit Barack Obama with everything they've got to suggest as subtly but clearly as possible that he isn't one of Us. They've already succeeded as painting him as Muslim for the seriously xenophobic folks and they're doing their damnedest to facilitate the belief that he might be the fucking antichrist (literally), so I'm not really going to hold my breath for them to be more sensitive in their message. They should be if they didn't want to be douchebags, but I don't think it is high on their list of concerns. This is why I don't vote for republicans or even very often capitalize their names. Willingness to try to win this way is also why I lost respect for the Clinton campaign.

Members of the press feeding this smear of otherness, however, do get me pissed off. How are they drawing the lines of 'Us' and 'Them'? For a presidential race, the in group is the entire country. The people following the race, the people who can vote for the president, the people who are to be represented by the president are every last American citizen. Not just white people, not just east coast folks, not just stuck-up, spoiled pundits. The treatment of a presidential candidate as 'other'(i.e. 'not really American') is pretty disgusting. The message in the message that ms. roberts was sending is that Barack Obama needs to prove himself as one of Us, as an American. And implicit in this suggestion that he isn't one of Us is also the suggestion that black people aren't really Us either, aren't really Americans at least until they've proven themselves.

I've gone in a different direction that this was originally going to go, as you might have guessed from the title. What originally got me going was TMP's call for more white-bread destinations than Myrtle Beach. cokie roberts wasn't suggesting that Barack should have chosen somewhere more 'white-bread', she meant that he should go somewhere more white trash. She didn't suggest Cape Cod or the Hamptons, she chose Myrtle Beach, the "Redneck Riviera". Why do I suggest that this more telling than choosing another equally or perhaps more 'white' vacation destination? Because it means that the press isn't finished with their stupefying grovelling to the fictionally monolithic Nascar demographic. There has been a sort of deifying of the redneck as this uniquely American beast (which it isn't), and the national press corps goes on and on ad nauseum about how these 'true' Americans will respond to this or that in the national press, as if these strange, otherwise cut-off country folks control the direction of the country and must be appeased before anything can go on. They are simple and should be spoken to like children and only given information in the broadest strokes so the message can't get lost in the nuance. Well, I find it pretty damn patronizing and insulting. Perhaps all the more so because to a certain extent it is true: their are plenty of people who are willing to believe anything they are told by an authority and are all too happy to view the world dichromatically. But I'd start with the press who ate the administration's bullshit on Iraq hook, line, and sinker if we really want to start naming whose shown themselves to be a crucially manipulable demographic.

In the same way that the press both trash and simultaneously idolize this idea of a culturally less sophisticated but somehow more genuine demographic in 'middle America', they also project onto them their own prejudices, using communication with this group as an excuse for airing their own biases. When ms. roberts suggested that Hawaii might be too exotic, to whom is it that she is suggesting it would be too exotic? To those down home folks in middle America of course! Her choice of the Red-Neck Rivera for his family vacation belies who she thinks might not be able to relate to his exotic Hawaiian gallivanting. Perhaps I am reading too much into her choice of vacation destination, maybe it is really a place she loves to visit herself and she is personally afraid of how international Hawaii is, but growing up in the South, Myrtle Beach was always synonymous with a fairly trashy vacation destination. Not that it can't be fun, but it is the kind of place that you go for spring break or graduation trips or possibly for family reunions if you live near there, not really a vacation spot for senators (except perhaps ones from SC, but get real, unless its for a fundraiser they're going to be vacationing on Hilton Head or Kiawah). I'm getting off track. The original point was that in choosing this location, suggesting who it is that might, in cokie roberts's mind, have issue with a black presidential candidate going somewhere that seems too exotic, reinforcing assumptions that he is too exotic(read: "not really American"), she is projecting her prejudices onto this middle America true grit demographic.

I'll stop flogging this for now. Ben asked me to put down the computer so he could sleep and proceeded to admit that he has new found love for nancy grace. I'm flabbergasted and appalled, but can't help giggling as he imitates her ridiculous hyperbole. He does perhaps have a point, "They could take any segment from her show to use as a Saturday Night Live skit and not have to change one word."

I hope that the Obamas are enjoying their Hawaiian vacation.

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