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Liminal Living

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How can one be everything to everyone?

How can one be everything to everyone? Source: Poppyseed Bandits hide caption

toggle caption Source: Poppyseed Bandits

This primary season's double-whammy on the Democratic side, which has many voters debating which to endorse first — the first woman president, or the first black president — has gotten more contentious with each passing day. I imagine it has both Clinton and Obama feeling a bit lonesome, sometimes... figureheads perched on the prows of ships on rocky seas. Joseph Williams of The Boston Globe got a taste of the contradictions and trials Obama now faces when he ran for student body president in the 70's at Ooltewah High School in Tennessee. For him, it boiled down to one essential conflict: how do you appeal to the wider white population without losing your authenticity among your black peers? Especially when, as he says,

I watched "Soul Train" most Saturdays, pleaded with my sisters to perm my nappy hair into an Afro, and was a member in good standing at Ooltewah High's "black table," where the small group of African-American students ate lunch in the cafeteria. But I had much in common with Ooltewah's white kids, too - a suburban upbringing, a taste for Space Invaders, Monty Python, SCTV, and the Who. And when I talked, I sounded a lot like them.

What do you think? Of course, no one can please everyone all the time, but is it possible to be cross-racially fluent without compromising the self? I'd especially like to hear about successful resolutions of this particular internal conflict, and how seeing Sen. Obama negotiate the divide on the most public of stages has affected your thinking.



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Why does everyone refer to Obama as a "black" candidate? Isn't his mother's "white" genetic contribution equal to his father's?

Sent by Linda Kompanik | 2:46 PM | 1-14-2008

As a Caribbean American, one has to remember that Barack Obama has no legacy of slavery. This makes it easier to communicate across ethic and racial lines. We Caribbeans do not have the "sell out" mentality because of association outside our race.

Sent by Ralph | 2:48 PM | 1-14-2008

Noting the fact that the Iowa caucus was won by nearly all-white Iowa, the need of the media to talk about "Race" at this point almost seems a knee-jerk reaction... as if to make Anglos nervous.

Sent by alphonso bethel, miami, florida | 2:51 PM | 1-14-2008

As an African man of 50 plus years, I do not occur that Africans need to double mask their true selfs within the predominate white society. In fact, given the historical legacy of Africans building this economy [as well as British, French, and Spanish-Spain] via its free labour,the shoe falls on the other foot. Senator Obama is half white and half African but reared under his mothers white values as core. He needs not appeal to whites nor Africans beyond the issues at hand. However, given the overarching tendencies of white male supremacy, Mr. Obama has a big problem appealing to white male voters who stand to lose their Colgate invisible shield of white male supremacy priviledge.

Sent by K Mjumbe | 2:54 PM | 1-14-2008

As a voter in my 20s, I appreciate Obama's talk about politics after the Baby Boom generation. The first time I heard talk about whether Obama would be able to count on the black vote, I honestly stopped for a moment to think about why. The fact of his being a black man had not registered with me before that moment. I look forward to seeing a younger set of leaders move us past the divides of our past.

Sent by Shannon | 2:55 PM | 1-14-2008

It was after watching Senator Clinton on Meet The Press last night that I realized something significant. I had been making a very unfortunate and stereotypical distinction between Clinton and Obama. Do I want a BLACK man in the white house or a white WOMAN. (notice the caps) Neither of these labels should be a factor. From now on I will ignore these labels and focus on their issues.

Sent by KEVA | 2:55 PM | 1-14-2008

Obama has presented himself as first an American and has a vision of a united country. The prospect of FINALLy becoming a united country of multi-cultural, ethnical, and religious backgrounds with this man as a leader is wonderfully exciting. Could this be the year we finally put our differences behind us and take pride in the reality of our national identity. I'm thrilled with the prospect.

Sent by Mary Dandrea | 2:56 PM | 1-14-2008

Mr. Williams experiences are similar to mine. Having always been on the forefront of Integration, my brother the first to attend a white school, in small town, NC and myself having attended the same Catholic School in the sixties. Often because of my upbringing, education, and speech, I am often more indentified in a white social group, instead of an African American Group.

Mr. Obama I think has a great chance of actually unifying, this very diverse nation and world. However, I still feel that some older thinking Southerners will see race as they always have.


I believe Mr. Obama can unify the diversity

Sent by Eric Paige | 2:56 PM | 1-14-2008

I am black and excited about the Obama candidacy, but if he is truly interested in change and a new kind of candidate why didn't he defend Hillary Clinton when it is evident from her work and her husband's Presidency that they are not racists. If he had, this would have shown the mark of a true leader and not just another politician.

Sent by Angela | 2:59 PM | 1-14-2008

As a white male voter, since we are talking about race, I don't think it is so much an issue of race as culture: I am drawn to Obama because he was raised outside the country and has, in my opinion, a broader, more objective, almost an `outsider' viewpoint on the culture wars. I feel he can be more objective.

Sent by Jay | 3:01 PM | 1-14-2008

I am tired of the emphasis on race. What I care about are the issues. I couldn't care less what color or gender the candidate is---what I want to know about is their positions on the issues of war/peace, the environment and equity for the poor.

Sent by carinya | 3:03 PM | 1-14-2008

I don't 'get' Mr. Williams point. Of course the public is going to have trouble 'hearing' an angry black man vs. an Obama-sounding black candidate. I'm white and I stopped 'hearing' John Edwards partly because of the tenor and tone in which he was delivering his message. I don't care about the 'color' of any of them--or the gender as in the case of Senator Clinton.

FYI, I am a retired, white, female who caucused for Obama in Iowa.

Sent by Karen Herwig | 3:04 PM | 1-14-2008

To Ms. Linda Kompanik,
Your question of Obama's white mother being equal in genetic contribution misses the point.

His mother could get, at night, in any city could get a taxi with no problem. Her son would never have that same result. He will always be considered as "black" because if he is not known, He is very likely to be stereotyped first in the most negative light simply because of that "blackness."

I am an African American, 54, and can remember segregation.

Sent by Kenneth | 3:06 PM | 1-14-2008

I had this conversation with 2 teenage boys yesterday (ages 12 & 18). They notice the "black table" both literally & figuratively, and see it as a way to keep the non-whites out. I myself have worked with the military long enough I am culturally colorblind, but still feel the exclusion of not being black. Senator Obama is right in not making race an issue. In fact it was the old guard racial action community (the Clintons, Mr Jackson and Mr Sharpton) that raised the issue. When will they learn what my mother taught me, that the scab will never heal if you keep picking at it!

Sent by Mike Mitchell | 3:07 PM | 1-14-2008

That is a good point. In Caribbean and Latin American cultures, racial diversity is celebrated and understood. We don't attempt to classify everyone into strict racial categories. Individuals are judged more on character and level of academic and social education.

Sent by Ralph | 3:08 PM | 1-14-2008

"Afro perms" were typically worn by people -mostly whites but some blacks - whose natural hair texture did not lend itself to an "Afro" hairstyle. Judging by the author's photo in the Boston Globe article, he doesn't appear to be one of them. Please enlighten us.

PS Some whites like jazz pianist Keith Jarrett in the following photo, don't need a perm to wear an Afro:

Sent by michael | 3:09 PM | 1-14-2008

It's not that Sen.Obama is Black but "safe" he is not as threatening to White America as former Black American Presidential candidates. I think this is because most of America does not want to admit there there are still issues that need to be fully addressed.

Sent by Roy | 3:09 PM | 1-14-2008

I am a college professor, African American, "ivy-league" educated female, who not only finds this topic worthy of study, but also conversation. I believe, that it is, in essence, impossible to bridge the racial divide in any meaningful way in American society today. We just can't talk about it. For example, if Black folks use the venacular most comfortable or familiar to them, they are "too black" for whites to hear their message. If they "talk white", they are perceived as trying too hard to fit in with the group that will ultimately, even if unconsciously, cast them aside. We had a debate in our faculty lunch room recently, where many of my white colleagues were surprised to find that I did not believe Barack Obama would EVER be president. I feel, we're just not ready. But with their "we are the world" mentality, they have, for all intents and purposes, engaged in a most harmful form of "trickeration" -- believing that because they have been taught not to express the covert racism commonly practiced in our society, that they therefore, are not and could not be racist. Every Black person knows, that no matter how close you allow a white person to get to you, eventually, it's going to happen -- they're going to "slip up" and use the "n" word, or insult you in some other way. Why? Because we refuse to have any real or meaningful discourse about what race really means in our society. Every group has too much invested in the status quo. We keep glossing it over, accepting second best (electing our "first Black president -- Bill Clinton), rather than pushing to have other voices (such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who speaks with that familiar vernacular) heard and accepted (not tolerated, but accepted). It won't happen, because, sadly, it can't. I find it ironic how we talk around race, expecting and waiting for Obama to engage in some form of racial politics, but refusing to call the Clintons' on their subtle, but oh-so-familiar use of it themselves. The very use of the term "race card" is a way of downplaying the hurts that are so often affiliated with the discussion of race. We can't even talk about it, how will we ever move to acceptance?

Sent by K Williams | 3:11 PM | 1-14-2008

Race will always be part of our national landscape. I think that Obama offers all of us an opportunity to look at the issue of race in the political arena from a new perspective, and an opportunity for us to look beyond the issue of race as we think about the kind of leadership we need today and in the future. His background and life experience has taught him the necessary skills to successfully negotiate and thrive in the larger world, including in the world of politics, and allowed him to relate effectively and sincerely with different groups of people. He understands because he has experienced first hand what a broad range of people had experienced. Whether or not he bears the legacy of slavery, he identifies with the larger group of Black Americans. There are experiences common to the every member of the same racial group as there are differences within and among that same group. He is a black candidate.

Sent by Lynne May | 3:12 PM | 1-14-2008

I was grateful to hear Joseph Williams acknowledge the privilege that white candidates have to express anger at injustice while on the stump. John Edwards uses that privilege to acknowledge the elephant in our political living room. His campaign seeks to educate voters about the corporate interests buying politicians' support for policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many. Until we change that equation, and unite around our common economic interests, we can never address racism.

Sent by Toni | 3:23 PM | 1-14-2008

I am a 28 year-old white male, but I can understand how the 'angry black man' makes whites, especially older whites, nervous and uncomfortable. How could such a figure not? It immediately brings up the violence and unrest of the civil rights movement. Myself, I see an angry black man and think, "of course". Because there is plenty left to be angry about. Anyone who disputes that is just plain off their head. Yet, if Obama adopted this tone, this line of rhetoric, I would no longer support him. Why? Because despite recognizing that racial tensions and injustices persist, I don't think we need a myopic president, which is how someone like Jesse Jackson comes off. That type of passion and focus is necessary to move us foward, but maybe not in a president. I think the younger generation really does see Obama as a figure of hope. But not because he's somehow 'white.' Many white American youth who grew up in homogenous settings know that we carry prejudices, despite ourselves, and we don't like it. We don't want to look at someone who is a different race and feel they are or should be different just because of their skin color. Nor do we want the discussion about race to be swept under the rug. But we do want a sign that progress is possible, that we will be able to overcome. Obama, personally, politically and symbolically offeres that hope.

Sent by J Lohmer | 4:02 PM | 1-14-2008

Thank you Karen Herwig -- you just made my point. You could take this as an opportunity to realize what a luxury is it to not see race and to not want to (therefore, have the choice not to) "hear" the voices of your fellow Americans, which, to you, sound angry. We cannot simply continue to place bandaids on the gushing wounds of race that won't heal. It's going to take some effort, mutual respect, and understanding to consider the wound serious enough to merit stitches, surgery or some other medical attention. It's easier to ignore or choose not to see/hear the pain caused by these wounds, but that's an ineffective route to racial healing. Whether or not we are comfortable with the fact that some folks' wounds have not been addressed, in the spirit of healing a nation whose time has come, we should put our unearned privilege of being able to choose to ignore it, aside...for the good of all Americans. We may think that it's the African American "table" that segregates, when in all reality, whites are the most racially segregated group in America...having the least amount of contact with members of other races. It has been, and continues to be the legacy of white Americans to segregate and exclude, forcing others to seek refuse in safe places -- amongst each other. Where it's ok to be who you are. Until we face that sad reality, we will continue to hear anger, and not progress. It's nice to know you caucused for Obama. But don't disrespect his heritage, and more importantly, his experience as an African American, by pretending not to see it. See it, and accept him for it as well.

Sent by K Williams | 4:21 PM | 1-14-2008

Thank you K, for your inciteful comments. As a 50ish white guy, it's off my radar scope, but if the topic keeps coming up, I guess we need to keep discussing it until it's resolved.

As I see it, the trouble, Kenneth and K, is that you remember segregation and talk as if it never went away. I, too, remember segregation, that "those people" literally lived "across the tracks" in south town, that the star basketball player was asked not to try to join the all-white First Baptist Church. The difference is I no longer dwell on it. You can now see me every Sunday, singing in the multi-racial Baptist choir, harmonizing next to the big black guy.

Jay and Carinya seem to say that race only matters to those who remember when race was an issue, and to those who learn that position from their elders.

Sent by Mike | 4:33 PM | 1-14-2008

I represent the Ad Hoc People's Committee in Favor of the Forced Retirement of the Dunbarian Mask, the Politics of Respectability, and Other Overworked Black-on-White Victim-Status Metaphors for Race Relations. Freedom Now!

Paul Lawrence Dunbar couldn't wean himself off dialect poetry and nowadays Richard Wright is considered a meanie for noting the same linguistic strategy in a much-loved 1937 Zora Neale Hurston novel. Rapper Lil' Wayne is currently on the cover of two music magazines wearing, to paraphrase Dunbar, "the mask that scowls and lies," and Duke Ellison famously said: "We wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as defense." Cosby has long been accused of playing The Politics of Respectability, while conservative academic Shelby Steele, in a new book about Sen. Obama points out two masking strategies used by blacks in black/white relations: bargaining and challenging. Louis Chude-Sokei's recent book about vaudeville performer Bert Williams is largely about Caribbean and other diasporic blacks in 1920s Harlem masking as African American in order to negotiate an increasingly restricive conception of "blackness."

Sent by michael | 5:27 PM | 1-14-2008

In any election one person has to win and one has to loose. If I loose, is it because I am Black, White, male, female, or did I loose because the voters wanted the other person? Mr. Williams said he lost in high school because the school wasn't ready for an African American class president. How does he know, maybe they either didn't like him or liked the other person more. He does himself a disservice if he feels that his race is what defines him. Senator Obama is a young, fresh, moralistic candidate who just happens to be Black, male, tall, Christian, married, ....etc. I don't dislike Senator Clinton because she is a woman, I don't like her because of her politics and what I perceive as insincerity. I personally like what I see of Mike Huckabee, but don't like his political beliefs. I don't like Mitt Romney's political beliefs and I don't like his mud slinging.His religious beliefs don't concern me. We as a nation need to stop labeling people because of their gender, race, personal appearance but rather listen to their views and how they conduct themselves as to honesty and compassion and make up our minds on those facts, not on if they are Black, White, female, male. Religious affiliation or belief isn't important unless they try to impose their beliefs (or non beliefs)on others.

During the interview the question was raised about if Mr. Obama acted angry he would be precieved differently. Yes, but not becasue he is an angry Black man, but becasue he would come off as a one issue candidate. Rev. Jackson ran as an angry Black man. He succeeded in bringing to the forefront issues that needed to be heard, but a president needs to look at the many needs our country faces. There are many candidates who run on one issue and they succeed in getting that issue into the platform, so it is a necessary part of our political system. It seems to me that many of the punsters on TV have forgotten that.

By the way, I'm middle aged, white, southern and female and I support Barack Obama. I believe he is committed to bringing our nation together. Once the election is over so should partisan politics. Elected officials should work for all of us, not just for their party or voters.

Sent by Jean Holstein | 7:01 PM | 1-14-2008

Mr. Williams experiences are similar to mine. Having always been on the forefront of Integration, my brother the first to attend a white school, in small town, NC and myself having attended the same Catholic School in the sixties. Often because of my upbringing, education, and speech, I am often more indentified in a white social group, instead of an African American Group.

Mr. Obama I think has a great chance of actually unifying, this very diverse nation and world. However, I still feel that some older thinking Southerners will see race as they always have.


Sent by Eric Paige | 8:06 PM | 1-14-2008