Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Understanding Racial Baggage

The program's host shares thoughts on Sen. Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday, and how she believes race, history and politics are intertwined in America.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, I hope you can stand another few words about Barack Obama's speech. This time from me. As I was watching it in my office, I found myself doing something I very rarely do, looking around the room trying to gauge other people's reactions, trying to figure out how other people were reacting to it. I say I do this rarely because I am a student of the why guess when you can know school. If I want to know what you think, I have no problem asking, which is probably one reason why I'm in the news business. I told myself at the time I was just being a reporter, trying to maintain emotional distance, so I could get my hands around this story.

Let's just establish up front that no one group is a monolith. Obviously, there's a whole range of opinions within every group, so let's get clear on that. But I found myself wondering what white people might be thinking. Would they be willing to entertain the idea that the resentful black kids they see lounging around playgrounds and street corners might have some reason for their anger? Might they be willing to consider that the colleague they consider hypersensitive to slights might have a point? I wondered what members of the third party to this conversation, the emerging Latino Diaspora, would be thinking. Would they be willing to consider the challenges of a racial history that they are free to embrace or ignore in ways that their darker cousins are not?

But it occurred to me later, I was probably also practicing avoidance, trying to delay rummaging through the contents of my own racial baggage, trying to figure out what I was carrying around. I listened to Obama's careful dissection of his family tree and wondered whether it was a source of pride and pleasure to be able to name and claim kin from all across the world, or was it a source of pain in having to do so? I thought about the fact that I don't know where my ancestors came from, although these days I could probably take a DNA test to help narrow it down. But that test would not come with names, and a history, and a narrative of choice over destiny.

Was I mad about that? Have I ever caused pain because of that anger or shut down the possibilities of the future because it was easier to focus on the pain or the past? I thought about a couple of friends of mine. Friends who at different times and for different reasons showed up to work for weeks, dazed and out of sorts because they were struggling with secrets. One was briefly homeless for reasons too complicated to go into here. The other had had to fight off a racially motivated physical attack on his way home from work and was traumatized by the experience. Their work was suffering and they knew it, but neither of them told anyone.

Why? Because as African-Americans in a demanding overwhelmingly white office, they were sure they would be treated with more pity than sympathy. That they would be marginalized and ultimately rendered invisible. They chose to suffer rather than reveal their hurts to the people they saw every day.

In a book called "Covering," Yale Law Professor Kenji Yoshino describes the high price minorities pay for having to fit into a world that does not always accept them as they are. Setting aside the politics of it, and choosing to dissect his past to lay bare a racial history that for some used to be a shameful secret, Obama has done us a favor. He's reminded us that to be in real relationship with each other, we need to uncover that which we would hide. I wonder how many of us will take up the challenge.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues