A white person—especially a white man—in the United States today, try as he may, is unlikely to be capable of eliminating racism from his thought processes. Our history and the institutional racism upon which this country was built and on which, unfortunately, it still relies are too deeply ingrained in our experience for racism to be washed from our consciousness. It’s simply part of our cultural DNA, an ugly mutant gene that resists extraction. Its demise, I’m afraid, will require generations of careful genetic engineering.
That is not to say racism is excusable; it is not. However, those who try hard to excise it from their psychological makeup ought to give themselves some credit; credit for recognizing its malignancy and credit for making an effort to cut it away. I count myself among those who struggle to eliminate that genetic defect from our psyches. Only through those efforts will our minds be cleansed of an ugly stain. But the effort will not be successful in our lifetimes. So, while we can congratulate ourselves on the efforts, we can never stop making them; claiming ‘success’ would undo all the good we’ve tried to achieve.
More than eight and a half years ago, as the country was preparing to select the party nominees for President of the United States, I put my support behind Hillary Clinton. I liked Barack Obama, but I thought he was too young, too inexperienced, to lead this country. When he won the nomination, I willingly—though not without some concern—stood behind him and supported his candidacy. I celebrated his election to the Presidency and hoped the election of a Black man would change the direction of the country. It did, but not in the way I had hoped. Instead of bringing the country together, Barack Obama’s election served to emancipate the racism that had been muffled by years of public education that taught overt racism was intolerable. His election seemed to trigger a signal to overt and covert racists alike that it was now acceptable to stop hiding their racism and, instead, to unleash it on President Obama and his wife in wave after wave of vicious attacks, thinly disguised as partisanship.
I discovered my lingering racism in how I reacted to the attacks on the President and his wife. I feared that they would justly respond in kind, labeling their attackers ignorant racists (which they were and are) and revealing righteous anger. I feared the President and the First Lady would expose rage at the racist barrages flung in their direction; I feared they would play right into the hands of their attackers, giving racists excuses to fling even more racial slurs and epithets their way. That fear of mine revealed my own latent racism; I thought they would respond the way most of us expected them to respond when attacked. What I did not understand is that they have endured a lifetime of racially motivated slurs and accusations. They have perfected grace under the onslaught of racist diatribes and provocations that would shatter most people. I did not realize, early on, how strong and dignified the President and First Lady were.
During the eight years of his presidency, Barrack and Michelle Obama demonstrated decency and decorum and poise unlike I have seen in my lifetime. Barrack Obama’s presidency was the model of leadership and civility and strength of conviction. Unlike his soon-to-be-successor, President Obama does not take himself too seriously, but he takes the gravity of his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief with somber resolve. Michelle Obama’s time in the White House brought focus to issues relevant to all Americans; bullying, opportunities for young girls, and healthy lifestyles, among others. And above all, she demonstrated and served as the role model for kindness.
My racism, the racism I once thought I had overcome, revealed itself most visibly in my surprise at how much better a leader President Obama proved himself to be than I expected. In spite of my early reservations about his experience, I thought he would be a good president. But I was surprised at just how good he has been. And I think my surprise came as a result, in part, of the fact that I did not expect a Black man to be so much better than so many of his predecessors. I did not consciously feel that way, but I think my subconscious allowed me to think it.
There were times during his time in office I vehemently disagreed with President Obama. There were times when I felt betrayed by his actions. I recognize his and my philosophies and opinions about a number of important issues conflict; in some cases, dramatically. But during the course of his presidency, I came to understand he stood firmly for what he believed was best for the American people. I came to appreciate and realize that he brought to the office a commitment to justice for all that almost no one else could have done. Because of his racial identity, he brought a unique perspective that no white person could have brought to bear.
Unfortunately, through no fault of President Obama’s, millions of Americans remain trapped in the cesspool that is racism. It would have been impossible for him to reach into every one of their lives to show them the lunacy of their racist attitudes. But I feel certain that his performance in office and his behavior as President of the United States changed a lot of minds.
It’s odd, I think, that my admiration for a Black man in the White House helped reveal to me my latent racism. For that and for so many other things, I am grateful to President Obama. I am grateful for a First Lady who exhibited so much decency and style and class. I will miss them. I will miss them deeply. I hope they remain highly visible role models in the years to come.