Race is an attribute that generally proves less and less noticeable as a person becomes more and more familiar to us. When we first encounter strangers, we pay attention to appearance. You can learn a lot by looking at a person. Or, so we presume. My mother used to tell my sister that the truth of a man could be gleaned from a glimpse at his shoes. An ex-girlfriend once confessed to me that my having clean, trimmed fingernails when we first met was sufficient evidence that I was good boyfriend material.
As naturally observant and curious people, we examine and scrutinise others. We look at skin colour. We observe behaviour. We study dress. We do these things in an effort to read strangers and make sense of who they are, where they are from, and, perhaps most importantly, how they are likely to interact with us. Just walk down any street at 3am and you will notice how closely you pay attention to the appearance of those around you.
Interestingly, as we spend more time with people, we become so well acquainted with them that we begin to overlook those visibly dramatic features that we could not help but notice during an initial encounter. Over time, and depending upon the social situations in which we locate ourselves, we can forget a person’s race as easily as husbands (or wives) can misremember their partners’ eye colour or fail to recognise a new hairstyle. Proximity and familiarity result in an overlooking of detail and, arguably, forgetting.
Shift in perspective
Thanks to the ubiquitous presence of the President of the United States, regardless of the person who actually holds the office, there are few international figures more familiar to global audiences. The US President is omnipresent, with his image appearing in major newspapers and magazines among other media outlets almost every day across the globe.
Four years ago, when Barack Obama was a stranger who travelled the US and Europe in an attempt to introduce himself to the world, he was clearly, noticeably, identifiably and undeniably black. He was the black candidate for the US presidency. As the black candidate, he felt compelled to give a major talk on race and the dangers of racist vitriol. Voters, who didn’t want to vote for him, faced accusations of being a racist. Voters, who did vote for him, often cited race as an influential factor (and sometimes the only factor) in their vote. When Obama won the election, newspapers across the country resurrected the image and voice of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr to proudly proclaim “Dream Fulfilled”.
| Inside Story US 2012 – Obama: Progressive
Four years later, Obama’s race is rarely remarked upon. Indeed, it no longer seems remarkable. The black presidential candidate simply became The President. This shift in perspective is certainly connected to the deference given to the office but it also stems from the forgetting that occurs with familiarity.
In the current election cycle, those determined to either re-elect or “fire” the President generally do not mention his blackness as a factor in their decisions. Obama’s re-election is not deemed to be part of the continuum of the American Civil Rights Movement. Some people, such as popular actor Morgan Freeman, have even denied Obama his status as being the first black President by reminding everyone that he is every bit as “black” as he is “white”. Obama, to many, is not as noticeably or, perhaps, meaningfully black as he once was.
The racial forgetting that Obama’s familiarity may allow does not mean that the US has moved beyond its fraught historical relationship with race and racism. There is ample evidence of this in the incarceration rate, unemployment rate and life expectancy of US minorities. Although every global citizen may now “know” a black person named Barack and may be able to say that they are not always conscious of his race, race remains a hot button issue. A skillful reminder of Obama’s blackness can still arouse passions.
Racialising the President
In an effort to spur anxiety and paranoia by reminding voters of his blackness, there have been attempts to link Obama with welfare, which is often thought to be government assistance to poor, black folks – even though the average welfare recipient is a lower income white person. By prompting audiences to recall the stereotype of the “black welfare mother” and linking her to Obama, the association racialises – blackens – the President.
Allegations disputing the place of birth of Obama seek to encourage voters to think of him as “other” and not only un-American but also non-American. Historians have noted that the questioning and denial of full citizenship to black folks has a long history in the US. Finally, it is intriguing that more people think that Obama, a Christian, is Muslim now than they did four years ago. The persistence of the Obama-as-Muslim rumour similarly seeks to racialise the President (even though there’s nothing racially particular about religious belief).
Obama himself carefully calibrates his performance of blackness. He understands that the simple act of singing a single line of an Al Green classic song encourages people to see him as soulful and cool (and, yes, black). Years ago, he carefully cultivated a pulpit-style, preacherly speaking voice in order to better connect with and be accepted by black communities. Conscious of black stereotypes, Obama rarely falls into them. He presents himself as a very present father and husband. He projects a calm than never boils into anger. Obama’s blackness is palatable, when noticeable.
Presidential campaigns seek to re-introduce candidates and to remind voters of who they are. As we are introduced to candidate Obama for a second time, how conscious are we (or should we be) of his race?
Harvey Young is an Associate Professor at Northwestern University and a Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. A cultural historian, he is the author of Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory and the Black Body.