Red, white and blue

May 23, 2008|By Gabe Heilig

Language is tricky, and this is never truer than in election years. Take the terms we use to describe ourselves. In my case, even though it's the box I check off on official forms, I'm clearly not "white." I'm pink, or some shade toward that end of the spectrum. And so are you, if you think you're "white." Fact is, other than albinos, I don't know anyone who is literally white. Do you?

I often think we might resolve some of our racial bias if we referred to European-heritage Americans as "pinks" and African-heritage Americans as "browns." Try saying to yourself, "I'm pink and proud of it." Doesn't go down quite as easily as the many generations of meaning embedded in the notion of being "white," which conjures up purity, taintless perfection, even a veneer of holiness - as contrasted with the shadowy murk behind the mask of being "black."

Given the choice of "black" or "white," which would you choose to be associated with? Probably "white." Yet given the choice between "pink" and "brown," we "whites" might not prefer being pink. There's nothing inherently or symbolically superior about being pink. It's a vulnerable shade, delicate in a clich?d, sentimental way; brown sounds earthier, a more solid, substantial color.

Concepts of black and white are embedded in our social iconography. And even though we use the words casually in our daily speech, they seem to trigger all kinds of feelings and assumptions at a pre-verbal level. That these concepts have come to exist as social identities is a figment of our inaccurate thinking, an inaccuracy that we keep speaking into existence. It's become a self-fulfilling inaccuracy that distorts what we see and what we say - and this year may distort how we vote.

The media, and most of the rest of us by now, refer to Sen. Barack Obama as "the black candidate." Certainly, he identifies himself as an African-American. But why? What makes him "black" rather than "white"? He is the son of generations of "white" people on his mother's side and "black" on his father's. Socially, he is as white as he is black: He grew up in a white home, raised by his white mother and her parents. As he discusses in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he had to learn how to be black in the social world beyond their dinner table, and even had to be mentored by a friend at school to learn how to "act black."

And what about us? Both "white" and "black" Americans could point with pride to Mr. Obama as one of ours. Why don't we? He seems to see himself as a human bridge. Why do we place ourselves on opposite sides of it?

I think we are missing something crucially American by labeling Mr. Obama a "black candidate." In some ways, he is one of the most fully "American" presidential candidates we have ever had. In his genetics, his upbringing and his experience, he has lived the American dream as well as its underside, has walked in both its shimmer and its shadow. He carries both in his blood and offers both in his vision for this country. We may reject his vision, and reject him with it, but his vision of America is no more objectively "black" than he is. He presents himself as an American, first and foremost. Any problems we have with that may say more about us than him.

He is certainly not a blank slate, but he is, in a sense, a screen, a national Rorschach test. Blacks are probably as confused by his dual ethnic nature as whites are. He has not emerged from the American slave culture, so his "blackness" is not fueled by that legacy, either in his family history or his social conditioning. His blackness is largely a figment of white imaginings. His choice to be identified as black is based in large part, I suspect, on what he knows from experience many whites will assume about him.

Is there any good news in this? I think there is. I was watching the latest primary results with a friend. As we turned off the set, I commented to him that I've noticed a greater willingness in my interactions with "black" people whom I don't know to say hello, to smile and offer courtesies to one another. My friend, a "black" man, had the same observation, saying the shift in mood was palpable to him. It's as though Mr. Obama's political progress is bringing the rest of us along as well.

We "whites" may have made him "black," but he may make us more American.

Gabe Heilig is a former consulting speechwriter to the White House and State Department. His e-mail is gabe@ideadesign-dc.com.

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