Monday, May 20, 2013

President Obama on being black in America

President Obama in his speech to the 2013 class of Morehouse:
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share. Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith. Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work -- she knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy -- the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you're not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers. 
Powerful stuff! It reminded me of this from Eric Wattree.
Being Black in America gives one an education and perspective on life that you can't get anywhere else. That's not widely recognized, because public attention is often focused on the most dysfunctional in the Black community. But contrary to popular belief, that might not be an altogether bad thing, because it allows the excellence within the Black community time to incubate, untainted by the public eye. That's what allowed Barack Obama to explode upon the world stage as a fully developed powerhouse, and there are hordes of others just like him who are currently incubating in Black cocoons in suburbs and inner cities all over America...

So this is an exciting time for Black people, because we recognize that the world is about to discover what we already know - that there is nothing in the human experience more impressive than watching the development of a Black child, who's been dragged through the pits of Hell and the brutal experience of “American Exceptionalism,” then emerge on the other side as a well adjusted, uniquely eclectic, resolute, and learned product of his or her environment.
I know from my own experience that when I do my best to try to see the world through different eyes, it is often my experience as a woman in a patriarchal society that I draw on. Its what makes the task of overcoming privilege so very difficult for straight white men. I know they can tap into empathy because I've seen it happen, but it takes special effort.

Those of you who read here regularly will know that I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tim Wise. More than any other straight white man, he has explored the depths of privilege and has an awful lot to teach us. But in my mind, he demonstrated the limits of that exploration in his reaction to President Obama's speech yesterday at Morehouse.
President Obama’s commencement address today at Morehouse College — one of the nation’s preeminent institutions of higher learning, and perhaps its most famous historically black college or university — during which, among plenty of rather standard commencement speech boilerplate, the president lectured this year’s graduates about the importance of taking personal responsibility for their lives, and not blaming racism for whatever obstacles they may face in the future...

Barack Obama has for once and all revealed himself to be not nearly the deep and analytical thinker so many have long believed. After all, Morehouse men like the ones to whom the president delivered his commencement address today, are not the type to slack off, or make excuses for their shortcomings, or wait for others to do things for them. They earned admission to an amazing school, and have now graduated from said school, on the basis of their own merit and hard work. To hector them like supplicants looking for a handout is crass and beneath the dignity of a President of the United States, and especially one who shares the coloring of most, if not all of those graduates.

Barack Obama knows how demanding a school Morehouse is. So to preach hard work to these men, as if they had never heard of it — as if they now intended to kick back and wait for things to be handed to them — is to not only insult their intelligence, but also to feed every vicious stereotype already held by too many white Americans about black males, no matter how educated. It is to give us fuel for our already too-well-stoked racist fires, made ever hotter now by the ability to say, “See, even Obama knows the truth about black men! Even he knows they’re always making excuses for their failures.”
I know that there are many African Americans who also cringe when President Obama talks about this to black audiences. So its not simply Wise's privilege talking here. The valid point they are making is that this kind of talk does get used by white Americans to feed their stereotypes about irresponsible black men.

But my own experience as a woman and the time I've spent listening to strong young black people tells me that the challenges faced by these Morehouse graduates doesn't end with commencement from this historic institution. President Obama knows that both the individual and systemic racism these young men will face in their futures will be unrelenting and often insidious. And as hard as they worked to get into Morehouse and complete their degree, it will continue to come at them in ways that eat at their souls - if they let it. That is what it means to be black in America.

The danger President Obama was warning about is letting that kind of thing distract them - through anger or depression - from the commitment to excellence and the empathy the world so desperately needs from them.
You now hail from a lineage and legacy of immeasurably strong men -- men who bore tremendous burdens and still laid the stones for the path on which we now walk. You wear the mantle of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes, and George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy and Thurgood Marshall, and, yes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These men were many things to many people. And they knew full well the role that racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had no time for excuses.

Every one of you have a grandma or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by. I think President Mays put it even better: He said, “Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no man living and no man dead, and no man yet to be born can do it any better."

And I promise you, what was needed in Dr. Mays’s time, that spirit of excellence, and hard work, and dedication, and no excuses is needed now more than ever. If you think you can just get over in this economy just because you have a Morehouse degree, you’re in for a rude awakening. But if you stay hungry, if you keep hustling, if you keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same -- nobody can stop you.
Wise suggests that in saying this, President Obama is perhaps the one "who has internalized the idea that black people, even highly educated ones, are would-be malingerers, just waiting for a reason to go soft and blame the world for trying to keep a black man down.” But that would be like suggesting that every grandma, uncle or parent who has said the same thing to a young black person has internalized all that as well. There is a reason these messages are so prominent in the black community. And it has more to do with how young black people are treated in our culture than any shortcoming on their part.

President Obama was calling these young graduates to something better. He knows how badly this world needs their leadership...and their empathy. He knows that they have a unique role to play in healing what divides us. Rather than getting mired in the rage that racism can engender, he was asking them to step up to that plate and carry on the legacy of Morehouse Men.


  1. I watched Obama's speech yesterday and frankly, its the most honest thing I've heard said at commencement in a long time and its what my parents (both former sharecroppers) drilled into my head. From the pulipts on Sunday morning, to what my grandmother told me when I graduated high school, Obama said nothing different than anything a self-aware Black person hasn't heard at the kitchen table:

    1. The world isn't going to give you anything. Despite your success now, you'll still find racism (and some brothers' cases - homophobia) lurking at your every step. You want something in America, you're going to take it by force.

    2. Don't let the occasional bouts of racism stop you from success because your parents had it tougher than you and sacrificed a lot for you. (Again, my grandparents were uneducated farmers living under the boot of Jim Crow who sent three kids through college.)

    3. The Black community needs us (young educated Black men, the so-called Talented Tenth) to be leaders because white folks sure as hell ain't gonna save our neighborhoods. So don't become like many young Black college grads who run off after getting their diplomas to chase paper and women (or men if that's what you're into), never bothering to give back to the 'hood. (I know plenty of cats who did just that. Hell, I did it for a few years.)

    4. Being a good man (father, partner, neighbor, friend) is more important than being rich and powerful man. Again, Obama cares more about his wife and daughters than being the leader of the free world. Seeing as there is a culture of underground bacchanalia in the ATL to lure many a Black man astray - this definitely hits home.

    I love Tim Wise's writing - he gets white privilege better than most and puts into your face loud and clear. But despite his somber and intelligent insights, he's still a white guy writing from a vantage point of privilege and there are limits to his understanding of Blackness.

    As for the Black intelligensia who get all huffy when Obama talks like this (I looking at you, MHP and Cornell West), chill out. If more black leaders spoke about Blackness as honestly as Obama, we may not have half our problems. Also, most of the people complaining are mad that no one cares what they think.

    1. Thanks SO much for this. What an amazing family you have!

      My simplistic look at this kind of thing often tells me that the messages the white community needs to hear are the mirror images (or opposite) of what the black community needs. In his quest to combat white privilege, Wise is consumed with the former. Yesterday PBO spoke to the latter. Its interesting that when Obama talks to a predominantly white audience, he stresses the idea of community responsibility - the mirror image of personal responsibility (ie, citizenship, "you didn't build that").

    2. Thanks, SmartyPants. Frankly, preferred Obama's speech to the Duke commencement I had suffer through last weekend. I had to hear Melinda Gates' ode to oblivious white privilege and she, the wife of one of the richest men in history, understands poor women of the world by drinking tea and looking up at the sky. GTFOH.

  2. Great post Smartypants. I thought President Obama delivered a sober, learned, and inspiring call to service. It seems to me, some African American intellectuals and our white allies are unable to understand that it possible to understand and racism and privilege and reject victimhood at the same time. President Obama did not say anyting yesterday my parents and grandparents haven't told me hundreds of times.


  3. Wise in this instance is on the outside looking in. All he had to do was take a look at the faces of those young men who were graduating and watch their reaction to know the President had connected big time.

    1. Great post. Slightly off-topic, but related to Obama's impact on young African-Americans, go to the below link to check out this photo. It's in keeping with photos you occasionally post.

    2. Tim Wise means well, but I'm starting to get tired of his "I'm the only white man who gets it" routine.

    3. You bring up a good point, Woody. I think it's a case of Tim Wise evoking his own white privilege by ignoring the feelings of the Morehouse grad and their families.

  4. Yes, SMARTYPANTS. Thanks for this. Tim Wise can't and doesn't speak for me on this one. In fact I felt insulted by his article. I'm the mother of two MOREHOUSE grads. I know what they have faced. I have experienced their despair. What the president said was what I and their father have said, over and over again. The reality for our guys is different and that is just a fact. Keep talking President Obama, we near you and thank you.

  5. In his criticism, Mr. Wise overlooks one thing...Barack Hussein Obama "IS" The President Of The united States and they still call "him" the n-word. What he's telling these young men is that the struggle will continue long after they turn those tassels. Mr. Wise has spent a lot of time "exploring" race in America, but President Obama along with many of us are "living" race in America.

  6. Mr. Wise stepped out of his depth! He can NEVER know what being Black in America is about. What he can know is "white privilege" and can speak eloquently about it as well as its likely impact on AA! But his mis-interpretation of the President's speech is not forgivable. He should have known better. He is like a guests who gets welcoming validation and then stays too long.

    The President's speech ws magnificent!!

    1. Sorry, but I can't be as harsh with Wise as you are.

      Racism is pervasive and it affects everyone on both conscious and subconscious levels. So, maybe Wise didn't know better. And honestly, I don't blame his sensitivity since we have conservatives who also feel compelled to give me and other blacks "prep talks" on how we can improve ourselves. However, the nuances between this speech from Obama and what he said at the CBC a few years ago (which was also misinterpreted as a putdown on black people) are quite different from those coming from conservatives. Yet, nuances aren't always easy to pick up, especially when you're on the outside looking in (like Wise was here). And unfortunately, thanks to our long history of racism, some nuances are based primarily on skin color and not much else. Sad, but true.

      I'm much more forgiving because 1) Wise's work is amazing and 2) I suspect this isn't the only time he may have "stepped in it." It's inevitable and it's the reason why Wise does the work he does. He clearly understands that his white privilege puts him at a disadvantage. This insight puts him so many steps ahead of other whites. But, he's still human and he's going to make mistakes. We all do. The question is whether or not we learn from them.

  7. This is definitely a case of somebody meaning well, but not quite getting the point.

    I was watching a video of a speech Wise gave a few years ago. He briefly mentioned (with surprise) that many blacks internalize the racism inflicted towards us. Well, of course we do, Tim. How could we not? Ever since we were old enough to understand, we absorbed many of the messages given to us by the dominant culture. And it is this that Obama was talking about at Morehouse. He was encouraging the graduates not to succumb, just as he didn't.

    I would challenge Wise to find anything said by the GOP, conservatives (including the black ones), white nationalists, etc, etc. about African Americans that either included the word, "empathy" or had any empathetic tone at all. I don't think he will find it. When Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum complained about "blah" people on the campaign trail, there was no empathy there. Just resentment, blame, and arrogance.

    I appreciate Wise's concern but, he's focusing on racism from the perspective of the privileged. However, fighting racism from the perspective of the discriminated is not quite the same. The mere fact that Wise was surprised that many blacks end up internalizing the racist attitudes towards them gives away his own privilege. But, something tells me that he doesn't have as big of a problem accepting this as many whites (especially since many would deny that white privilege even exists).

    1. I may not be as aware of my white privilege as Tim Wise is, but I tend to wait if the people who were addressed in a speech are offended before I'm offended for them. I'm pretty sure the Morehouse graduates are smart enough to pick up when they're being insulted and don't need a white dude to tell them. Just sayin'.

    2. Sorry, but we will have to agree to disagree on this point especially since Wise wasn't at the speech and probably only read it. When you're reading a speech instead of attending one, you are more likely to jump to your own conclusions before considering others. When you're actually in the room hearing the speaker, this is a little more difficult. It's not just your own conclusions you're dealing with; it's the ones from the audience and even speaker themselves. I've made this same mistake myself.

      So, to me, this isn't"Just sayin'" because it's so easy for human beings to be fooled by their own perceptions. By the way, please reread my last sentence. If you really think Wise hasn't had to deal with this type of misunderstanding before, then you're naive. There's no way he could understand white privilege so well without stumbling around the way.

      As an African-American, I fully and completely understand that if I expect whites to understand where I and other people of color are coming, I should expect them to stumble from time-to-time. That includes you.

      It may seem strange to you that I'm demonstrating so much forgiveness here. Well, just as Wise is learning to empathisize with POCs and is confronting the white privilege he's benefitting from, I'm returning the favor and showing empathy towards him. I've seen the bubble of white privilege up close and personal and it has very, very thick walls. So, if whites who want to break this bubble stumble from time to time; no biggie. I have a much bigger problem with whites who either deny racism exists or decide to wallow in their racial ignorance.

  8. As the Shawnee say - "A Great Enemy is a gift from God." I have learned much. More than I have ever wanted to know. Sometimes at great cost. But I wouldn't trade it for anything.


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