Sunday, August 02, 2009

the president is black (III): you're better than this, america

I taught a course earlier this summer that discussed relationships between media, underrepresented groups, and dominant culture. Knowledge and power were important concepts, as were Michel Foucault's observations about situated knowledge, and truth regimes.

The idea is that in a hierarchical society, the world looks different to you depending on where you are standing. The world is different to you depending on where you are standing.

The term 'situated knowledge' points out that knowledge is produced in local social settings, and that there is no objectivity.

But: The more symbolic power you enjoy (=the closer you are to the top of the hierarchy), the more likely it is that your ideas about "truth" coincide with the official version of the truth that is broadcast and printed in commercial media.

So, we learn that there are parallel truths in the world, but that only certain truths will get elevated to be perceived as truths for an entire society, country, or social setting.

Enter Professor Gates, Sergeant Crowley, and President Obama. And Lucia Whalen, and the Beer Summit for Three. (You do the math.)

The twist is this: Even though Barack Obama is the president of the United States, he is also a black man in the US. He knows what the world looks like from the point of enormous privilege, but he also knows what the world looks like from the perspective of black men. He knows what you can do as a black man, what you can't do, and when you will get questioned because you look out of place.

The majority in the US do not have this first hand experience. The majority live by a different set of truths. They often think that there is no difference between people based on race. (Because in their experience there isn't.) They think that if something happens to you, it's because of something you did, not because of who you are, where you are, or what you look like. (Because in their experience, it is.)

Every time someone voices an experience that is not shared by dominant culture, the majority, that act challenges the status quo.

I've seen it a hundred times in my classes. It takes guts, it makes people uncomfortable, and it makes them mad.

Attorney General Eric Holder did it.

And President Obama did it. People have spent a lot of time this past week saying that he shouldn't have said what he said. He shouldn't have weighed in on the side of Henry Gates. They have said that up until now he has avoided divisiveness in racial matters, he has proven that he is 'beyond race'.

It seems to me he had been waiting for this moment. It seemed to me that he was eloquent, speaking freely without notes, for exactly that reason. He had been preparing for it for a long time. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, what hidden truth he thought needed to be lifted up: Racial profiling exists. The world looks different to a black man than it does to someone who is white.

White people, dominant culture people, often think that talking about race makes it worse. That if we don't talk about differences they don't exist. What they fail to see is that that is their truth. It's true for them that if we don't talk about differences they don't exist because they don't exist in their lives. But that is not true for anyone of color, any LBGTQ person, any woman, or anyone with a disability.

So if we don't talk, the only thing we accomplish is more of the same. We continue to buy into the "truth" that is produced by the dominant group, for their own benefit.

I think it's great that the United States has a president who is willing, and prepared, to challenge that.

No, that's an understatement. It make me teary, that's what it does.

And then it makes me mad that the fact that a black president says that "race remains a factor in society" can cause controversy.


Hobie said...

How pc can it get??! Try a bit harder, lady! ;-) Like your music though!Greetings from a swede from Dalsland who nowadays lives in Namibia

Lotta K said...


Anonymous said...

great post. babs

Lotta K said...

thanks babs!