19
Feb
08

Why I’ll Never Be President

Part 1,000,000.

Because I’m known for better and worse for my honesty, and no doubt I’d end up saying legitimate but incendiary things like Michelle Obama’s I’m finally proud of my country remark. 

(And like Barack Obama, I could quite possibly spring onto the national scene as the latest golden child [if my prior jobs are any indication], but unlike Obama, ultimately alienate everyone for insisting on doing things my own way, and losing my temper and telling one too many people off – cue McCain here.  Also like Obama, some of the *friends* I’ve made along my radical-pragmatic way will surely come back to bite me in the a**.)

Though I’ve enjoyed the solidarity of the blogs of other Clinton supporters in the last couple weeks, I disagree strongly with the scornful responses of several of them to Ms. Obama’s comments about her national pride (one post has already been pulled).  First of all, the theoretical beauty of our country is that we are free to express disappointment, pride, anger, faith or any level of investment in our nation, its leaders, our fellow residents, etc.  Secondly, if case anyone missed the Democratic primary meme, the issues of race, gender, identity, privilege, and social difference have been front and center this season.  While the media would have us believe that black women are the epitome of our national struggle between voting with our skin or our vaginas (or our default hatred of either), of course the choice between candidates runs much deeper for most of us.  Policies matter, past and present performance matters, personal histories matter, associations matter, constituencies matter, perceptions matter.  The symbolic choice of Clinton v. Obama represents two sides of the same cultural coins, to name a few: rewarding hard work, experience and preparedness versus renewing our faith in the American Dream; playing it safe (middle-class conservatism) versus entrepreneurial risk-taking; or challenging the patriarchy versus the legacy of slavery.

It’s this last scheme that provides the greatest context through which to interpret Ms. Obama’s comments vis-a-vis the white women who have leapt to critize her here.  Just as women have repeatedly argued (see comments) during this campaign’s on-going Hillary Sexism Watch (TM) that men are not in a position to set the parameters of what constitutes sexism, neither should white folks feel free to chastise an African-American woman’s pride in her country.  The truth is that our shared history of slavery splits our country in a crude but material fashion.  White women who criticize Ms. Obama for her remarks, no matter their own experiences of oppression as females in the U.S., do not share with her the specific cultural history of slavery and the on-going experience of being a person of color in a country that has never reconciled our brutal and violent past built on on the backs of those women and men. 

Personally, I related to Ms. Obama on several points made in the NYT’s recent profile of her.  First:

“I am trying to be as authentically me as I can be,� Mrs. Obama said in an interview. “My statements are coming from my experiences and my observations and my frustrations.� 

And if my blog is any indication:

…volunteering her own life lessons from working-class roots and discussing her confrontation with a culture of low expectations.

especially,

She talks on the campaign trail about high school advisers who tried to dissuade her from applying to Princeton because they thought her scores were not good enough. (She graduated with honors in sociology in 1985.)   I, on the other hand, listened to my guidance counselor when he told me not to apply to Yale.

This is why I cried in disbelief after I passed my generals:

“I realized that gnawing sense of self doubt that lies within all of us is within our own heads,� she said in Atlanta. “The truth is we are more ready and more prepared than we even know. My own life is proof of that.�

This is why I cried in my b-school ethics class when classmates said they wouldn’t have taken responsibility for deaths from the Dalkon Shield in a hypothetical corporate board situation:

“Michelle was a student in my legal profession class in which I ask students how they would react to difficult ethical and professional challenges,� said the professor, David B. Wilkins. “Not surprisingly, many students shy away from putting themselves on the line in this way, preferring to hedge their bets or deploy technical arguments that seem to absolve them from the responsibilities of decision-making. Michelle had no need for such fig leaves. She always stated her position clearly and decisively.�

and this is how I always describe the M.A.S. winning me over.

“Eventually I wore her down,â€? [Barack Obama] wrote in his memoir.

And perhaps if Ms. Obama was one of the few African-American female professors I’ve had the privilege to learn from, she too would challenge me openly on my assumptions about race and politics, provide some mentorship on where and how to learn more about this topic, and send me on my way to do the hard work of exploring our histories and my white privilege and opportunities for engagement.  But certainly if that were the case, it would be based on her own professional and personal knowledge of these issues, based on her training and experience as a lawyer and community activist, as well as on her experience growing up as a working-class black woman who has had to work her entire life to overcome pre-ordained expectations of her as a human being.   

My history of growing up with low-income communities, and working in them and in communities of color reveal that class and race and especially the intersection of the two create very different life experiences, worldviews and shared histories.  Research confirms that this is particularly true for low-income people of color, and for African-Americans in particular, as lower-income whites typically have the least degree of segegration from upper-income whites, whereas African-Americans of all income levels have (and consistently have had) the highest degree of residential segregation (which influences education, opportunity, leisure, consumption, etc.). 

So who are we to judge the sources of national pride for Michelle Obama?  What the h*ll do we know about her life? (Despite the perception to the contrary we have in our celebrity saturated culture.)  Every RP reader knows I’m a Clinton supporter, but should Michelle Obama be sworn in as First Lady, I’m hoping she uses that position of privilege to lead us through some of the hard work of bridging our racially and economically cleaved histories.  She owes us no such effort, but she’ll certainly have our eyes and ears.

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7 Responses to “Why I’ll Never Be President”


  1. February 19, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    So many things:

    First, I don’t know that America would want you as First Lady – as you describe above – but that’s probably why you could be President. 🙂

    Second, saying what you’re supposed to say is why you have me – both to guide you in front of it, and clean up after it. 🙂

    Third, you raise the notion of authentic self… but the point is once you’re in public view, authenticity becomes less who you are, and more who you appear to be. No profile can contain all of who you are (says the writer), and the filters of interpretation that others have are beyond your control. I think Michelle Obama is very genuine; but really, you can’t know that.

    Finally, I think the problem with what she said is “finally.” I have my issues with my country… but I’ve been proud of it, in various ways, all along. I don’t think the issue for Mrs. Obama is directness so much as tact, and in that sense she reminds me – though I’ve been thinking Jackie Kennedy, I must admit – actually of Betty Ford, who, partly because of her alcoholism, tended to be forthright when it wasn’t the best idea.The “finally proud of my country” may be true, it’s just… a little thoughtless. As is the “I’d need to think about it” comment about supporting Clinton should she be the nominee.

    I agree Michelle Obama is quite admirable; though, like her husband, I think this notion of her as brilliant inspiration may be somewhat overstated. What she knows, and what you know, may be different… but both have value. And I suspect, though you want to learn from her, she might learn more from you.

    And that, finally, is why I back you for President, too. 🙂

  2. February 19, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Betty Ford, now that is CLASSIC.

    All the media training in the world probably couldn’t break me of my need to argue with people I don’t know. I’d be a complete disaster at the debates, running over time, pounding my fist, shouting…it’d be a real ratings grabber!! 🙂

    Agreed it’s thoughtless. But that’s why I can’t be president. Thoughtless is often my middle name! (I’m just trying to be constructive!)

  3. February 19, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Okay… arguing with people you (and I) don’t know… that can get me into trouble as well. There are ways around it. But you’re right… that’s an obvious weakness, for both of us.

    And thoughtless is not your middle name. 🙂

  4. 4 Pizza Diavola
    February 20, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    I read the WSJ’s interview with Michelle Obama few weeks back and I really liked what I saw of her in it (I also enjoyed the way the interviewer’s head exploded at this woman who dared to demand that her husband help take care of their family, quelle horreur!). I think she’s extremely intelligent and forthright in a way that’s unusual in politics. I wish she were running rather than Barack (assuming she had the necessary political experience).

  5. February 20, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Us Clinton feminists should be fighting to defend her as well, despite our ambivalence or disklike about her husband. The media is already going after her. It’s GROSS.

  6. 6 Pizza Diavola
    February 20, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    despite our ambivalence or disklike about her husband.

    Oh, definitely. I admire her forthrightness on the record in interviews–she’s straightforward in a way that appeals to me but sadly probably wouldn’t last if she ever went into politics.

  7. 7 Pizza Diavola
    February 21, 2008 at 1:12 am

    P.S. I find it ironic is that the path Michelle Obama is taking, that of the strong, intelligent, independent wife of a presidential candidate, is one blazed by Hillary Clinton.

    (Possibly by other political wives before Clinton; I’m a young’un and I barely remember the ’92 elections, let alone anything prior to that. If I’m wrong, let me know, please.)


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