When I saw this picture with the inscription “Put the white back in the white house” I was dismayed. Not surprised, but definitely disappointed. Regardless of how one feels about the politics of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, who also happens to be black: one thing is clear in that although we know that race is a social construct, the election of a visually black man to the office of the presidency required a lot of people to believe that he did and could have their best interests at heart. Many hold on to his accomplishments as a contradiction to feelings and images of powerlessness, sub-humanity, and uncertainty that are the legacy of slavery. I don’t agree with much of Obama’s politics, but I do strongly support his campaign slogan from 2008 of “Hope” and his “Yes we can” attitude.
The moment he became President was the moment when I, for the first time, felt less like an outsider in America. I had hope that I could be seen to be just as American as any White American; that I could be supported by our society despite the color of my skin, which happens to be black. I felt more like a real member of this nation, from which my family emerged from slavery. This is why these images hurt. The constant questions from blogs like these of Obama’s nationality, the intentional emphasis on his middle name of Hussain as if that is vulgar, the innuendos about Michelle Obama, his wife being an ‘angry black woman’, when he is called the worse president in history (see H. Hoover, or W. H. Harrison); these things make me feel like an outsider again.
These judgements related to race, evoke memories of discrimination from my youth, times when I was called a n*gger or the so-called “n” word, told I was smart “for a black person”, or memories from my parents and grandparents about terrorism example here during the Jim Crow and the civil rights era. This race baiting, the “us” against “them”, that is being played out in the current US election is bad for all of us. This notion of course, is common in politics, for example, in the way the middle class is set against the owning class, or young people are pitted against the elderly, etc. But race in the United States (like ethnicity in many countries in Africa) is a topic that literally disrupts our communities and can easily be used to evoke very strong emotions of guilt, competition, bitterness, and otherness from all sides.
Black and White people suffer from the often emotionally charged racial side placing because people can be emotionally led to “choose a side” against what they actually believe in, as they get caught up in strong emotions. Just as racialized sentiments can make me feel like an “other”, those who would include me as a neighbor can be manipulated emotionally into seeing me as “other” as well. Race baiting with even subtle messaging are intentionally used to manipulate people, remove them from their rational minds, so they can be caught up in frenzy.
This lesson is a lesson for all humanity. Political leaders and their surrogates all over the world and often in Africa use race and ethnicity to divide people, to influence voters, and to distract people from the lack of real policy or change directed at helping the people. Most importantly, it stirs up very real hurts of ethnic conflict, or apartheid, or disenfranchisement bringing to the surface memories and strong feelings of division that separate communities and society at large.
Yes, slavery, conflicts, apartheid were real and in some cases still happen albeit in different form. However, by manipulating memories of these things, politicians divide instead of healing and creating stronger nations. This is the wisdom of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He was inclusive of White South Africans, instead of manipulating those the fresh hurts of apartheid for personal gain and consequently throwing the country back into racial conflict.
I am interested in the ways that an emphasis on race or ethnicity have affected Africans in their countries. As a member of the majority, have you ever been caught up in the racial pride touted by a politician? As a member of the minority, have you ever felt separated from the “national” society and retreated into your own community? What ideas do you have about how as people you can counter the separating tones used in politics?
This blog for me is a start. It helps me to put my thoughts out there about the effects of racism in politics on me as a citizen. It helps to start a dialogue and that helps bring people out of the emotions and back into thoughtful analysis. I do hope that it will get us thinking about race, and the effects of racist messages such as “Put the white back in the White House” affect us, and how we respond to them.
*Merrian is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF Contributor. Her short biography and previous articles can be found here.