by Ram Manikkalingam
The US is a strange place. How you look really matters. Of course it matters everywhere else too. The clothes you wear, the way you wear them, your hairstyle or lack of it, your shoes and the bag you carry, all of these make a difference wherever you live. But, in the US, the colour of your skin, the shape of your nose and the way your hair curls, really really matters. Now the US is not the only place where lighter skin is considered better than darker (Indian magazines are full of skin whitening advertisements), or the wave of your hair or the shape of your nose is a focus of hairstylists and plastic surgeons. But in the US all this matters in a different way. It suggests not just social ideals of beauty or the social pressure to conform to particular aesthetic and stylistic sensisbilities associated with particular settings – it also indicates where you come from geographically and where your station might be in society and how society ought to treat you.
I observe this difference about the US, when I show photos of my family to my US friends, particularly the white ones. My brothers and sisters vary in shape, size and colour (and yes I am sure we have the same parents who are both Tamil from Sri Lanka). These friends invariably comment on how “racially” different members of my family appear. My brother could be southern European or middle eastern, some of my sisters central Asian, I could be African, another sister very South Asian etc. Those who are not from the US simply express how different we look. And those who are from the US use racial and ethnic categories to describe this difference.
In the American street (as Thomas Friedman would say) I am Black. And we know that in the US they treat you very differently if you are Black than if you are White. Brothers –- from the businessmen to the homeless — acknowledge me on the streets. When I ask for directions from a White person (not all) and I am wearing my sweatshirt, jeans and trainers –- they sometimes speak slowly and enunciate clearly how to go from one subway station to another -– just in case I do not understand. Don’t get me wrong –- nobody is rude to me. Nobody quite ignores me when I make a request. It is just that they treat me so differently on the streets of the US from how they treat me when I present a paper or give a lecture at a seminar, or in other professional settings that it is hard not to notice it. There they put me in a completely different category. They know my name and hear how I speak and suddenly I am not Black anymore. I become a South Asian academic.
Black, White or Foreign?
Barack isn’t Black enough – say some. And he is too Black say others. Or at least this is how his political dilemma is described. He needs to appeal to Whites without alienating Blacks. And his Blackness, particularly after the Jeremiah Wright episode, is viewed as a political challenge he needs to overcome in a racially divided America, because the Republicans will use a series of coded attacks, beginning with Jeremiah Wright’s sermon, as a more subtle and updated version of Willie Horton, to make Obama the Black candidate. And Obama’s strategy must be to avoid that label and become the candidate of both, if not all, racial groups. This anyway is how the racial tightrope that Obama needs to walk is usually described by pundits. Although he has run his race this way, I am not so sure it will continue to work as well for him in the future. Because the more successful he is at avoiding becoming either the Black or the White candidate, the more easily he can be made into the foreign candidate. After all, if you are American you’ve gotta be Black or White. So if you are neither Black nor White, you can’t be American.
Obama ran a successful post-racial campaign in a US that is not post-racial. He ran that for three reasons. The first is a pragmatic political one. As a Black candidate in what is still a White majority America, he cannot win as the Black candidate. The second is a moral one – ultimately for the US to have racial justice they also need to get beyond race –- both as a basis for discrimination and as a basis for redress — to a world where race matters less. And finally he was able to run a post-racial campaign for personal reasons -– his mother is White American and his father is a Black Kenyan . But Obama’s success at running a post-racial campaign in what is perceived as a racial US has made it easier for his opponents to portray him as foreign.
So this group of Americans (mainly White) are wary of him, not because he is too Black (or not Black enough), but because they link his not being quite Black or White to his foreignness – giving his antecedents a whiff of suspicion. In an extreme version, Obama to them becomes the Gay, Muslim candidate born in Africa, (it would be great if he were, except that he would not be able to legally run for President) ,not the post racial candidate of White-Black African-American ancestry. With this group being more Black may actually help, not hurt, Obama. Because whatever else White Americans have said about Blacks over the years –- even the most racist ones –- have never accused them of not being American. And I am optimistic enough to believe that an overwhelming majority of White Americans will vote for a Black candidate. His success as a candidate to date reflects this.