White folks often fail to realize how much more stressful life can be for black people, especially those with jobs in predominantly white workplaces. Aside from being accused by some fellow blacks of "acting white," a major cause of black stress is the higher standards that most white colleagues use in judging them. Black public figures entrusted with authority endure this double standard as well.
Stress has become widely recognized as a primary cause of physical and mental problems, including obesity, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, depression, and higher rates of drinking and smoking. African Americans suffer higher rates than others of all these afflictions, and the extra layer of difficulties brought about by dealing with white folks is a primary cause.
As Michelle Johnson points out in her handbook, Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace,
Being black is a full-time job. If I constantly see my white coworkers treated with grace and dignity through every screwup, while I know that my mistakes put me one step closer to the firing line, chances are that I will smoke or drink more or eat more or act more recklessly when I'm away from work, which increases my risk of cancer, heart disease, accidents, and so forth. You get the point.
For black readers, Johnson's point is that instead of "going postal,” as whites sometimes do (and blacks almost never do), they should stop internalizing their stress; they should also resist the human tendency to self-medicate the resulting depression, and instead find more healthy outlets, like exercise or yoga.
If any white person were smart enough and curious enough to read Johnson’s handbook, the “point” for them might be that they should stop damaging the health of their black colleagues. One way to do so is to stop applying higher performance standards for blacks than for whites.
In Blue-Chip Black, a recent analysis of interviews with a range of middle-class African Americans, Sociologist Karyn Lacy writes of another common source of stress, the need to adopt and develop “public identities” when navigating white-dominated spaces. Her explanation of this strategy is worth quoting at length—if you’re not black, imagine the extra stress of having to do this nearly every day:
A key component of the public identities asserted by middle-class blacks is based on class and involves differentiating themselves from lower-class blacks through what I call exclusionary boundary-work. Washington-area middle-class blacks are firm in their belief that it is possible to minimize the probability of encountering racial discrimination, if they can successfully convey their middle-class status to white strangers.
To accomplish this feat, interviewees attempt to erect exclusionary boundaries against a bundle of stereotypes commonly associated with lower-class blacks. Exclusionary boundary-work is most readily apparent when middle-class blacks are shopping or managing employees in the workplace. Middle-class blacks also engage in inclusionary boundary-work in order to blur distinctions between themselves and white members of the middle class, by emphasizing areas of consensus and shared experience.
Barack Obama is undoubtedly one African American who deploys such tactics when appearing in public. As my choice of image above suggests, he also faces stress-inducing white double standards.
While all presidential candidates endure microscopic scrutiny, an extra set of measures gets applied to Obama because he's "black" (that he's actually "biracial" does little to alleviate this pressure). Hillary Clinton no doubt endures extra scrutiny because she’s a woman, but oddly enough, her gender gets far less media attention than Obama’s race does.
Black people carry their blackness around with them all the time, especially in the eyes of white people (no matter what whites might falsely claim about being "colorblind"). The latest round of white conniption fits over Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, is a case in point. Because whites tend to lump black people together into a monolithic mass of similar thought, action, and capabilities, the outlandish words of Obama's former pastor stick to Obama himself, no matter how many times he directly distances himself from them.
The words of white associates and advisers do not stick to white candidates this way. Take the case of former
Fortunately, Ferraro’s comments were widely rejected. Notice, though, that unlike the attachment of the comments of Reverend Wright to Barack Obama, the words of Geraldine Ferraro did not stick like tar to Hillary Clinton.
This is partly because whites (but not blacks) did not find her words as outrageous as those of Reverend Wright. But it’s also because white people are perceived in the white-dominated media, and in the minds of white people, as individuals—and because black people are not. As a result, Ferraro was given more leeway to speak for herself, while Wright was not.
The application of this standard—the judging, that is, of candidates on the basis of what their advisers have to say—becomes even more apparent as an unfair double standard, when the words of Reverend Wright are juxtaposed with those of another outrageous, politically influential religious zealot.Pastor John Hagee is a wealthy televangelist who recently endorsed John McCain, an endorsement that McCain was clearly glad to receive. Hagee’s proclamations form an interesting contrast—make that parallel—with Reverend Wright’s calls for God to “damn America” if it continues its oppressive treatment of black people.
Hagee condemned another religious institution, the Catholic Church, as a “great whore” and a “false cult system.” He has also claimed that God subjected
Recently, Jeremiah Wright has gone on to make even more ridiculous statements, forcing Obama to denounce and sever more firmly than ever any ties to him. In contrast, McCain has offered little more than mild assertions that Hagee’s comments are “nonsense,” and workers for the corporate media have not pressed him on the issue with nearly the force they’ve applied to Obama regarding Wright’s comments.
The New York Times did note the following in an editorial on Obama and Wright yesterday:
Senator John McCain has continued to embrace a prominent white supporter, Pastor John Hagee, whose bigotry matches that of Mr. Wright. Mr. McCain has also not tried hard enough to stop a race-baiting commercial — complete with video of Mr. Wright — that is being run against Mr. Obama in
However, this bit of analysis was buried within an editorial on the Obama-and-Wright controversy, and comparative analysis of the two stories is similarly lopsided elsewhere in the corporate media.
Sometimes I think Barack Obama and his family members might be better off, personally at least, if he didn't become president. In addition to the heightened fear that a racist assassin's bullet will find him, the pressure to represent blackness, all the while trying to dissociate themselves from it in response to an opposing pressure, will be both enormous, and enormously taxing.
What I think white people should realize in all this is that there’s a bitter irony in the intense scrutiny they tend to apply to blacks who achieve a level of professional success, as opposed to the lighter measures used to judge whites who do so.
What this double standard amounts to is a whitening of black people—whites think they're seeing a black person, but what they're really seeing is a reflection of themselves, in the form of their own, unfairly applied standards.
(props to Shark-fu for inspiration, and James C. Collier for the White-Obama image, from his "MUGCUT" gallery at Acting White)
UPDATE (5/5/08): Via New York Times columnist Frank Rich's "The All-White Elephant in the Room," a telling video of Rev. John Hagee. It should be appearing hourly on the corporate news outlets, but, for reasons I explained above and more, isn't:
As Rich writes, the video shows
a white televangelist, the Rev. John Hagee, lecturing in front of an enormous diorama. Wielding a pointer, he pokes at the image of a woman with Pamela Anderson-sized breasts, her hand raising a golden chalice. The woman is “the Great Whore,” Mr. Hagee explains, and she is drinking “the blood of the Jewish people.” That’s because the Great Whore represents “the Roman Church,” which, in his view, has thirsted for Jewish blood throughout history, from the Crusades to the Holocaust.
[By] his own account, Mr. McCain sought out Mr. Hagee, who is perhaps best known for trying to drum up a pre-emptive “holy war” with Iran. (This preacher’s rantings may tell us more about Mr. McCain’s policy views than Mr. Wright’s tell us about Mr. Obama’s.) Even after Mr. Hagee’s Catholic bashing bubbled up in the mainstream media, Mr. McCain still did not reject and denounce him, as Mr. Obama did an unsolicited endorser, Louis Farrakhan, at the urging of Tim Russert and Hillary Clinton. Mr. McCain instead told George Stephanopoulos two Sundays ago that while he condemns any “anti-anything” remarks by Mr. Hagee, he is still “glad to have his endorsement.”
I wonder if Mr. McCain would have given the same answer had Mr. Stephanopoulos confronted him with the graphic video of the pastor in full “Great Whore” glory. But Mr. McCain didn’t have to fear so rude a transgression. Mr. Hagee’s videos have never had the same circulation on television as Mr. Wright’s. A sonorous white preacher spouting venom just doesn’t have the telegenic zing of a theatrical black man.
If we’re to judge black candidates on their most controversial associates — and how quickly, sternly and completely they disown them — we must judge white politicians by the same yardstick.