The title of this post is a question, because I don't know yet whether enough white Americans will do this--hold up the Obama family as an example to other African-American families--to say that doing so is a common white tendency. That statement is, then, my prediction, and it arose while talking to a reporter, Josh Richman. He got in touch to ask if I think that constantly having the Obamas under the spotlight, and then in the White House, is going to change common ideas about black families. The article that he published on the topic in the Oakland Tribune appears below.
What do you think? Clearly discernible, largely negative stereotypes about black families definitely circulate in American society and culture at large. Is the Obama family going to change such perceptions?
Obama presidency could redefine world's image of African-American families
By Josh Richman
For decades, it seems, African-American family stereotypes seemed to be set mostly by pop culture. In the 1970s, America was "movin' on up" with "The Jeffersons" and "keepin' our heads above water, making a wave when we can" with the Evans family's "Good Times." In the 1980s, critics noted how Cliff and Claire Huxtable of "The Cosby Show" embodied a more upper-middle-class view. In the 1990s, Will Smith bridged those previous stereotypes with his fish-out-of-water "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." And in this decade, Bernie Mac riffed on parenting and household issues on his namesake show.
Yet none of those families really existed. They were fictional creations not even close to the real-life, day-to-day lives of most African-Americans. And many in the media, sadly, all too often have portrayed African-American families in one-dimensional situations of strife and struggle — crime, poverty, welfare and the like — without much depth or nuance.
African-American families know there's more truth, more depth than this. And it's not as if the Obamas are a "typical" or "ordinary" African-American family any more than any white first family has typified the white American family experience. (Did all of white America identify closely with the Reagans? The Bushes? The Clintons?) Neither the president-elect nor his wife come from money, but they're Ivy League-schooled lawyers who have lived their recent lives in an around-the-clock international spotlight. Nor, of course, can any one family ever accurately represent an entire ethnic community, or an entire nation.
But perhaps no other African-American political figure, athlete, entertainer or celebrity has ever had his or her family right there with him or her in the international spotlight to the extent that Obama now does. As far as perceptions go, it could be a whole new ballgame.
"I think that's absolutely true, that they will project a strong image of African-Americans and African-American families, of course representing a particular segment of the community," said Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at the Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston and a renowned expert on American race relations. "And I think the Obamas, besides just projecting the African-American family and being solid and intelligent and so on also project the leadership that black people have given to America."
Many people tend to generalize, and sometimes those generalizations lead to prejudices, Poussaint said. "But sometimes they can lead to other outcomes," he said, and a successful Obama presidency coupled with a positive view of the Obama family's life in the White House could have "a positive effect on the image of African-Americans in general and possibly a newfound kind of respect," not only in America but in other nations where issues of race and immigration are prominent.
"They knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. . . . but also now they hear about Obama, who's going to be president of the United States, and for an oppressed minority in America that's quite an accomplishment," Poussaint said. "I think all African-American people here somehow share in that success."
Macon D, the proprietor of the "Stuff White People Do" blog who takes his screen name from the race-conflicted protagonist of Berkeley author Adam Mansbach's novel "Angry Black White Boy," said he's "not as optimistic."
In his blog, he said, he tries "to understand how a general white perspective sees the world and how it does things because of that perception . . . and that collective general white mindset I'm talking about has a way of being very obstinate about new changes like this that come along."
"Even though the Obamas are a real family, I think there's a way in which they're not really any more real than the Huxtables were, because they seem so distant," Macon D said, adding that he believes the only way for non-African-American families to gain perspective is to have direct, live contact with African-American families.
Like Poussaint, he cited the tendency to generalize; unlike Poussaint, he believes the Obamas won't be able to change white perceptions. "I think the Obamas will just be seen as an exception and held up to other black people as 'something they should strive for.'"
Bill Cosby — who'll be performing at Oakland's Paramount Theatre next month — said he's interested in what Barack Obama's presidency will mean for public perceptions of mixed-race people.
"Part of this thing of 'black' is a Rorschach test for the United States of America," said the comedian, actor and author, who with Poussaint co-authored "Come On, People" in 2007 on the state of black America.
Obama's high-profile discussion of his black African father and white mother, and his trips to visit grandparents in Kenya and Hawaii, is bringing a long-hushed truth to the fore, he said: Most African-Americans have some white ancestry as well.
"We really have to understand that if you look at your mayor, Ron Dellums, how did he get that way? It wasn't a bath. It wasn't eight glasses of milk with every meal. There's white blood in there that does not want to be counted, but it's there," Cosby said.
Yet in politics — from Thomas Jefferson to Jesse Helms — and even in pop culture, there has been little recognition of the bridges between the races, he said; Americans are quick to pigeonhole and be done with it. But pigeonholing Obama might not be so easy.
Obama represents "change and change: change in the concept, the percept of race and color, and change in the country, the United States of America. Now it's out there, man. This great ideological race thing, Thomas Jefferson, Jesse Helms and all the others, George Washington — all these Washingtons, all these Jeffersons, all these Adamses, quietly going around but in light skin," he said. "How did Lena Horne get that color? How did (Harry) Belafonte get that light? So here we go, it's out and it's talking about leading the country, not it 'he' but 'it,' this change."