Wednesday, January 21, 2009

hold up the obama family as an example to other black families?

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
Oakland Tribune

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."


  1. I would say yes. I mean, both Obamas have already employed the boot-strap narrative as a way to align themselves with the "American Dream." Michelle did it in her DNC speech and Barack did in his Inaugural (and on several other occasions). Undoubtedly this translates the family into a "new model of blackness" (not my words...or sentiments, in the slightest). I mean, you have folks comparing them to the Cosby's, talking about the huge struggle that it took for Barack to be where he is today (which is very real), however I feel as though this picture of success will be uncomplicated, as the MSM has already proven.

  2. As much as Obama represents change he also represents erasure. Often times when we think of race we fall into a black/white binary as though other bodies do not exist with a problematic relationship in reference to each other. This was really highlighted in the inauguration speech. As he spoke about Valley Forge and settling the west, Obama neglected to mention the graveyard of Indigenous Americans that was created in the process. The first African American president specifically ignored the racism, land theft, rape, and mutilation, of the Indigenous peoples in order to further the black/white binary understanding of race. I believe that this is ultimately reductive and will not lead to any specific changes in how we understand the racial hierarchy that is in place.
    Until we can broaden the discussion to deconstrutct the ways in which we interact and or ignore certain bodes, we will continue to have these one dimensional discussions that ultimately lead nowhere. Even if we could somehow reduce the racial animosity between blacks and whites. there are other races that have legitimate issues, that are no less important, that must be dealt with.

  3. I think Obama represents more of what is possible than what is.
    But it's nice to have something to balance the stereotype of the other pop culture icons.

  4. They're a nice role model, especially for middle class black youth and other minorities of that economic class.

    Some of the deeply impoverished, however, may not be as optimistic, ie, the ones who live in cities and towns that are economic wastelands and have the double whammy of being looked down upon for both their color and class. Others of the underclass will have hope.

    I couldn't begin to say if whites in general will penalize poor blacks by blaming them for not being like the Obama family. I suspect that the reasonable ones won't, anymore than they'd expect a poor white kid or teen to become a Donald Trump or JFK - it could happen, but the odds are greatly against it.

    The only really poor white politician that hit the big time in my generation was former peanut farmer and President Jimmy Carter, and he said no way could he repeat that success since the election process is extremely different.

    Cool you got some publicity. Congrats!

  5. I completely agree with Trill however
    it is GREAT to see a different and positive aspect of the Black family portrayed in the mainstream media.

  6. I think the Obamas are already being held up as a "standard" by which some White may feel other African American families should aspire to.

    I'm happy Obama's in office and I hope a lot of the Black youth will see him as a role model.

    As far as I'm concerned though, it's ridiculous that this standard even exists because as Macon said, our observations of the Obama family are distant and limited (as they should be). We're not around if they have to discipline their kids, when they cook and have dinner together, laugh together or cry together. We only see smiling, waving and fancy clothes. We see a family, undoubtedly; but we're not *actually* perceiving anything that we can identify with on a grander scale.

    Why are we trying to do that anyway? Why them in particular?

    Family is family, no matter where you go.

  7. when white Americans hold up the Palin, Spears, Hilton, Kennedy, Cyrus families as an example to other white families is when I personally care what white Americans plan to do regarding AA families.

  8. oh god... being black in this country is sooo exhausting! (sadly, i say this as a person living on the LEFT coast... i can't even imagine what it's like in the middle of the country) i just talked to a white "friend" the other day... and he's already using obama as proof that racism is the exception to the rule... he also asked me to show him how america has a bias towards white people... it is so telling that the burden of proof is on ME to show HIM instead of for him to open his eyes. i cannot conceive of illustrating such a thing to those unwilling to learn. i find his attitude so utterly repulsive: he is the son of privelege and wealth, further propelled by his whiteness. obviously he isn't going to understand. but just curious: what made you, as a white person, interested in race at all?

  9. Blacks are not multiracial. Latinos are multiracial. Too often a small "mulatto elite" claim to represent blacks and THEY spread the propaganda that "blacks" are multiracial. They are no more "multiracial" than whites (who are far from "pure").

  10. I gotta say dude---sometimes your blog kinda pisses me off. Do you have ANY positive energy? or are you always gonna make SURE you have some intellectual negative NO MATTER WHAT????? so it's a black family, (oh wait-it's ALSO a white family, a Hiwiaian family, a Somolian family, -probobly MANY more). let's just find controversy NOT optimism in the HOPE for the country as a whole-chill out "BRO"-and that is literal. boo-ga-loo

  11. Anonymous, I think that almost all of the energy that I expend on this blog is positive. I think it's a good thing for white folks to face up to the abuses wrought by a fallacious part of their own identities. If that pisses you off, why do you consider what I'm doing negative instead of positive? What particular nerve in you does this blog strike? And what sort of "positive" talk do you suggest on a blog about the stuff white people do?


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