Wednesday, January 27, 2010

supposedly forget that obama is black (and think that it's a good thing when that happens)

Maybe it was too late in the day for Chris Matthews to be in front of the teevee cameras tonight, when he expressed his enthusiasm for Obama's delivery of a speech. I don't know what else could explain this bit of uncontrolled nonsense from him.

I mean . . . what kind of white mind is at work here?

Transcript (from TPM):

I was trying to think about who he was tonight, and it's interesting. He is postracial, by all appearances. Y'know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. He's gone a long way to become a leader of this country and passed so much history in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about.

I was watching, I said, "Wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people, and there he is, president of the United States, and we've completely forgotten that tonight, completely forgotten it!"

As TPM notes, Matthews continued: "You don't think in terms of the old tribalism, the old ethnicity. It was astounding in that regard."

He also said: "I shouldn't talk about it but I am. I thought it was profound that way."

It's as if competing common white tendencies in Matthews are at war with each other here. One part of him thinks that he "shouldn't talk about" Obama's race; another part wants to claim that he doesn't see Obama's race; yet another does see his race (otherwise, why mention it?); and still another wants to compliment a black man for presenting himself well, as if he did oh so much better than most black men seem capable of doing, by making white people forget that he's black.

Matthews' comments are such a racial train wreck that I find it difficult to tell just what he's getting at. Who knew that this man wears so many different Freudian slips at the same time?

For one thing, Matthews clearly means to compliment this black president, for (supposedly) making people forget that he's black. Because that way, you see, "we" can see him as America's leader, instead of as a representative of "the old tribalism, the old ethnicity."

If "we" had been watching Obama's State of the Union speech and kept in mind that he is, after all, black, then "we" wouldn't truly see him as America's leader. But then, if that's what Matthews is getting at, what does that say about his estimation of blackness? Of black people, that is, and their abilities and capacities to lead more than just some "tribe" of other black people?

Matthews makes me wonder -- shouldn't it be white people's responsibility to accept that black people can perform just as ably in positions of power as white people can? Rather than it being the responsibility of a black person in a position of power to convince white people that they can perform ably, despite their being black? and further than that, to also magically make white people forget that they're black, because apparently white people just can't get over their hangups about blackness?

At any rate, Matthews did manage to demonstrate that Obama is actually not postracial, if that means that no one, or rather, no white people, notice that he's black anymore. He himself didn't stop noticing that, despite his claims that he did. And anyway, why should anyone stop noticing, or try to forget, that Obama is black?

I think that what Matthews really demonstrated is that despite his own, apparently feverish wish, America itself isn't "postracial" either. And neither are most white minds.

And really, why should they be? Sure, those who make a big deal out of Obama's blackness, even unconsciously (especially unconsciously?) should learn to stop doing so. But the way to do that isn't to attempt the virtually impossible (and the undesirable), by forgetting that he's black.

What do you see in Matthews' comments?


  1. I've seen this happen a lot, and I always feel like they're talking about "blackness" like it's a stain on someone's T-shirt or a hat partially blocking your view at the movies. Like something that -should- bother you, but didn't because you were so enthralled by whatever was going on at the time.

    "Color blindness" never sounded all that appealing to me.

  2. My first thought was, "Oh, sweet heavens, articulate had babies."

    Then I wondered if he had been playing the State of the Union drinking game.

    On further thought, I interpreted it as Matthews trying to pay a compliment to white people. Like, "Look how awesome we are; we've transcended race." However, this failed, and it came across like "Ohmigosh a Black man is a real man."(i.e. "articulate had babies") And we all know intention doesn't matter.

    But this is crap, of course. No one has forgotten he's Black. Another case of an upper-class WM thinking he speaks for everyone (also, lying).

    (Also, even if you go with my more charitable interpretation of his intention, it's still a crappy, racist intention. Hopefully the reasons that "postracial mindset" is not a compliment go without saying here).

  3. What he said was disgraceful.

    Oh but no one forgets he's black when he does something people don't agree with. That's the first thing WP remember when he does that. Then they pull out the "America just wasn't ready for a black president" card.

  4. Maybe its because Obama wasn't speaking in his, um, "Negro dialect".

    Matthews seems to have the idea that being black is antithetical to being statesmanlike, intelligent and articulate (can't believe he didn't use that word!)

    It'd be great though if what he said was true, and Americans, particularly on the Right, stopped seeing Obama as a black and saw him as a human being. Then they might see him as a decent if unexceptional President, rather than the bastard son of Hitler and Saddam as they do now.

  5. I see Matthews doing the same thing Reid did.

    First, in implicitly understanding and then expressing that race does matter in this country and that for black people, it's a disadvantage far more often than an advantage.

    Second, wanting to express that for him the race of this man doesn't really matter.

    Third, failing on both counts.

    What's most irking to me as a POC is why do you need to point that out? Why are we having this conversation right now? Perhaps Chris Matthews thinks he got a "pass" (black folks, we're full of passes) because he hosted a ridiculous event discussing race with Tom Joyner so he thinks now he should speak on race when it comes to his mind. Only problem is he's a political pundit. Speak to politics, thanks. Don't insult my intelligence by trying to passify me in saying (essentially) "Hey, I listened to this man and didn't once think 'He's probably lying because black people lie." or "He's an idiot cause black people are stupid." or anything like that! We're making real racial progress in this country." If that's all you gleaned from President Obama's speech, you missed the whole point. All of it.

    Oh but no one forgets he's black when he does something people don't agree with. That's the first thing WP remember when he does that. Then they pull out the "America just wasn't ready for a black president" card. Victoria, this was classic.

  6. "POST-RACIAL" my f--king ass!!!

    I found his comment offensive because Chris Matthews was basically saying that black people can't be good leaders (or good speakers) and he's all like, OH wow I forgot he's BLACK!!!!

  7. I love the comments from Ta-Nehisi Coates...

    "Ditto for Chris Matthews. The "I forgot Obama was black" sentiment allows the speaker the comfort of accepting, even lauding, a black person without interrogating their invented truth. It allows the speaker a luxurious ignorance--you get to name people (this is what black is) even when you don't know people. In fact, Chris Matthews didn't forget Barack Obama was black. Chris Matthews forgot that Chris Matthews was white.

    I'm put back in the mind of the The Wire, when Slim Charles tells Avon that it really doesn't matter that our wars are based on a lie. Once we're fighting, we fight on that lie until the end. I would submit that a significant number of white people in this country, can not stop fighting on the lie. They can't cop to the fact that they really have no standing to speak on Obama's relationship to blackness, because they know so little about black people. It's always hard to say, "I don't know." But no one else can say it for you.

    This is why Obama will never be postracial--he can't make white people face the lie of their ignorance, anymore than Jimmy Baldwin could make black people face the lie of our homophobia. It's white people's responsibility to make themselves postracial, not the president's. Whatever my disagreements with him, the fact is that he is brilliant. That he is black and brilliant is pleasant but unsurprising to me. I've known very brilliant, very black people all my life. At some point that number of white people who still can't their head around our humanity will have to accept the truth--The president is black, and even if you don't quite know what that means."

    Whites know so very little about black people. That does it for me. Whites are experts on so many subjects in so many areas. Watch the Discovery channel or the National Geographic and you'll see a parade of white experts spanning the gamut of every known topic- excluding one; Black people. In that sense almost every segment on these stations looks like another Friends episode. Most whites don't know blacks because most whites don't want to know blacks. (Both personally and intimately) They study books written about/by us-- ease up on us like Jane Goodall to study us in our natural habitats (Ghetto tours). But you don't know us. You only know enough of what you think you need to know about us; and most of this information is based solely on stereotypes/Cops and Rap Videos. You’re lacking in firsthand experience because we lack the same value you assign to people in your white world, that would naturally draw you to us. To Chris, Obama was simply the exception to his rule. For one hour he was able to take Obama out of that constrained- context he has constructed for most blacks and see him truly as equal. For one hour mind you.

  8. A.Smith said...

    "Oh but no one forgets he's black when he does something people don't agree with. That's the first thing WP remember when he does that. Then they pull out the "America just wasn't ready for a black president" card. Victoria, this was classic."

    Invisible... almost non-existent when we do good things; but highly-conspicuous and black when we insult white norms or sensibilities.

  9. How offensive. Instead of forgetting Obama is Black, Chris needs to look at Black people differently.

  10. Hmmm I have only noticed this with white adults. No white teens in my generation say that.

  11. Am I wrong (as a WP) in thinking Obama's blackness is a big deal? Way before the election and before Obama's views on particular issues became well-known to me, the first reason I said to myself I want that man to be president is that he'd be the first president not to see the world through the filter of white privilege. A lot of WP (WIWL's) I said that to found it inappropriate, but to me it was something really important we should have been, and should still be, talking about.

  12. Y'know, I bet Chris Matthews can listen to a white person talk for an hour without noticing that they're white, too. I wonder why he's never talked about that...

    Oh right, because that part is fucking normal. What Chris Matthews is admitting is that normally, when he listens to a black person talk, his internal monologue goes, "The black guy thinks this, the black guy thinks that..."

  13. Funny, when he was running on his platform of change and making everybody proud that he was the 1st AA to win the office of POTUS whites were not only forgetting that he was "black" but they were emphasizing his whiteness. But the minute certain whites needed to vilify him, well, after all he is black.

    That forgetting someone is black is a backhanded compliment with racist tinge. It reveals the common white perception of blackness and that most blacks are seen as an undifferentiated hoard of pathological beings - an evil and inferior "other."

  14. Riche, you're not wrong. Clearly

  15. ... ok ... time to weigh in here ... I watch these signs and wonders of our time through a world citizen perspective ... I reside outside the USA ... but well within the American cultural perimeter ... I've long appreciated Chris Matthews as a watchable talking head ... me he's clearly one of the current cadre of white pundit (not pundint) who embraces ongoing internal dialogue around what Americans experience as difficult racial issues ... in my estimation we witnessed in that moment a man who was so excited by what he had seen ... and rightly so as it was a masterful speech ... that he blurted his inner dialogue out loud ...

    ... trusting as I am of my instincts regarding the man as a commentarian ... notwithstanding his sometimes blathering eccentricities .. I see nothing more sinister here than a man trying to grapple with some personal predispositions because he recognizes in himself a need to reconcile them ... that's not to be discouraged ... I'd have him on my team any day over a Lou Dobbs type ... or Bob McDonnell ... or even John McCain ... wonder what their inner dialogues sound like ...

  16. I see, in Matthews' cringeworthy comments, the kind of well-meaning racism most white people will refuse to own.

    Maybe as a kid, it's okay to spout off things like "I don't see color!" When you grow up, when you supposedly have a better grasp on what race means in America, you have *got* to be seeing it. Otherwise, you're erasing a significant part of who a POC is -- in favor of what? Pretending that person is white like you so you can relate? Can you seriously not see him as human otherwise?

  17. @ackeelover re: "... I see nothing more sinister here than a man trying to grapple with some personal predispositions because he recognizes in himself a need to reconcile them ..."

    I say he's not trying to grapple with them; he's just stating them as if they are true, and not just for him. He begins to generalize to "we" as though he knows what other people (presumably other white people in this context) are thinking. Grappling would be saying, for example, "You know what? I found myself suddenly not thinking about his race. And I realized I was always thinking about it before this night. Is that because of something I have done or something he has done? I wonder . . ." But pundits are paid to conclude, not to express self-doubt or reflect.

  18. Quite frankly, I'm not surprised. Tim Wise describes it best in the last few minutes of this speech as the challenge of all whites living in America. To dig deep and root out that "inner dialogue" someone else mentioned on here.

    I've had white friends tell me they sometimes forgot I was black. They always got shocked when I quite flatly explained that wasn't a good thing. One of the first things my father taught me was, "When you are in America, never forget you are a person of color."

  19. I think that what he was trying to say with the "tribalism" comment is that when you look at the history of race in the US, it's been divided into "us" (white people) vs "them" (POC). And that Matthews' thoughts have shifted from that, to include all Americans as part of a whole "us" category.

    Of course, that doesn't mean the world is postracial, it is more likely to mean that "us" is now Americans of any race who speak standard English without an accent. But still, I don't think there was much harm in Matthews' words.

    Put it like this - if I see a white woman, I think "That is a woman." If I see a black woman, I think "That is a black woman." I think what Matthews was getting at is that when he saw Obama, his thought was "That is a man, that is the President" rather than "That is a black man, how novel it is that he is President!"

  20. "But this is crap, of course. No one has forgotten he's Black. Another case of an upper-class WM thinking he speaks for everyone (also, lying). "

    Hi Willow,

    I don't think anyone (other than perhaps a blind person) really "forgets" that Obama is black, but I do think that many people, myself included, don't see "black" as a differentiating factor.

    Obama is one of "my people" in the sense that he is an intelligent, educated, successful middle class man. Those are the people I often hang around with, and while I do notice he is black, the same way I'd notice that my cousin is short, I don't see "black" as something that makes him automatically different from me. I just see it as a physical characteristic.

    Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that a black person will have the same experiences as a white person, and perhaps it's a sign of privilege that I don't dwell on that fact, but the only other option would be 'othering' the person, dwelling on the differences rather than the similarities.

    I'd never feel a need to go up to Michelle Obama and say "what up homegirl" just because she's black, because to me she doesn't represent "black urban culture." I'd just say "Hello Mrs. Obama, how are you today?" like I would with any other woman in her position.

  21. what a fool forgetting that somebody is black is not a good thing same as saying you don't see them as black I have had a white person say to me "I don't see you as black I see you as a real person." so what black people are real people get out of town with that mess. All these phrases like "he transcends race” are so stupid black people have to overcome their blackness to be seen a human. He is black when you look at him you should obviously see that he is black his blackness is NOT something that needs be overcome or forgotten about colour-blind nonsense again.

  22. @ Elisabeth

    Where did I say that every moment everyone is thinking of Obama, their primary thought is Blackblackblack/Blacklikeme/Blacknotlikeme? (Actually, this was covered on the Daily Show last night...)(second segment, and it's *awesome*). And where did I say that you, or anyone, would treat Michelle Obama as you described?


    To say "at this moment, when he was most awesome, I forgot he is Black. When he messes up, I remember he's Black." Do you understand how that's racist?

  23. I think his perspective is the logical next step when one assumes that when black people get power they are going to use it in a racialized way. It's almost as if Matthews (reflecting the fears of MANY white people, I suspect) assumed that Obama the president would use his office to uplift blacks only. That he is not doing that and is actually filling the President role in a conventional way (attempting to serve the entire country's interests), challenges his own assumptions about what black power looks like. Because it's not what he expected (consciously or unconsciously), it then allows him to minimize Obama's blackness.

    If white fears were being realized, and blacks were "taking over" now that there's a black president, his blackness would remain more evident, and, subsequently, more threatening.

  24. "To say "at this moment, when he was most awesome, I forgot he is Black. When he messes up, I remember he's Black." Do you understand how that's racist?"

    Yes I do see how that is racist but I don't see how that is what Matthews was saying.

    I suppose it will depend on Matthews' reactions to something Obama does that he disagrees with. But I do know for a lot of people, the reaction will be less along the lines of "see what happens when a black man is President" and more of a "the Democrats are ruining the country" type of thing.

    No doubt someone will say that he makes mistakes because he's black, but if that's their mindset, I don't think they'd be giving him a fair shot no matter what he did.

  25. I phrased his statement another way, to clarify it.

    He said the first part--"when Obama is awesome, everyone forgets he's Black." Thus, logically, when Obama is not as awesome, people think of him as Black. However, by Matthews' logic, a Black man cannot be awesome. When he is awesome, he is just "a man."

    And once again: you're misreading the statement. This is not saying "Obama messed up *because* he is Black." (There are people who think that, but that's beside the point). This is saying, "A Black man messed up because XYQ."

    Then again, due to Whiteness' habit of treating WP as individuals and POC as A Representative, negative actions/statements about one POC are cast on all. Things Obama does that are interpreted negatively will, implicitly, be cast onto his race as well. Even if not consciously. That's the point of racism, and why it's so difficult for WP to get over our own racism--so much of it is so buried, so ingrained, we don't even notice it.

  26. Uuhhhh, Obama is MULTIRACIAL... black AND white.

  27. Chris Matthews says "black" like it's some kind of disability to overcome. It's like Barack Obama has overcome being a paraplegic, or having Down syndrome to become President. Maybe for the first time in his life Matthews realized that a black man could be just as eloquent, and just as capable as a white man.

  28. I think xjck summed it up best with "black-like its some kind of disablility to overcome." Doesn't Mathews think about what he says before it dribbles out of his mouth. And no, he doesn't get a pass.

  29. I have a sincere question -- why is obama only considered black when he has a white mother?

  30. @wondering, Obama self-identifies as a black man with mixed heritage. I respect that. It's his prerogative to define himself.

    A direct quotation,
    "I am a prisoner of my own biography: I can’t help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives."


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code