Saturday, March 22, 2008

Black or White: Do I have a Choice?

I have been following this issue of race with Barack Obama with some interest recently. I am 47, had a white mother, and a black father, just like Obama. However, we look at him and say he's a black man. Does he have a choice? Is he more black than white?

When I was in college, I went to a Christian training program in Minneapolis, MN. We stayed in a frat house, with the girls on the top floor, the guys on the second floor, and the ground floor and basement were co-ed. This worked out well, as we had team leaders of older, more mature Christians for every three or four person team. Everyone in our program was black, and I assumed it was a "black" training program. I didn't know there was any other type. To my surprise, as the summer wound down, the program was going to be over before my summer job was over. There were others in the program in the same situation, so the director offered to let us stay with "the Leftovers" in "The Leftover House", comprising leftovers from all the different training programs around the city. We took our gear, and moved when the final day came, eager to meet the other "Leftovers". To our further surprise, they were all white. We had been part of a set of training programs that had been divided racially. I of course immediately asked why. It was 1981, not 1881, so it made no sense to us. The answer I got was that they did not want us to be distracted by the race issue as we learned the basics of the Christian life! Hello?! Isn't getting along with your fellow man one of "the basics" of the Christian life? I had a hard time explaining that to my non-Christian family, when I got back that fall. But I digress.

Of course we had a lot to talk about with our new "leftover" brethren and sistren (is that a word?). After talking for a while, I had told the brother that my Mom was white, and my Dad was black. He asked me sort of naively "Are you black or white?" I laughed, but then realizing he was serious, settled down, and told him calmly to "look at me again, and then ask yourself that same question." His eyes darted around as he thought briefly and said he guessed I was black. But it raised the question in my mind, that I don't have a choice on how to answer. It's the same one that Obama faced, and may still face.

Am I black or white? Put another way, am I going to who am I going to "throw under the bus", my Mom or my Dad? Who should I deny? This seems like a false choice, but I have to go with the black parent, because I am most easily identifiable as his son. So Mom gets set aside (I could never "kick her to the curb"; throw her under the bus, or otherwise dis her). Another story from my life highlights the point.

I went to the Jacksonville Jazz Festival once in 1988, while still single. I took a lady with me, a friend who I was toying with the idea of becoming possibly more. We stopped at a KFC for lunch, and at the counter, the light-skinned sister who served us seemed nice enough, until my companion asked for some hot sauce. She snootily replied that they did not serve such things at that restaurant. My friend leaned over, and in a lowered, friendly tone said, "What, not enough of "us" around here to justify buying it?" I looked around, and sure enough, there were no other black folk either customers or employees in the place. The server looked at her like she had never heard such language, and didn't say another word. On the road, back in the car, my friend started talking about the server kind of badly. She suggested that the server had been brainwashed by being around too many white folk, and other such remarks. I kind of played along, then after she said a few remarks about white folks not knowing good food, and generally derogatory things, I said "You know, my mother was white." Her face turned ashen, and she apologized profusely for dogging out white people. She said she didn't mean it about all whites, but that some fit that description. I toyed with letting her go on, but I let her know that I was not that offended, but found it rather amusing how differently she talked about white people when she thought they were not there.

I say all this because Obama reminds me that we can't choose who we are understood to be by reason of the color of our skin here in America. He can't choose his white side any more than I can, and it's sad. In fact, I didn't realize I was black until I was about nine years old. I wonder when Obama realized it. But here is the point: Obama chose to go further black in his associations than he might have otherwise, probably to make up for going further white in his achievements than I did. I have a BS from an HBCU, and that's all. He got an undergrad degree from Columbia, then a Harvard law degree.

Sure, I met the type of black leaders that he did, but I did not join their churches. I knew the types of Christians who cursed in church for effect, who blame America for many things, usually too many things. But I chose to go to a church that agreed with me for the most part. Anyone can find such a church. I have yet to have had a pastor who I got to know, disagreed with, and would now have pressure to disavow, as does brother Obama. So why does he hang onto Pastor Jeremiah Wright Jr.? Most likely for one of two reasons, or some combination of the two: he may actually agree with the positions preached by Pastor Wright, or he wants to keep his credibility with the black community by hanging tough with a brother under fire for his outspoken support of blackness above all else.

I tend to think he does agree with Pastor Wright in large part, because as a congregant, one gets to know the positions of the pastor. One also gets to pick which of the pastors does key things like administering marriage vows, baptizing children, etc. If I disagreed with a pastor as much as Obama now claims he does with Pastor Wright, I doubt he would have continued to go to that church. Also, Michelle Obama was not proud of her country until Barack was seriously running for the presidency, which is right in line with Pastor Wright's teachings. I she smarter than Barack? Did she pick up on what the pastor taught better than he did? If so, maybe she needs to deb running for the office, as she shows better sensitivity to the teachings around her.

The best solution is that while I am of black and white descent, I am an American. No hyphen, just "an American". I use the best of all my upbringing as often as possible. My friends in grade school and high school thought I was cheating because I did my homework. Which race do you think my friends who thought that were from? I also disappointed a lot of people when I told them my name was Pro, and acted humble about my hoop skills, and they thought I was really good, until I stepped on the court. Which friends do you think those were? I know it may be pushing it a bit, but why was I not scared walking around Compton, CA in 1991 during the day? I could still smell the smoke from the riots, but I felt safe. I took advantage of the affirmative action opportunities and got the best education I could, because blacks were offered support due to white guilt over slavery.

So my point is that we, as Americans, need to take advantage of every legal and ethical opportunity that presents itself to become the best we can each be, no matter what our genetic background is. Barack Obama would do well to stress those points, rather than putting his grandmother down for her reactions that mirror any other American's feelings when threatened by hoodlums or gang bangers. Bringing people together does not mean excusing their ignorance, nor ignoring their differences. It means using the best of all cultures, while recognizing that the Christianity and western civilization that America was founded on are the strengths of this great land, and of its great people. We've moved past slavery, let's move past everything being seen through a racial prism.

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