The Power of the "Post-Racial" Narrative

After President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last week, Chris Matthews had an epiphany about the president: "I was trying to think about who he was tonight. It's interesting; he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour."

Although a year ago it seemed safe to assume that the inauguration would mark the peak of post-racial rhetoric, the urge to pretend as if it's now possible to erase race seems to have only gotten worse. Instead of Obama's election feeding a deeper, more complex conversation about race in this country, his presidency has intensified the craving for "color-blind" politics -- a prospect even more impossible, at this point, than bipartisanship.

We elected a black man within a racist society, leading many to mistakenly see race as surmountable. In fact, we elected Obama in spite of our collective history of racism and, less acknowledged, in spite of our continuing individual racism. The moment was historic, indeed, but didn't change our past -- or our present. Obama's presidency doesn't eradicate our "race problem" or even the very positive and rich existence of our varied racial identities -- thank God. Race has roots -- political, cultural, social -- far too deep in this country to be pulled with one electoral yank.

Why do pundits like Matthews latch on to the post-racial rhetoric so enthusiastically? Because it promises relief for them, a sort of finish line of racial struggle -- ironic, I know, since they weren't the ones carrying the revolutionary load. For many white Americans, post-racialism goes hand in hand with the notion of a "bootstrap" nation, one where your race doesn't determine your station in life. If there is no more race -- this thinking goes -- white people can stop apologizing. Admissions counselors and conference planners can stop strategizing. We can wipe the racial slate clean and start over. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that Matthews' claim that he forgot Obama was black was actually the exact opposite of a post-racial impulse -- it revealed that Matthews had an "invented truth" about blackness that was being contradicted. Rather than admitting that his "invented truth" was wrong, Matthews made Obama non-black.

Further, Coates argues, it wasn't really that Matthews forgot that Barack Obama was black; it was that "Chris Matthews forgot that Chris Matthews was white." I would add: Chris Matthews forgot that Chris Matthews was racist.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that the question whites were afraid to ask blacks was: "How does it feel to be a problem?" A century later, many white people, like Chris Matthews, like myself, are afraid to ask ourselves the same question. Afraid to uncover the truth that even after electing a black president, we must still wrestle with our own privilege -- bestowed on us by so many structural and cultural inequities and a long history of racism. Even after electing a black president, we must face the fact of our own racism, our own whiteness.

And here's the other rub: White people still don't understand what whiteness is. There is a sort of unbearable lightness of being white. In a terrifically oversimplified understanding, black people have blues, Toni Morrison, rhythm, vertical, and now, Barack Obama. But what are white people's cultural markers, our symbols? Chai tea? Frat parties? Folk music? Pickup trucks? (see Stuff White People Like). Of course we crave a post-racial society because we've got nothing to lose -- culturally, at least. Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple University, says: "To be white is to be culturally broke."

Upon Obama's election, Hua Hsu wrote a provocative piece in The Atlantic (in which he quotes Wray) about the advent of white anxiety, what he described as "the perceived fraying of the fixed, monolithic identity of whiteness that sewed together the fortunes of the fair-skinned." White people are losing ground (or at the very least think they are), and it makes them nervous.

But maybe what's even more anxiety-producing for some white Americans is that as a modicum of privilege slips away, they are compelled, for the first time, to become aware, as Coates argues, of their own "invented truth" but also of all the privilege that remains. Many white people feel culturally deprived but burdened with examining privilege. We feel unwritten and nailed down by history. We voted for the guy, in part, because he was black, and now some want to pretend he's raceless.

What white folks like Matthews don't seem to understand is that we can't shed our racist history, nor our contemporary racism, by pretending that racial identity no longer exists. Only by incorporating racial identity into our understanding of other human beings -- president or cab driver, lover or nanny -- in an authentic, complex, and individualized way will we have truly progressed. It's this incredibly radical thing -- which blogger Jay Smooth calls "racial clear-sightedness."

For white people, one of the biggest challenges is to have racial clear-sightedness not only when we look at the president of the United States but when we look at ourselves. Just as we can't truly see Barack Obama unless we see his blackness, we can't truly see ourselves unless we're willing to look at our whiteness. We must take off the blinders and examine our collective and personal histories, not in terms of the absence of race but in terms of the intrinsic and powerful presence of it.

That may feel heavy, but at least it's honest. It's time we joined the rest of the human race in being burdened with the weight of our own skin.