As a biracial child who spent part of his youth abroad, Barack Obama learned the feeling of otherness and became attuned to how he was perceived by those around him. As a politician, he knew well that many white people saw him as a vehicle for their hopes for a post-racial society. Even if those hopes were somewhat naïve, they came from a sincere and admirable desire, and he was happy to let those sentiments carry him along. Part of the bargain, though, was that he had to be extremely careful about how he talked about race, and then only on the rarest of occasions. His race had to be a source of hope and pride—for everybody—but not of displeasure, discontent, or worst of all, a grievance that would demand redress. No one knew better than him that everything was fine only as long as we all could feel good about Barack Obama being black.
So when he made his unexpected remarks about Trayvon Martin on Friday, Obama was stepping into some dangerous territory. By talking about his own experience as a black man, he was trying to foster both understanding and empathy, to explain to white Americans why the Martin case has caused so much consternation and pain among black Americans. The petty (and not so petty) daily suspicion and indignities and mistreatment black people are talking about? Even I, the most powerful human being on the planet, know it well.
In doing so—and by saying "it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching"—he may have implicitly encouraged white people to think about their own privilege, the privilege of whiteness. Privilege is a dangerous word, one that raises lots of hackles, and one Obama himself would never, ever use. But it's inescapable.