Fade To Black: Racelessness In The Age of Obama

13 Oct

The new 21st century epithet of racelessness, which most associate with the positive qualities of a post-race society, can actually be a guise for a much more sinister motivation. The tendency of society to assign the quality of racelessness to only successful African-Americans and other minorities, denotes an underlying belief that a minority who doesn’t let go of his racial identity gives up a chance at success. Racelessness becomes code for “whiteness,” making it the norm that members must abide by to climb the social ladder. Raceless non-identity becomes the normative benchmark by which our society’s hegemonic structure judges racial outsiders. If Barack Obama had marketed himself as the African-American candidate, he would have alienated white voters and potentially lost like so many other black politicians before him who were seen as the “black candidates” such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. In the new era of race and ethnicity precipitated by President Obama’s election, the designation of racelessness to successful African-Americans reflects how America’s hegemonic structure still strives to perpetuate negative stereotypes.

Racelessness is a quickly rising form of cultureless non-identity that allows one to “rise above” the labels of race and be seen as simply human, devoid of the epithets that subject many to stereotypes. President Obama has ocrazyobamaften been praised for his ability to transcend race and become “raceless,” garnering a broad appeal to diverse demographics. Fordham suggests that academically or professionally successful African-Americans must adopt a “raceless” persona and reject their cultural links in order to achieve social mobility. Success and intellectualism are qualities that are stereotypically not assigned to the black community, so in a form of internalized and structuralized oppression, successful African-American have the title of racelessness forced upon them. These transcendent individuals are allowed to break through barriers and be accepted by the hegemonic society as equals.

The title of racelessness is often a double-edge sword however. The goal of being racially transcendent implies that race is a bog that must be overcome. One would only want to “transcend” their ethnicity if they find the label oppressive. Giving an African-American the title of racelessness can actually be a way to disassociate that person’s accomplishment from their race. Racelessness becomes code for normal and in America, the normative standard is often seen as white. Racelessness becomes the 21st century name for whiteness, a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. The very fact that being raceless or racially transcendent is a quality only assigned to minorities, but never whites, shows that whites are perceived as already having this quality. The other races are abnormal and need to conform to the white standard Americanness. Calling President Obama raceless may seem an innocuous claim at first, but it is dissociating him from his accomplishments as a black man. In a hegemonic structure where European Americans have dominated for centuries, achievement and success is a designation reserved for whiteness only. High-achieving minorities defy social expectations. This threatens the white hegemony and in order to maintain the status quo the individual’s race is simply erased. In order words, the black basketball player who also becomes a Rhodes Scholar is suddenly no longer seen as “black-black.” He has crossed over into the realm of racelessness, lest his success defy stereotypes and introduce the dangerous idea that all minorities are capable of such multi-platform success.

The formation of racelessness is a 21st century phenomenon that was a response to a painful history of failed race relations. It’s nothing but a modern day version of W.E.B DuBois’s double consciousness where African-Americans struggle to reconcile two warring concepts of self. In DuBois’s coined term of double consciousness, American Negros are constantly waging an internal battle of identity between how they perceive themselves and how dominant society perceives them. He writes in The Souls of Black Folk:

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife: this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity of being an American, a Negro; […] two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

A history of cultural assimilation has warped black identity since the Reconstruction era to where African-Americans have been forced to choose between the two consciousnesses, one with the positive association of whiteness(aka racelessness) and one with the negative association of blackness. Conformity becomes the conduit through which minorities are able to enter the mainstream, and one of the dangers of double consciousness as expressed by DuBois becomes reality: the forgoing of black identity in favor of an acceptable white identity.

The racially transcendent label has been applied to the most prominent and professionally successful of the black community. The marking of these individuals as exceptions to the racial rules only reinforces the racial rules under the guise of “color-blindness.” A well-known example of a raceless individual is President Obama, who rose to racelessness in the realm of politics. A cultured intellectual who didn’t feel the need to bellow “Black Power!” into the nearest microphone, he was palatable enough to win over white voters, a difficult feat in the world of politics. Doing what was believed to be the impossible, he struck a blow at centuries of racial stereotypes, sending some white conservatives scrambling. What to do with this articulate, biracial young man who had risen from humble political roots in Chicago? How to separate him so the stereotypes of African-Americans being lazy, uneducated and unmotivated aren’t challenged? The answer was to redefine his race as something unique from black by designating him as raceless and making his racial identity less noticeable. Instead of reformulating stereotypes, white America just called Obama an exception, an exception that proved an immutable rule.

The most blatant example of an African-American who was bestowed with racelessness and then lost it by fulfilling the most salient black male stereotype is O.J. Being the first NFL player to rush over 2000 yards, he was arguably one of the greatest football players of all time. He was loved across racial boundaries and seen as the first honorary white athlete. O.J. was allowed to transcend race because of his wealth, fame and achievements in sports. All of this changed on June 12, 1994. His wife Nicole and her new boyfriend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in their Brentwood home, and one of the most publicized trials of 21st century would ensue. The issue of stereotypes and mainstream perspective of race was dragged out into the open like it had never been before, as O.J.  was demonized and bashed, losing the elusive crown of racelessness. He was suddenly a black man again, and it was now acceptable for him to be one, since he now earned the stereotype. Since days of slavery, black men have perceived as violent and raging beasts that needed to be tamed. He now fit this mold in the eyes of white society, and he something to be feared. The only thing that saved him from the fate of any other black man was green, the only color justice recognizes.

A more recent example of a raceless African-American who was cast from his pedestal is Kanye West. In a September stunt at the MTV Music Video Awards, Kanye grabbed the microphone from pop singer Taylor Swift as she was giving her acceptance speech and said the award should have rightfully gone to Beyonce Knowles. Kanye, who has been called by many a “cross-over” because his appeal jumps over racial lines, had committed the great betrayal. The only black male stereotype second to being violent is being uneducated and uncouth.

An explosion of racism on Twitter

An explosion of racism on Twitter

Kanye had broken the rules, the blinders came off and white society was indignant to learn that this unruly African-American had been masquerading as an “acceptable black” right under their noses. In an outburst of racism, the twitterverse and the blogosphere blew up with the N-word and other racial slurs. Bigotry that had been simmering right below the surface boiled over, and the beloved artist who had fans among hip-hop trendsetters and sheltered suburbanites alike, was under a race-fueled hailstorm. Everything is always fine with raceless individuals until a breach occurs, and race become salient once again.

Racelessness can hold dire consequences for the development of a healthy racial identity and for the prop functioning of multi-cultural society. It sets American off the track of egalitarianism and helps to perpetuate stereotypes. Labeling successful African-Americans as exceptions to the rule or as raceless propagates the idea that a normal black person would never attain such heights. The successful African-American becomes an anomaly, and the classification of the person as an anomaly reinforces what the society sees as normal. Therefore saying that Obama transcends race and isn’t a normal African-American perpetuates the negative portrayal of African-Americans. As blatant racism becomes socially unacceptable, dominant society will always find covert ways to make sure its ethnic and racial hegemony stays intact. Before in the 20th century when flagrant bigotry was more of the norm than tolerance, the accomplishments of such a high-achieving class of minorities would just be ignored. The numerous contribution to society by pioneers like Benjamin Banneker, Madame C.J. Walker, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and Mark Dean were simply glazed over in the annals of history. Now that many white Americans would feel compunction at the outright dismissal of black success, they found a way around it by just dismissing the person’s race entirely. Racelessness turns black accomplishments into just accomplishments, and preconceived notions remain untouched.

Racelessness can also serve to perpetuate a feeling of inadequacy among those wish to pursue racial identity. A new generation of black millenials may feel that they must adopt racelessness to succeed. In a study of school age children by Fordham, black identity was divided into categories that included ‘idealized’ and ‘alienated’ with ‘idealized’ referring to black students who felt a  strong racial identity and with alienated referring to those who felt a weak racial identity. Those with idealized racial identity demonstrated poorer performance than those with an alienated racial identity and scored lower on tests.  The justification for this in the study was that black students with a strong racial identity had internalized society’s negative regard for their capabilities and didn’t apply themselves in school. African-American students who wished to pursue and display blackness were also more likely to devalue areas where black have traditionally been unsuccessful. This leads to these racialized black students distancing themselves from behaviors that could lead to academic success in order to ensure their self-esteems are protected against failure. Highly racialized students in the study also illustrated a higher awareness of barriers to their prosperity and were more likely to reject positive attitudes and behaviors. Alienated racial identity, which falls on the side of racelessness, can spread the belief that being too black can push away whites and also lead to failure. Racial identification is discouraged as blacks begin to associate it with low achievement, never realizing that success and racial identity don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Racelessness can also serve to alienate racial minorities from raceless minorities. ‘Good’ blacks become stratified from ‘bad’ blacks based on how much they display their racial identity. This creates a class schism in the black community not too dissimilar from the slavery age schism between house slaves and field slaves. Some scholars feel this has led to President Obama not being fully accepted into the folds of African-American society as a black leader. Claiming that he isn’t black enough, black liberals have accused of not addressing issues in the black community, especially after his relative silence on the Derrion Albert murder in his native Chicago. Black political commentator Lenny McAllister writes:

“Mr. Obama is the president, and that is historic, but he is not a Black leader — at least not right now — and we collectively need to stop treating and defending him as such. Respect him as the president, but remove him from the mantle that you have him on with Dr. King. Many African-Americans have defended President Obama’s vanilla treatment of Black issues since his meteoric rise to the presidency by stating these issues are beneath his current status, but I pointedly remind them that Dr. King […] tore down walls of segregation, yet he died defending the rights of garbage workers.”

African-Americans begin to divide themselves in terms of how ‘white’ or how ‘black’ they act and socialize accordingly. This fracture in group solidarity precludes the possibility of ever developing an overarching racial identity based on racial dignity and cultural stability.

Racelessness is a pyrrhic victory at best. It gives the outward façade of being racially transcendent at the cost of leaving behind the various racial identities that support a multi-cultural society. Yes, we ‘transcend race’ and rise about it, but in the end, we are also transcending true egalitarianism. If American society is unable to integrate its plethora of ethnicities into a democracy, then a tragic failure has taken place. When stereotypes and race-based expectations become irrelevant to how black or how white someone is, the classification of racelessness for those who defy stereotypes need not exist.

WORKS CITED

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Is Obama Black Enough?” 2007. Time. <http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1584736,00.html?iid=sphere-inline-sidebar>

Dubois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” 1903.  http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=DubSoul.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1

Harper, Brian. “Racial identity beliefs and academic achievement: does being black hold students back?” 2006. <http://dennislearningcenter.osu.edu/references/Racial%20identity%20beliefs%20and%20academic%20achievement.pdf>

McAllister, Lenny. “The end of Barack Obama, the first black president.” 2009. <http://theloop21.com/news/the-end-the-first-black-president>

Neil Amdur. “Race and Sports in America.” 2000. The New York Times. <http://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/race/070200sports-transcript.html>

Uelmen,  Gerald.”The Five Hardest Lessons From The O.J. Trial. ” 1996. <http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/iie/v7n1/lessons.html>

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