Sunday, July 06, 2008

Are You White Enough to Support Obama?

One of the poorly understood dimensions of American society is the complexity of the role of race in shaping American culture and politics. The media portrays race almost solely in terms of white racism and all its manifestations vs black grievance and all its manifestations. Of course, the media is right that there's plenty of racism among white and a strong sense of agreement among African-Americans. But America's legacy of slavery, segregation, white racism, and black resistance means that questions of who is a white or black person, how people define themselves as white or black, and what definitions of race are dominant within various white and black communities have a powerful role in shaping people's lives.

When Barack Obama started his campaign, writers like Debra Dickerson questioned whether he was "black enough" to be the first black president. But support for Obama is also a marker by which urban, upper-middle class whites show their "whiteness." According to Christian Lander of the "Stuff White People Like" blog, prosperous whites define themselves in a hierarchy of whiteness through objects like glasses, shoes, coffee, television programs, and politics. High level or "uber" white people wear chunky glasses, watch "The Wire," get all their information about the world from NPR. Here's how the hierarchy works in relation to bottled water.
It's all about ranking. It's essentially a contest. It used to be that bottled water was a status symbol. You drink Evian, or you drink Fiji, or what is the most expensive water. But advanced-level white people, the higher-ranking white people, realized that they were creating a lot of waste, and so they switched over to the Nalgene bottle. That also reminded them of going camping. So then they could take a stance of superiority over the people who were drinking bottled water. And then, that whole story came out about Nalgenes leaching I don't know what the exact toxin is [Bisphenol A]. So then super-advanced white people went even further and got those metal Sigg bottles, and now you have this really solid hierarchy and ranking of white people of commercial bottled water, Nalgene bottle and either the glass or metal, twist-top bottles.
How does this work for the 2008 election? "Stuff White People Like" lists Barack Obama as "something" that educated, left-wing, upper-middle class white people like. But they comment that high-ranking "white people are afraid that if they don’t like him that they will be called racist."

But that would be valid in only the very narrow sense that racists are viewed as so repugnant that they are either seen as the "least advanced" white people or as outside the hierarchy of whiteness altogether.

Obama appeals to those who are concerned about their rating on the whiteness scale for other reasons. Obama conveys a sense of being right and being detached that works very well in a left-leaning, upper-middle class white environment. Obama's black without conveying any sense of racial politics. That's good even though his connection with Jeremiah Wright probably led to doubts on that score. The fact that Obama's a Democrat is good because that means he's not a Republican and therefore not associated with "low-level whites" like George Bush, Dick Cheney, or the religious right. It's even better that Obama seemed at first to be detached from the other Democrats as well. Likewise, Obama's right on all the issues but right in the proper, detached kind of way that's popular with upper-middle class whites. In fact, it's easy to imagine Obama listening to NPR, watching the right television shows, and drinking the right kind of coffee.

Having supported Hillary during the primaries, I'm definitely not a high-order white person according to this scale. But it's important to emphasize that there are some white perspectives where being "really" white means really supporting Obama.

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