Race still matters

Uzodinma Iweala is the author of "Beasts of No Nation," a novel about child soldiers in Africa.

Iam shocked by the commentary on the prominence of race as a theme in the Democratic Party primaries. Shocked not because race is a theme but because so many in the media seem to think that race would not be or should not be mentioned. It is as if we think that not speaking about race is the equivalent of making progress on race issues.

The only thing more amusing than the use of a new term, “post-racial,” to describe the positive response to Barack Obama’s campaign is the lamentation at the loss of “post-raciality.”

This entire narrative is a media-concocted fiction. America is decidedly not “post-racial.” One need only observe the prosecution of the Duke University lacrosse team or the Jena Six, the debate about race-based affirmative action and the atrocity that was and is Hurricane Katrina to know that racial issues are still with us. The desire that the subject of race be set aside in the current “post-racial” political conversation shows that society is unwilling to openly face its worst fear: Not only could a black man ably lead this nation, but the mere fact of a black president would force both the majority and minority populations to reset our parameters for normality.


Some (perhaps many) white Americans don’t think it’s normal for a black person to be successful; their stereotypes can’t accommodate the fact of a black person having gone to Harvard and achieved some prominence. As an African American writer, I am reminded of this each time I finish a reading, when without fail a white person overzealously praises my speaking ability. The most recent version of this was a 15-year-old high school student who was amazed that I had actually attended college.

Also telling is Obama’s initial lack of support in the black community, which may have been a result of an African American unwillingness to see him as representative of traditional (very different from stereotypical) black America. The majority of Americans are comfortable accepting successful blacks in stereotypically prescribed fields such as entertainment or sports, where blacks are expected to be physically and emotionally strong and yet largely politically mute. When a black person becomes successful in another field, he or she becomes a “surprise” to the majority and is subsequently stripped of color.

How many times have you heard a white person say that he or she thinks of Obama not as a black man but as a man, or of Oprah not as a black woman but as just, well, Oprah? I have lost count. This well-meaning, praise-expectant affirmation of colorblindness may seem like progress, but it’s really indicative of having avoided the central issue: Someone who looks different (read black) could be just as qualified, just as deserving as a “normal” person (read white).

The in-your-face, un-stereotypical blackness of Obama therefore forces all of us to question our ideas of race and racial progress in a way that makes us work. This type of work is difficult and scary, and it’s understandable why some would rather delay the discussion or label it unnecessary and unproductive. But having this discussion will allow us to grow stronger as a country.

Obama’s presence forces us to ask whether it is reasonable to call a biracial man black; whether definitions of race designed to benefit slave-owners are still necessary and valid in 2008. His openness about past drug use could put front and center the debate about the patently racist sentencing guidelines our “post-racial” society employs to punish narcotics-related offenses.

In general, Barack Hussein Obama brings us face to face with the discomfort our society feels with this idea of difference. Indeed, fascination with Obama’s name recalls studies that show how hard it is for those with unique African American names to find employment. And it is interesting that no one has mentioned an obvious reason for the Obama campaign’s initial reluctance to attack Hillary Rodham Clinton -- that it might conjure up the age-old assumption that aggressive young black men are a menace to older white women. (If that statement offends you, I’m sure plenty of young black men like myself can tell you about older white women crossing the street to avoid us in our “post-racial” society.)


Even if we were to confront head-on these and other questions surrounding race, we are unlikely to grow into the “post-racial” modifier some of us so crave. That’s because the idea of “post-raciality” is a total fallacy. Should Obama become president, he will not suddenly cease to be black, nor will white Americans be any less white. However, Obama’s continual presence in our newspapers, on television and in our national consciousness would force us to reconsider just what these colors mean. A President Obama (or any other black president) would bring us face to face with the threatening idea that colorblindness and equality are not the same, and that real progress on racial issues means respect for, and not avoidance of, difference.

Our racial past and future is something that we Americans must address. Thanks to Obama, there is no better time than now.