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The Mask in '08

by Rootsie
February 12, 2008

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
    We wear the mask.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1896)

I've had enough of reading things
By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth

No short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of tricky dicky
Is gonna mother hubbard soft soap me
With just a pocketful of hope
That's money for dope
Money for rope
John Lennon (197?)

Just what is this "Hope" Barack Obama has been peddling?

I think that, whether he is aware of it or not, it's about Absolutely Free Painless Absolution for whites. We like it quick and painless.

"He's so charismatic! So alive!" one white female admirer gushes.

"He's about the future, not the past," says another white fan.

A future of never having to think about race again, because we elected a black president. Well...not too black...that would be scary. But we want so very much to be good whites, to believe that this country has been morally transformed. We drink in Obama like a magic elixir: Abracadabra, the frog is a prince, racism is race itself is vanished.

The New York Times has referred to Obama's candidacy as "post-racial." Obama's supporters, black and white, chant in unison: "Race Doesn't Matter!"

Obama tells us this election is not about race, not about gender. The pundits in the media tell us this election is not about issues. Well what then?

It is about masks. This issueless campaign at a moment of very real, very pressing issues, reflects a pervasive despair and exhaustion. Voting for the mask is about all we've got the energy left for.

The Obama phenomenon seems to have little to do with Obama himself. There's a lot of white aspiration wrapped up in it somehow. He's got the white intellectual vote, for what that's worth, the hippie vote, the liberal do-gooder vote...Obama has declared himself "post-ideological", which seems to mean that we don't need to know in any specific way what he believes about anything. All the ideology he needs is contained in his physical image, the fact of him as a viable candidate.

Blacks and whites in Obama's campaign organization struggle (note that the higher-ups are white) day-by-day with presenting the mask that fits the constituency they want their candidate to appeal to: he avoided black churches until the Southern primaries came along. Michelle Obama is called upon apparently when someone more "authentically black" is needed.

Can a black politician in America afford to be forthright about who he really is and what he really thinks? The way blacks 'make it' is by assuring the comfort of whites in their presence. Think Oprah.

There is nothing new about Obama's schtick: this is how blacks have survived for long stretches of American history, by being as vigilant as possible against insulting white sensibilities. How exhausting for him, and tragic for all of us.

Was it not crazy-making to listen to troubled white pundits the day after Obama's South Carolina victory fretting that Obama might now be perceived as the black people's candidate? So Dems need blacks to vote for Obama in overwhelming numbers while not being too...well you know... black about it.

And such a strange, naive, generic refrain: "Hope!" For what? I guess hope for whatever each listener is hoping for, however craven or exalted. The great unspoken is of course all contained in the visual of Obama addressing his huge crowds: hope that we can put race behind us this simply.

My own hope is to have the integrity to bear black anger and black pain without needing it to be anything else than what it is, and, bit by bitter bit, to root out my white arrogance.

"Whiteness", "Blackness", "Race" are indeed human constructs, but there is no sense in denying their potency in a world where power is allotted according to skin-tone.

We (whites) choose the mask, and Obama has to wear it. It's an ugly business–apparently the United States is ready for a black president as long as whites don't have to look at any hard realities about the persistence and pervasiveness of racism, or in any other mode than through the distorting mask of their own privilege.

a semi-interesting article:
"How 'blackness' has figured into the Obama campaign"


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