One Typical White Person’s Reaction


If I’m going to be as vocal in my support for Sen. Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency as I have been to this point, I suppose I had better be willing to offer a little criticism when it’s due.

I’m disappointed in the Senator’s poor choice of words in describing his grandmother as “a typical white person” in a recent radio interview.

Not because I believe he holds any deeply rooted feelings of prejudice toward whites. I don’t believe that his comments reflected any racist undertones, or were racially motivated. I don’t believe that Obama’s intent was to speak in such broad terms and categorically paint all whites as racists who are afraid of blacks on the streets.

But I am disappointed that he gave his critics a chance to spin his words in that way and then use the opportunity to discredit him as someone of Rev. Wright’s ilk. After the firestorm that flared up concerning Obama’s former pastor and his incendiary remarks, there couldn’t have been a worse time for Obama to choose his words so carelessly. And especially for someone who has always spoken with such carefully selected prose, and who has always been so polished in his public presentation, to have this gaffe tarnish his campaign is quite disappointing.

That being said, I have to admit that I don’t disagree with Obama’s comments.

When the comment is reduced to a sound byte, and especially when that sound byte is reduced further to the three words “typical white person” and bookended by critical commentary, it can sound quite prejudiced. But when taken as a whole, it should be obvious that wasn’t his intended tone.

“The point I was making was not that grandmother harbors any racial animosity. She doesn’t. But she is a typical white person, who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know, you know, there’s a reaction that’s been bred in our experiences that don’t go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way, and that’s just the nature of race in our society.”

“We have to break through it. And what makes me optimistic is you see each generation feeling a little less like that, and that’s powerful stuff.”

What Obama was getting at is that there is a certain feeling, or tension, in our culture that falls along our racial divide. And that’s true, we all feel it to some degree. We all know it’s there. And this tension can be felt when we pass one another on the street, or when we walk by a group of people whose language we don’t understand. Even between close friends who are of different racial backgrounds, there is a sense that there’s something between us. It feels like something is in the way. We all sense it.

But the good news – that part of Obama’s comment that finds itself suspiciously absent from the sound bytes – is that things are getting better with each new generation. While we still have a long way to go, there is cause for optimism as each generation works to bridge our racial divide. But it’s going to take all of us being willing to confront the demons that haunt our collective experience if we are to make further progress.

Obama chose his words poorly. There is no denying that by using a phrase like “typical white person” he set himself up for the firing squad. He should have known better, and he would most certainly like to have that one back.

But as many in the media pounce on the opportunity to pin the “racist” tag on Obama’s back, I hope that many more will consider the message beyond the sound byte and weigh the whole of his comments against the truth of our own experiences. We ought to consider the validity of Obama’s message, and the challenge it presents as we move forward on the path of racial reconciliation together as a nation. Even if that message is tarnished by some of the most boneheaded words any politician – white or black (or in Obama’s case both) – could have possibly chosen.


5 thoughts on “One Typical White Person’s Reaction

  1. Here’s to hoping that this will all eventually blow over just like it did for John McCain who, during his 2000 run for the White House, told a reporter, “I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.”

    He was speaking specifically of his captors while he was a POW in Vietnam, but his remarks were a display of immense cultural insensitivity. Referring to someone of Asian heritage as a “gook” is on par with calling blacks “n—rs” – even if you’re only talking about “the bad ones.”

    Obama’s recent slip up pales in comparison.

  2. I’m not sure he actually chose his words all that poorly. More than anything, this is the product of a ruthless and petty media. Smaller things have destroyed entire campaigns in the past. This is the sort of thing Obama stands against–how petty, nasty, impractical, and long-distant from solid principles modern politics has gotten. Real government, by someone who’s still essentially a real human being. I think that’s what he’d bring to the table.

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