My Racism Recliner Test
I floated an idea, borrowed from Obama, about a way to test post-racial relations—or was it just another attempt by a white guy to put the problem of systemic racism to bed?
In an age rife with race experts and workshops on anti-racism, it might be helpful to conjure an image of what a more or less colorblind society would look and feel like, especially from the vantage point of Black and brown folks. In his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama provided a glimpse of what the late congressman John Lewis referred to as “the blessed community,” which is one where we see one another as brothers and sisters.
A few chapters into the text, Obama reflects on his years at the elite Punahou High School in Honolulu. Largely raised by his Kansas-born white grandparents, the high school-age Obama was grappling with the issue of his identity as a young Black man in a multicultural society. Seeking some guidance, the skinny-legged hoopster would occasionally go over for a chat with Frank, an African American and longtime friend and card-playing chum of Obama’s grandfather. Frank reassured the future president that his gramps was basically a good guy, but then he added:
“But he doesn’t know me…. He can’t know me, not the way I know him. Maybe some of these Hawaiians can, or the Indians on the reservation. They’ve seen their grandfathers humiliated. Their mothers desecrated. But your grandfather will never know what that feels like. That’s why he can come over here and drink my whiskey and fall asleep in that chair you’re sitting in right now. Sleep like a baby. See, that’s something I can never do in his house. Never. Doesn’t matter how tired I get; I still have to watch myself. I have to be vigilant for my own survival.”
Personally speaking, that passage was an ice cube down my neck. I am a boxing trainer and over the years many of my aspiring pugilists have been Mexican immigrants. When I visit with them at their apartments, I stretch my legs out, maybe sip on a beer and sometimes even dose off a la Obama’s grandpa. However, when that same crew stops by my place, they are polite and will joke around, and yet at some level they are always at attention. Even though in some cases I have been training them for years they would never drift off to dreamland on my couch; nor would they ever assume the relaxed body language and poses in the television commercials common today of mixed races and ethnic groups jumping around and hugging each other like family as they watch their favorite football team.
In his classic, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois observed that American Blacks are locked in a “double consciousness.” He wrote, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness.”
It’s the twoness of Obama’s friend Frank, and of Mike Tyson as well. In 2002, I interviewed Tyson in his Maui training camp before his unsuccessful tussle with Lennox Lewis. As usual, he was provoked with condescending questions from reporters. After a few minutes, Iron Mike melted down in a rage and tossed almost everyone out. For some reason, he felt at home with me that afternoon, and when the other scribblers cleared out, Mike confessed that inwardly he felt as though he was on a seesaw between his hankering to be seen as “legit,” i.e., country club white, and to be regarded as a Black man “keeping it real,” which for Tyson of that time meant resorting to the thug life he grew up with in Bedford Stuyvesant.
Between Obama and Tyson, it struck me that maybe the question of who is comfortable in whose recliner is one of the best ways of imagining dissolving the double consciousness Dubois described, or so I hinted in an informal discussion with students about race. There was a moment of silence, and then one of the undergrads barked:
“Hey Doc, guess what? Not every student of color gives a damn how they are seen from the normalizing middle-class white perspective.”
In other words, even though I plucked the idea from Obama, my attempt to daub an image of post-racial personal relations was understood, at least by some, as just another attempt of a white guy to put the problem of systemic racism to bed.