Originally published on January 31, 2010, in Centre Daily Times.
“I forgot Obama was black tonight for an hour,” commented MSNBC’s Chris Matthews last week after the State of the Union address by President Barack Obama.
Apparently for Matthews, this was an indication of how far the country had traveled on race and how post-racial we have become. And he gave credit to Obama’s election and leadership for making him forget such a monumental thing as the president’s race for an hour.
This statement had me contemplating how much further we have to go on race, and how we unnecessarily distort our impressions of people with meaningless adjectives.
Matthews’ statement reflects the newness and uniqueness of having a “biracial” president, and the common practice of tagging adjectives onto others, when they are not the “norm,” such as a “black” senator, a “Hispanic” judge, a “female” CEO, an “American Indian” congressman, and so on.
But we do not use adjectives for the “norm,” which in the U.S. public arena is the white male.
And this “norm” is assumed to have leadership qualities. But if someone from a group other than the norm appears on the public arena, their otherness stands out as a qualifying adjective.
We might describe that someone as a “female astronaut,” “African American doctor,” or “Indian senator,” instead of simply using astronaut, doctor or senator.
Of course, descriptors of otherness are used globally. The labels could vary from words like “foreign” to religious ones like “Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Jew” to ethnic-, tribal-, language-and politics-based ones.
Labeling others is a common human activity, but we can control what we do after we label someone.
And my fellow Americans and I, with origins from all around the world, have a unique opportunity to engage in an exercise of remembering and forgetting such things, not just for an hour, but forever.
We need to acknowledge the accomplishments of those from “minority” groups, by remembering, registering and then forgetting.
When we remember and register, we expand our idea of the possibilities for different groups of people. But then we need to forget, and forget not momentarily, but forever.
When someone enters a room, I wish we could both remember and forget their ethnic origins.
When we meet someone, I wish we could both remember and forget our religions.
When we succeed or fail, I wish we could both remember and forget our gender.
And so on, till we register just the unique individual before us.
I wish we would acknowledge that our physical realities and backgrounds may or may not have any bearing on our thoughts, acts and performance, depending on the context.
In such a world, where we both remember and forget, we would view Obama’s successes and failures as simply the journey of an American politician, who happens to be biracial, and has strengths and failings like the rest of us.
In such a world, Matthews would have remembered and then forgotten Obama’s biracial heritage forever, not just for an hour, and restricted himself to comments on the quality of the president’s State of the Union address.
Just like we remember and forget Matthews’ race.