At this hopeful post-election moment, we’re struck by one fascinating difference between this week and its partner in 2008. Whereas Obama’s first election was widely described as ushering in a “post racial” America, this time around the pundits seem to harbor no such lofty idealism. Indeed, quite the opposite—media attention has glommed on to a narrative of racial division. Noting especially Obama’s sweeping victory despite the fact that he lost most of the “white vote,” some applaud the end of a particular sort of white privilege, while others –perhaps notably Bill O’Reilly—bemoan the loss of a “traditional America.”
It strikes us that there’s a different lesson to be learned here—one that requires us to reject both the optimism of 2008 and the—what is it? Shadenfreude?—of 2012. While the media seems to want us to be mired in race or over it completely, our lives as teachers of American literature and culture points us towards a different reading. It seems to us that Obama’s re-election is both the result and the cause of a profound, and wide-spread, effort to reimagine what race is. Critical race scholars have been saying for years that race is a construct: the fact of Obama’s re-election means that a wider swath of America is finally getting the memo. At the same time, America is sending a message back to the academy, and scholars like us would do well to listen carefully.
This fall we’ve both been thinking about what race means: to our students and to our worlds. When Sarah B. started teaching her “How the Irish Became White” unit in a Manhattan-based Intro to American Studies course, she asked her students who was of Irish descent: the African American young woman, the Dominican American young man, and the self-professed “white trash” young woman all raised their hands. Which of these Irish-descended students had, in fact, “become white,” or wanted to?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Sarah M. learned from a black bus driver—he blocked an intersection for ten minutes just so he could finish his story—about his experience when a racially-charged incident erupted on his bus between Caucasian, black, and Spanish riders (here we borrow the bus driver’s own vocabulary), that came to blows after the Caucasian spit on a young black woman, telling her she was only fit to be a maid. What does it mean when a vocabulary of racial animosity shaped by centuries-old racial hierarchies of the eastern seaboard erupt in Los Angeles, on a bus filled with Latina domestic laborers?
These daily encounters mirror the racial confusion of the larger world. It seems that Scott Brown—who scoffed at Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Native American ancestry, based on her appearance—might have done well to talk about the Irish “race” memory in Sarah B’s Dominican student. And perhaps Republican pundits newly attentive to the power of the Latino vote might do well to take a bus through east LA, and discuss racial identity with worried a black bus driver, concerned about the danger a Hispanic rider’s mixed allegiances placed him in.
And perhaps all of this informs how we all read the race of a president who is vilified both for his blackness and his not-black-enoughness; whose race resides as much in his marriage, his carefully learned oratorical style, and his adopted south side identity as it does in the color of his skin. And, too, it should help us read the whiteness of this imagined “white voter” who so favors Romney, whose passing Bill O’Reilly regrets. Romney’s success with “white voters” diminishes with age: he won “white” voters over 65 by a solid twenty points, but had no majority in white voters under 30. We talk about race as a construct of gender and class, but we should, it seems, talk about it as a matter of age as well. Whiteness is not leaving us, Bill. We are not “post” it. But what it means is changing.
When we look at photos of Obama’s victory party, one thing we see is a “diverse” America. But perhaps the more hopeful, as well as more challenging, thing to see is an America at the beginning, rather than the end, of encountering the fact that it has always imagined race into being. The joy of the partying crowd should not prevent us from recognizing the sober truth that not only have we not surpassed race, we have only begun to realize the complex ways it shapes us—and this is true equally for the mainstream media and the racial study of the academy, which still (perhaps like the racist bus rider) tends to draw from too narrow a vocabulary and frame of reference, at the same time that it remains unduly hesitant about performing the crucial dirty work of listening to racism as it tells—in spit and in word–its continually renewed perverse logics.
And yet, it’s also important to emphasize that the intense encounter with difference, challenging though it may be, is exactly what might make this moment hopeful. And we’re so glad that our country has chosen the path that means tackling these problems directly. In the last week here at Avidly, we’ve talked about approaching the election with a sense of history, a sense of perspective, and a sense of style. Our aim is to try, to try, to keep the same rigor as we tackle the work of the next four years. We think it’s going to get harder–because that’s what’s happen when you go forward. America: we are glad you are trying. Thank you for putting your queer shoulders to this wheel.