June 16, 2008--And so continues the conundrum of being a post-racial black candidate in a still-very-racial world. To speak the truth about anything involving race is to be accused instantly of dragging out that famous racial deck we've all been dealt that stands us in such good stead in America.
The campaign of Barack Obama has had to rebut, not once but several times, the wild rumors that his wife Michelle used an insulting term for white people while railing from the pulpit of Trinity United Church in Chicago. His campaign has had to set up a website to refute the charge, and Obama himself has had to chastise mainstream reporters for spreading the lie.
What he hasn't done—because he cannot if he wants to win the presidency—is roll out the clearest and most obvious knockdown of Whiteygate. Namely this: "When the hell was the last time you heard a black person call somebody 'whitey?'"
I mean, come on. White man, please.
Speaking as a person who has been black all of my 40-plus years on the planet, I can say with some authority that no self-respecting black, African-American, Negro, colored or even "there's only one race: the human race" person I know would use the word.
Not unless they were quoting Rush Limbaugh. Or maybe George Jefferson.
The accusation is insulting not only because it so clearly reveals the desperation of right-wing zealots terrified of losing their stranglehold on a gasping America by playing to baseline anxieties and sad, unfortunate fears of those hard-working white Americans we've heard so much about; but because, frankly, it's so ham-fisted in its mendacity.
I mean, 'Whitey?'
The woman has a law degree from Harvard, for crying out loud. If, for some reason, she was trying to rile up a congregation she could do much, much better than that. I have spent the afternoon trying—with all the honesty and courage and humble introspection that is called for in this historic moment, with America poised to finally cast off its original sin and move into the full realization of those ringing words in the Declaration of Independence—to think about the terms black folks use when talking among themselves about white people.
I could barely move my pencil tip. Probably because black folks spend a lot less time talking or even thinking about white people than most white, right-wing reactionaries and their black counterparts dream in their hot little dreams. I had trouble, and, after hours and hours, the best I could come up with was this:
White folks. Whites. White people. They.
Or, in the case of Limbaugh in particular: Hophead. Pill-popper. Junkie nincompoop.
But really, that was pretty much it. When I was growing up in Memphis in the groovy '70s, some people tried to get the word "ofay" going, but, in my circles at least, it never really took. My mother's generation used Mr. Charlie, my older sister's cool boyfriend use to say The Man. There was redneck, of course, but growing up in Memphis, the only people I ever heard use that word were white people.
There was cracker, but usually that referred to a certain, specific kind of hog-jowled, Southern racist, as in "That cracker had the nerve to make me wash his sheets—and I don't mean the ones he use on his bed!"
I know a genteel older black woman who, out of delicacy or discomfort, will never use the words white or black when referring to people associated with those hues. Instead she says "wonderful people" and "beautiful people," which I think is kinda sweet.
But whitey? Uh uh! I'm sorry. No.
Still, if Limbaugh and his acolytes are so worried about being called out of their name, I suggest they take the hip-hop route of reclaiming and reframing a powerfully-painful word that has been used for centuries to denigrate and dominate, to persuade a people of their inferiority and the rightness of their oppression. Which, you know, "Whitey" did do.
Limbaugh should replace the final consonant with an "a" and turn the resulting word into a term of affection and brotherhood. Write a song, get a DJ and a mic, lay down some tracks.
Then, make sure to get it all on videotape.
Also on The Root:
Kim McLarin claims Obama's real prize, Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Marc Lamont Hill get mad over the malice directed at Michelle, and Paul Devlin sends her a letter.
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