One of my good friends copied me this week on an email that she forwarded to a group of friends. The anonymous email said President Obama changed the décor of the Oval Office. It went on to claim the “Office is now stripped of the traditional red, white, and blue, and replaced with [Middle Eastern] wallpaper, drapes, and décor.”
The author also asks, “What is missing from Barack Hussein Obama’s press conference?” A photo is displayed showing the President at the podium, no American flag in sight.
“And I don’t believe it was just an accident! It is intentional,” the author goes on to write. “So I ask, why is it intentional? He told you he would change America, didn’t he?”
I emailed her back and told her the email was a lie, as verified on the Snopes website. I told her people who lie like that incite anger and violence and they should be prosecuted for endangering the President. I figured she might not like my response.
We are political opposites. I’m the “bleeding heart liberal,” and she is the “southern conservative.” We’ve managed, quite successfully, to look beyond one another’s worldview and political affiliation. We’ve discovered other common ground for our friendship. We’ve even learned to listen to one another on volatile topics, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by her response.
She copied everyone she’d sent it to and apologized.
That’s what friends do. But more than that, that’s what responsible people do when they’ve discovered a wrong and their possible complicity in it.
She might have agreed with the sentiment. She might have believed the story to be true, even against all rational explanations. But when she discovered the ruse, she corrected her action.
It reminds me of a situation at John McCain’s town meeting a few weeks before the election in 2008. A woman claimed, despite all evidence, that Obama was an Arab. John McCain did something that day that still earns my highest regard. He took the microphone from the woman and said, "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab]."
Of course, I might have added, “and even if he were an Arab, he is an American and has the right to run for our highest office.” But I might have done the same thing in such a situation, taken aback by the blatant ignorance and hatred of a seemingly benign middle-aged white woman, wondering how things could have sunk to such a low point and how I might have been complicit in allowing this talk to go on for much of the campaign and how dangerous such lies had become.
I remember McCain’s face and his body language, deflated with recognition. His response contributed to his losing the election, but he retained his ethical stance and his humanity.
I wish the politicians who are trying to keep the birther conspiracy alive felt that way, too. I don’t care if they disagree with Obama’s policies, but I care that they want to dismantle him piece by piece, the way the soldiers destroyed the Sadam Hussein statue in Iraq. I care that they believe his inadequacies stem from his being black, even if they don’t say so. I care that they’ve made Obama into a straw dog – representing how certain Americans will lose their country and heritage if certain people are made leaders and given power, even as they’ve selected their own straw dog – Herman Cain – to serve as their token black man. Just as Sarah Palin served as their token woman. She was the antithesis of Hillary Clinton. Cain is the antithesis of Obama – not educated, not measured in his communications, not in control, a loose cannon who will initiate his own demise, a self-fulfilled prophecy.
Somehow all this fighting among Americans is manifesting itself in a kind of Schadenfreude. A collective voice expresses moral superiority and gleeful hatred of minorities, the poor, non-Christians, gays, the unemployed and those without health coverage. They did it to themselves, why should we help them? the collective seems to say, if only to believe it can’t happen to the rest of us, that the mighty will never be victims. The liberals are a part of it, too, hoping for personal hardship for the religious and conservative right, at their own doing. But the problem with that is that it can happen to all of us, every single one of us, and it already has. We are victims of our prejudices, our fears, our wants, and our needs. No one is exempt, and that is why the rich hide behind their wealth and lots of others hide behind rhetoric, guns and God. You can’t say God doesn’t approve of this sin or that sin and think yourself sinless. You can’t yell murder and kill in the name of all that’s good and right. You can’t claim lies but lie yourself. We’ve created our own little hell in America and across the world. It’s is time for change. Now it’s up to us to stop, to take responsibility, and to apologize for being complicit in allowing the wrong to grow deep and strong.
(Excerpt from essay What’s Race Got to Do with It?)
My upbringing made me aware that every person deserves to be considered as an individual and not lumped into a pile of faceless people based on physical attributes. In a way, growing up in an alcoholic, dysfunctional, and interethnic environment assured my belief that I was no better than anyone else. I hoped that people would treat me with the same suspended judgment as I treated them. But what I experienced with my parents is something that Chita Childs refers to as “a progressive trend in white racial attitudes to advocate for integration and equality and against discrimination on a broad theoretical level while maintaining opposition to implementing practices that require day-to-day interaction or close proximity in their social circle to African-Americans.” My parents valued the concepts of integration and had a diverse group of friends, but they could not move beyond their own interethnic failure and racial barriers when it came to my relationship with Ronald.
I saw how often other people pre-judged us, too, based on what they thought about interracial relationships and race. But I knew some people would react negatively – my shyness caused me to be cautionary around all strangers.
When our twin daughters were babies, I worked a few hours a week at a department store. One of my colleagues was a college student. She frequently asked to see photographs of Cara and Mackenzie and remarked how cute she thought they were. One evening, she asked if she could have a ride to her car because she had had to park in the outer lot and was afraid to walk alone all that way in the dark. I said yes and told her she would get to meet Ronald and the babies. Ronald pulled up to the door of the store, and I slid into the back seat between the two infant carriers holding Cara and Mackenzie. I introduced my associate to Ronald as she sat in the front passenger seat and told her which baby was which. She smiled and chatted on the way over to her car.
The next morning I was bathing Cara and Mackenzie when the phone rang. I quickly picked it up and tucked it between my ear and shoulder. “Hello,” I said breathlessly.
“How dare you not tell me that your husband is black,” the voice on the other end of the line said with anger and disgust. It was my colleague.
“What?” I said clutching the towel I had wrapped around Mackenzie.
“You never told me your husband was black,” she said, her voice accusatory.
“You’ve seen pictures of the girls,” I said defensively. “Besides, I never asked you what color your fiancé is. Why does it matter?”
“It matters,” she said.
So when should I bring it up? Like a disease or an affliction that must be revealed before one gets too involved in a relationship, I have often been left wondering if the other person will be able to handle my interracial relationship and if I can handle their inability to do so.
Do I shake someone’s hand and say, “I’m Dianne, and I’m interracially married.”
Or do I wait until the other person says something that I find offensive?
“I can’t stand waiting on black people,” another white sales colleague said one day. I felt my scalp prickle and my face warm. She continued by saying, “They smell bad and they never spend a lot of money.”
I wanted to slap her face. I wanted to call her ignorant. I wanted to quit my part-time job that suddenly felt like a danger to my family.
“Really?” I said, staring at her. “That’s not my experience.”
“It’s what I think,” she said.
“My husband isn’t like that.”
“What? Your husband is black?”
“You should have told me,” she said.
“Why, so you could watch what you say around me?”
“You tricked me,” she said.
I am a spy among white people. I am the fly on the wall. I am sensitized to the racial polarization of our country, and I’ve learned to listen for it.