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"I Forgot Obama was Black": Reflections On Chris Matthews's Comment

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I enjoyed Obama's first State of the Union address, in large part because I like listening to our President. I like seeing our first African American President too. Though I'm not so naive as to think that it's an indication of a post-racial society (more on that later), I do think it's an important milestone in U.S. race relations. So, when Chris Matthews remarked that he forgot that Obama was Black for an hour (you can watch the clip below), I was more than a little stunned.

Admittedly, my first reaction was sarcastic. "I wonder if Chris Matthews will forget that McDonnell is white." I tweeted during the Governor's GOP response. By the time McDonnell finished his speech, I was already regretting it.

If you watch the Chris Matthews clip, you can't help but sense that he was, as @pittswiley tweeted, "trying to be profound and positive." He meant to celebrate the speech and Obama, not for their "whiteness" (though it certainly came across that way) but for their ability to transcend race. If he had chosen his words more carefully (or had better tools to discuss racial issues), I think Matthews would have said that, for an hour, he didn't see Obama as a racialized person, but only as the President of the United States. While even that statement would require some unpacking (what was it exactly about the speech that deracialized Obama?), I personally would have celebrated such a contribution from popular media to our discourse on race.

Unfortunately, as it was, Matthews's comment was completely insensitive and misguided. For one, it implied that many of the positive qualities that are often attributed to Barack Obama and that were on full display during the State of the Union -- his intelligence, his eloquence, his thoughtful presence -- are somehow antithetical to Blackness, that a Black person would not have such qualities. For one, Matthews contextualized his observation in a longer comment about a post-racial society, a notion that seems absurd given the continued realities of racial inequities in almost every arena of public life, as well as the racialized politics of the past year.

And so, on this morning after the State of the Union, I feel a bit inspired by the President's speech but mostly sad that well-intentioned white liberals like Matthews continue to struggle to talk about race constructively. Though he clearly put his foot in his mouth, I applaud Matthews for having the courage to bring race into the conversation, even though it was clear that his inner voice was telling him to stop. It is tempting to conclude that he should have listened to his inner voice, but the truth is that I don't want the Chris Matthews of the world to stop talking about race. What I want is for them to have the tools to do it effectively and constructively.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and his associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)

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thank you.... by Joan Brunwasser on Thursday, Jan 28, 2010 at 9:50:16 PM
I assume Matthews may have been committed to MSN(M... by Margaret Bassett on Friday, Jan 29, 2010 at 5:08:50 AM
I've heard Obama described as biracial, usually in... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Friday, Jan 29, 2010 at 6:46:25 AM