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Obama's Speech and Me

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As a 65 year-old white man, I thought I "got" Barack Obama's celebrated speech on race when he gave it. But I didn't. Not until yesterday, when a black stranger walked into the changing room at the gym I go to on South Whidbey Island, Washington. The man commented on my new cowboy boots and asked me if I rode. We got to talking and he said he worked with show horses.

The instant he said that I pictured this black man as a groom the guy who walks the horses, brings in the hay and shovels out the sh*t. That picture stayed in my consciousness for no more than a second but most surely it was there, and it was the first picture I had. Of course I did not voice it. It turned out that the man was a professional rider and trainer.

Damn that one-second picture!

My politics are left of center. My friends would say I'm a thoughtful and compassionate person.

But not for that one second.

I'm getting better. Ten years ago I would double-clutch when I saw a black pilot walk into the cockpit of the 747 I was boarding. I would stare just a little when the black woman at the cocktail party said she was a scientist or engineer.

Still, it's there. The racism that Obama called me on. Called all of us on, black and white. Called on us to talk about it and work through it and fix it.

I grew up in a totally white-bread part of Tacoma, Washington. There were no black families within a mile. There was a quiet uproar when the first Jewish family moved into the neighborhood. There was one black kid in my (Catholic) high school, an IQ 200 super-genius that the Jesuits had recruited.

I nodded in agreement when Obama, after disassociating himself from the words of Rev. Wright, called on us to understand the injustices that had led many black people of Wright's generation to carry around the kind of anger that makes white people nervous.

Then Obama had the audacity to suggest that he also knows how whites feel and what might be lurking in our cultural DNA. How he understands white anger and resentment over busing and affirmative action. How he cringed when his beloved white grandmother voiced racist remarks.

All the while I didn't think he was talking about me. But he was.
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John Graham shipped out on a freighter when he was sixteen, took part in the first ascent of Mt. McKinley's North Wall at twenty, and hitchhiked around the world at twenty-two. A Foreign Service Officer for fifteen years, he was in the middle of (more...)
 

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