"I Forgot Obama was Black": Reflections On Chris Matthews's Comment
By Mikhail Lyubansky
For many, Chris Matthews's post-speech comments took the luster off President Obama's first State of the Union address. I offer a few brief thoughts about Matthews's comments, what he probably meant to say, and why many didn't hear it that way.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 racial dynamics and regularly explores these themes in his Psychology Today blog Between the Lines., as well as in contributions to a variety of anthologies on popular culture, ranging from Harry Potter to vampires to superheroes. In addition to OpEdNews, Mikhail's commentary has also appeared in a many other online publications, including Buzzflash, Jewcy, Colors, Race-Talk, Truthout, Tikkun, Alternet and The Huffington Post, and he has been a guest on a variety of radio programs, including Illinois Public Media and Wisconsin Public Radio.
Born in Kiev, Mikhail immigrated with his family to the United States as a child in 1977. He currently lives in Urbana, IL with his wife and two children.
All material on this site published under his byline remains the property of Mikhail Lyubansky, copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Permission is granted to repost and distribute, with proper attribution.