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This Week in Racism

All People of Color, Even the Obamas, Have to Deal with Racial Profiling

The president and first lady told "People" magazine about the times when they've experienced racism firsthand.
December 19, 2014, 4:15pm

Thumbnail photo via Flickr user The US Army

I have never been racially profiled, at least that I know of. I'm not terribly perceptive in social situations, usually because I'm too busy refreshing my Twitter notifications or quixotically trying to hide the bald spot on the back of my head by shifting my hair around. I still haven't figured out that people notice the spot more when I draw attention to it by touching it.

Unless you're point blank asking me what "colors I bang" or foisting some awkward "prison handshake" that you saw on The Wire on me, I would have no idea you were being racist or stereotyping me in any way. My wife just bought me a vintage Lakers Starter jacket that, unbeknownst to me, makes me look like fat Method Man. I shouldn't be wearing that in public, unless I want a patdown from the local 5-0, but I do anyway. I'm too much of a bumbler caught up in his own small, petty world of minor frustrations to see the bigger picture of prejudice. (This is not an invitation to light a cross on my front yard though. One, I would not appreciate that. Two, if you think I can afford a yard in Los Angeles, you're wrong.)

But like global warming or the release of a Larry the Cable Guy movie, even if you don't notice something, that doesn't mean it's not happening. Racism is real, whether it manifests in police stops or in everyday faux pas. And these little cringing moments of ignorance or bias happen to everyone, no matter how famous.

In an interview published in the latest issue of People magazine, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama revealed instances where they say they were racially profiled or treated in a stereotypical manner. The stories are familiar, which make them doubly uncomfortable to read in the context of America's commander-in-chief—not being able to get a cab, people thinking you're a valet, dinner guests asking you to fetch coffee for them. The Obama ascension was so important to people of color because we hoped his victory would put an end to these humiliating situations. Instead, his presidency has led to a series of "national conversations" about race that just show how far we have to go.

To his supporters, Obama is a transformative president whose election marked a major step toward racial harmony in America. He broke a barrier many thought could never be broken. Never mind the many missteps of the administration—just winning the election was a monumental, courageous feat that may not be repeated in my lifetime. Obama's flaws, in this view, are mitigated by virtue of his race.

His political enemies like to point out that this narrative makes Obama nothing more than a flashy gimmick, a historical footnote without the qualifications to run the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland, let alone the most powerful nation in the world. Even six years into his presidency, there remain pockets of the country that like to substitute the word "Kenyan" for "nigger." Obama's flaws are exacerbated because he's black.

Race is the major narrative of the Obama presidency, a simple fact which Jonathan Chait deftly described in his April New York magazine feature. Pretending that it's not there is as foolish as lacking the common sense to know when someone is being racist toward you. Obama's political enemies say he used his race to his advantage in 2008 and has continued to use racial appeals to dupe black voters into supporting him. If he would just stop talking about it, the world could go back to being color-blind, they say. Conservatives have even criticized the Obamas' People magazine interview by saying that the incidents they describe don't actually amount to racism.

Perhaps minorities are neurotic and obsessed with seemingly superficial slights—but that's only because the majority is actually privately judging them. You're not paranoid when everyone really is watching you for flaws. The shocking Sony email exchange between Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin is a stinging reminder for us that we will be singled out for ridicule based solely on the way we look. It doesn't matter if you're Kevin Hart or Barack Obama; a huge movie star or a head of state. You are different. You are an other. You don't belong.

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