Ask a Black Woman: Harry Reid edition

Diverse City
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  February 3, 2010

Just in time for Black History Month, another installment of "Ask a Black Woman," thanks to JT in Portland who in early January asked me: What's your take on the Harry Reid thing? What do you think about what he said, what it means — and also how do you think his comments have become a sort of inanimate object for political parties to wield, threaten, aim at each other, perhaps making the actual statement and its significance secondary?

To catch everyone up on the origin of JT's question, Reid, the Senate majority leader, found himself apologizing publicly as the book Game Change by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann was about to hit the stands in January, because the authors quoted him as saying during the presidential campaign that then-candidate Barack Obama was successful thanks in large part to his "light-skinned" appearance and speaking patterns "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

To be frank, when I first heard about the comments, I thought: "Maybe old-school White politicians are smarter about race issues than I give them credit for." Because, really, if Obama was a bigger, darker, or more intense Black man (think actors Ving Rhames or Samuel L. Jackson) do you think he'd be in the White House right now?

I don't. As tacky as Reid's choice of words were, he spoke a truth that many African Americans know, even though we don't like to talk about it out loud, especially around Caucasians.

The fact is that President Obama is a light-skinned Black guy who, like many African Americans, knows how to code switch (that's what Black folks call the ability to alternate between "Black English" — Reid's "Negro dialect" — and sounding like the average White person who speaks "Standard English"). Many of us do this because if we speak the way we feel comfortable around each other, White America often sees this as a mark of inferiority and lack of education, instead of viewing it as a valid dialect. Similarly, some Blacks see the use of "Standard English" as a kind of selling out to "The Man."

While I don't like that Blacks often have to switch back and forth between two dialects to please everyone, I think that in the end, the Reid story is much ado about not much. Reid put his foot in his mouth, but that's easy for anyone to do. He apologized, and all seems well between him and Obama.

But the media likes juicy, interpersonal conflicts, and that's easier to report on than digging into more important issues like "Where the hell is the healthcare reform?" and "What about job creation?"

After Obama's election, many in the media stated we were now officially in post-racial America. We aren't — not on the macro level, anyway. We need more than one light-skinned Black guy in the Oval Office to change things substantively.

At the same time, though, calling racism at every minor gaffe is a bad ploy. We saw it more recently when Chris Matthews — who has frequently shown sensitivity to racial issues — said of the State of the Union address that he forgot Obama was a black man, and people decried him on Twitter and other social-media sites. It drowns out and dilutes arguments about real racism, like the fact that young Black men still deal with racism frequently when they encounter police or seek jobs.

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  Topics: News Features , Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Ving Rhames,  More more >
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