The Obamas’ ‘People’ Magazine Interview About Racism Is All Subtext


This morning, the progressive Internet considered two important pieces about race in this post-Ferguson era: “‘Listen when I talk to you!’: How white entitlement marred my trip to a Ferguson teach-in” by Brittney Cooper at Salon and “I Don’t Know What To Do With Nice White People” at Jezebel — both challenging essays that call even the most well-intentioned white people to account for aiding and abetting white supremacy.

Both pieces, which I thought were excellent, were getting assailed by racist commenters the last time I checked.

This was the same morning that the Obamas appeared in People magazine, talking about their experiences with racism. Such experiences included Michelle Obama being asked for help at a Target — as the First Lady! — and Barack, in his pre-President years, being mistaken for a waiter or a valet when he wore a tux.

What they failed to mention? All the insane vitriol and race-based malice that has directed towards the President since the first day he walked into Washington, DC, as a recent Atlantic article noted:

In the years since, the number of prominent figures using race as a wedge only grew. They include a New Hampshire police commissioner using the “N” word to refer to the president, a Montana federal district judge sending racist emails, and many others.

Of course, the Obamas can’t say this, because they’d be accused of playing the race card. Those “thoughtful” discussions about race that Senator Obama and candidate Obama were long known for have become deeply fraught now that he’s President Obama, with a built-in opposition shadowing his every move, and every word, for evidence of his illegitimacy. Now when he talks about the issue, it’s impossible not to see the triangulation at work. And as much as people protesting would (beyond understandably) love to see him reflect their anger with his leadership, some commentators have noted that when he does speak up, he often creates a backlash that’s twice as strong. “The moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar — racialized political fodder. The illusion of consensus crumbled,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his piece, “Fear of A Black President.”

Yet Obama clearly, on some level, feels the impulse to speak up. As he says at the end of the People piece,

“The small irritations or indignities that we experience are nothing compared to what a previous generation experienced,” President Obama said. “It’s one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It’s another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress.”

By directly signaling to what happened in Ferguson, in Florida, in Cleveland, and in New York while apparently referring to a previous generation, the President seemed as though he meant to offer a covert nod to activists while also patting those folks on the back who want to believe that brutal racism is a thing of the past.

Yet, as seen in People, even the Obamas’ milder anecdotes still echo and reinforce people of color’s frank accounts of experiencing racism — from gross indignities at the hands of police to subtle preemption from supposed white allies — that we’re now seeing emerge from all corners of the country. At this crucial moment, the message is that, from the stairwells of housing projects to the road to the White House, life as a black person in America means an extra level of scrutiny, fear, and discrimination.

And that’s important for People‘s readers to see.