Thursday, July 29, 2010

President Obama and the “Cool Black Man” Persona: Roundtable

From President Obama's college years
Ever since the primaries, many black people accused him of not being black enough, but they were quickly silenced (consider this season’s episode of The Boondocks that focused on the black community’s silencing of black critics of President Obama). Now, after the President’s cool response to the oil spill, we even have some white liberals (i.e. Bill Maher) accusing him of not being black enough. These accusations have one thing in common: they stem from a disapproval of Obama’s coolness, or, in other words, his refusal or inability to display anger. Do we want him to get heated, for a change? What's the problem with his cool approach? Why is this an important topic of discussion in terms of race

I think the Black male is often associated with violence, and it's difficult for people to see a mixed race President (named Barack Hussein Obama) who doesn't live up to that age-old stereotype. I think one of our readers mentioned in an earlier post how people like to categorize one another. Clearly, people don't know what to make of him 'cause he is cool. Just think about that strut across the lawn at Pennsylvania Ave. and the calmness he exuded during the debates that led him to the presidency. He's a BAD man! But no matter what he does, it won't be right in the eyes of everyone else. Long after he's out of office, people will still be talking. Guess what, they aren't the President either! So why should it matter? To me, Obama is doing just what he should be doing, which is all he absolutely can do in his power.

You're right, Ms. Mashari, he IS a "BAD" man (shut yo mouth!). But, see the problem is, he's not bad in that Shaft/Gangsta/Samuel L. Jackson sort of way. Obama ain't the kind of negro that's going to snap all of a sudden on the Republicans and be like, "Look, muthaf@%kers, I don said it once and I ain't saying it twice! Ya'll gon pass this health care bill!" I admit, even I am guilty of wanting Obama to get angry once in a while, to display some emotion, to be a little less cerebral and a little more emotional. (It's not because I have no other way of understanding black masculinity, however. It's more so because I understand people in general better when I see them display emotion. People who are always always level-headed, no matter what the crisis, simply vex me; I feel like I can never really understand such a person).

White America (and maybe even black America) is used to the angry black man image I just mentioned: white Americans both love it and fear it. Unfortunately, the worse thing President Obama could do politically is get angry, because it's a guarantee he'll lose some much-needed support from whites (while he might regain some steadily waning support from brown and black folks in this country). It's a guarantee that you'll have white America shouting several things:

1) "That's right! That's right!," white liberals will shout, and from then on expect the angry Obama to make appearances occasionally, especially in favor of their causes.

2) "That's just incredibly unprofessional and not a good look for our country," white moderates will groan, from then on expecting the man to never ever exhibit the slightest emotion, for even the slightest emotion will hark back to angry Obama,

3) "See, I told you they are all angry and violent," white conservatives will say, and proceed to search for violent past behavior from Obama's youth in order to further invalidate his humanity and turn him into a stereotype of black masculinity

Sigh. The man is in a precarious situation. If I were him, I would choose my moments carefully, but I would not choose to remain always completely calm so as to avoid the stereotype. Ultimately, being stereotyped as a black person is unavoidable. Any wise person knows that, and I would hope that he knows it. Look, his wife merely said she was for once proud to be an American, when he won the primaries, and they painted her as a fist-in-the-air-afro-wearing black panther sort (I wish) and Michelle couldn't be further from that.

Is it just me...or aren't there more important things at the White House (and in the world) to worry about?? Clinton was known for his charm, Bush was known for his, well...lack of intelligence, and now, Obama is known for being “cool.” What's the big deal? I happen to appreciate and have mad respect for anyone who can remain tactful under extreme scrutiny and pressure...

Although Obama DOES seem to keep his cool, I wouldn't expect anything otherwise from a person with his leadership responsibility of ANY race...

Though it WOULD be funny to me if he gave the masses what they were looking for one day!

LOL, Miss Berneta! I remind you that Obama's campaign slogan was a "Change We Can Believe In," and that change meant a new attitude, a new swag, and a "NEW BAD." Think about it, he's mixed race and was raised by his Caucasian mother, having been exposed to a multitude of cultures and raised in Hawaii and overseas until middle school or so, and people really want to see Obama go Black Dynamite a time or two. Yeah, right! It seems like some of us signed up for the change, but weren't quite ready for just what the change meant. A cool dude that just happens to be brown skinned, wears his trousers a little high but looks just dandy doing it, and remains calm under a world of pressure. Miss Qui, like you, I'm enamored by the man we call Mr. President and I applaud him for what LL Cool J calls "doin' it well.

I don’t know about the you guys... but I am kinda tired of these age old stereotypes just because he’s a black man... now you’re telling me that there are white liberals saying "he’s not black enough." That just sounds way too ignorant to me. What is Not Black Enough?? Exactly? How do you act "black" ( or as i use to ask as a child... " how so you act a color?")? Just because he’s African American does that mean he has to be Angry, short tempered? Etc, etc? To me, this really just boils down to ignorance. Personally, I like a strong yet cool demeanor, which is how Obama comes across to me. There are other ways of showing strength, and it’s not always blowing up and showing emotion all the time... actually... he probably displays more strength in NOT letting his emotions get the best of him.

Miss Berneta

I agree with your sentiments entirely, Mz. Kewe. Although, I have to say that whenever I hear a black person indignantly ask, "How do you act black?" in debates like this, I automatically shake my head. Lol. No matter how bourgie we all are, we ALL know what it means when someone says you're acting black (and, likewise, that you're acting white). Let's not even pretend.

But like you said, Mz. Kewe, there are other ways of showing strength. Personally, I think all the hubbub about his temperament distracts us from some of the real work (for better or for worse) that President Obama is doing and also neglecting to do.

Positive stuff he's done: health care bill (albeit it's a watered-down version);
executive order to protect queer individuals’ right to see their partner when/if his/her partner is hospitalized; loan forgiveness for individuals who have dedicated 10 years to public service; extending unemployment benefits.

Negatives (stuff he's done or failed to do): hasn't repealed the anti-prostitution clause in our HIV/AIDS funding program (
which basically prevents any organization that supports sex workers from received funding from the program); the huge corporate bailouts; merit-based teacher's program; took abortion coverage out of the health care bill; he put Elena Kagan, yet another Harvard (inexperienced) law professor, one of his buddies, on the Supreme court (now, all but one of the justices is a Harvard or Yale graduate).

I could go on and on with this second list for sure. But all this…this is the stuff we should be talking about. And the whole focus on Obama's temperament is a mere distraction that's working in his and his administration's favor and not in our, the people's, favor.

Mz. Kewe

Do we really all know the "what acting black or white” is? Even if so...does it not change the ignorance, given the fact that defining what is black and what is white varies from each individual to the next? For me, I feel that characteristics of an African American male would be Pride, egotistical, protector and strong. I, personally, never associated angry or temperamental behavior exclusively to a black man. (Actually, I hear it more associated with black women.) Now these are my personal opinions about their characteristics, not to say I'm right or not to say I'm wrong, but this goes to show that not everyone has the same idea of how a person of a certain race should act. If I were to judge a black man and say that he's "not acting black" according to MY belief of what a black man should act like, that's total ignorance because his beliefs may differ from mine. What do these white liberal believe characteristic of a black man should be? Do all of them agree? I'm sure we could find some individuals out there that would say " oh yea... he's definitely a “n*66a" just because he does have a cool calm demeanor. I heard an interview he did for a radio show in NY while he was campaigning and one of the hosts asked jokingly " so Mr Obama, do you still have sex with your wife?" And Obama replied jokingly as well: " as for my wife, that's none of your business" and all the hosts of the show laughed and said "he IS a BLACK MAN Y'ALL!" So, according to their definition... Obama meets it. I know I'm rambling and probably over stressing my point (as usual) but the fact is everyone’s definition of how a certain race of people acts varies from person to person, so in essence saying someone isn't acting the way they should according to what race they are IS ignorance.

What is your take on this topic?


  1. For decades black people have been expected to have attitudes and quick tempers. Our skin color has been associated with rage in the media and within entertainment. Whether it's the black man in movies from the 70's sniffing cocaine and then attacking a white woman. Or some of the brothers I see in the film and music industry who fall from domestic abuse. I think behind closed doors, in the privacy of his secret service, President Obama totally "checks out". I'm talking all 13 curse words from the constant strain of running a nation. He keeps his cool because he's supposed to. Will an event ever occur where he may show more aggression? Possibly. Until then I can only appreciate having a President who has composure.

  2. Thanks for coming through, Miss Cassie! Society has constantly painted an ugly picture when it comes to blacks and people of color, so I totally agree with you. LOL! It's funny that you mention Barack as a closeted potty mouth and using all "13 curse words" 'cause I simply can't hear him saying them, though I imagine he really does. Fortunately, we do have a President who exercises countenance and a presence of mind. Because he is in the limelight and others are super critical of his every move, I hope he maintains the same composure going forward in an effort to remove the negative stigmas associated with blacks and their petulance. Come to think of it, quite a few of us should follow suit too!

  3. @Ms. Mashari: You said, "I hope he maintains the same composure going forward in an effort to remove the negative stigmas associated with blacks and their petulance."

    I'm gonna have to stop you here. :D I don't know if I agree with you that Obama should be doing this, investing his energies in reconstructing the image of black Americans. We, as African-Americans, do this all the time: we place way too much responsibility on one black person, expecting that person to take up the burden of reforming our collective image. We've been doing this since Reconstruction. lol.

    President Obama has bigger fish to fry than the collective image of black folks. We focus too much on how we appear to white folks and not enough on how the system continually screws us over materially. There are way more important things he needs to be worried about doing, rather than focusing his effort on "removing negative stigmas associated with blacks."

    Hmm...I'm thinking he would be wiser to worry less about his image as a black man (and what that image means for the image of all black folks) and more about actually helping us (black folks, POCs) in a more material way: such as, ERASING mandatory sentences for drug possession (a legal statute that effectively keeps so many of our brothers and sisters behind bars for nonviolent behavior); such as focusing on the deterioration of black and urban communities (and the systemic racism/classism and economic forces behind that deterioration); such as bettering the education system's effectiveness in the education of young black kids. Those are just a few of things that come to mind.

    Sorry for rambling. I just hate it when people place this "face of the race" burden on Obama and other black folks in positions of power. Rather than forcing such folks to be the face of black America, we should be forcing them to be actual ADVOCATES for black America. If that makes any sense....

  4. "I'm thinking he would be wiser to worry less about his image as a black man[...]we should be forcing them to be actual ADVOCATES for black America"

    Whether we like it or not, Obama is the most prominent black man in the world, and therefore the de facto 'face of the race'. However, this is not intentional, just a byproduct of his level of public exposure. What he does for the world perception of African-Americans is an incidental, unlike people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson(neither of whom have said a relevant thing in nearly twenty years), who try to be a public representative for blacks. No one is placing the burden on them, just acknowledging that it's there. As president, his image is a huge part of his focus, he is America's face to the world. Obama, and all prominent black people, (and non-blacks) do the same thing as a person's first taste of a new food: establish a baseline for them to judge later encounters by. When it comes to the tangible improvement side of things, the problem is not just with black politicians, it is with all politicians: despite more people voting than have done so in quite a few years, Americans do not feel that they really have the power to make their advocates advocate.

    While I think it would be entertaining to see Obama go Hulk on the Senate, because it would be entertaining to see anyone go Hulk on the Senate, remember that we didn't elect an action hero, we elected a President. In times of crisis, he needs to keep his cool, that's his job. I would be mortified if the person I'm supposed to look to was prone to emotional outbursts. So, he was calm in his response to the BP debacle? He's supposed to be. The President has to wear many hats, including that of first citizen. In public, I want him ice cold, to avoid mass hysteria: in private, he needs to be a passionate public servant, who does whatever is necessary to motivate those he's working with to work. People who voice displeasure with Obama's demeanor just need something to complain about.

    Lastly, (man, this was long) I must say that it is unfair to judge a sitting President. Public policy takes years to change anything, and it is possible that those things which may have been unpopular will be justified by time. The best example to point to is Truman, who was widely criticized during his term of service, but who is now considered one of the better presidents. Our culture is one that demands instant analysis, which is by and large wrong. If there's anything wrong with the public perception of Obama, it's that he's Superman, not that he's Joe Cool. People complain about a lack of major policy reform, but he's only working in the system we have, which favors inertia. The current powers of the Legislative branch make it much more difficult to be a widespread difference-maker than in, say the 1930's or 1800's.

  5. @ Leonnie - great comments! Although I do have my own opinions about Al & thing I wonder is regardless of what they do or do not do, they ARE known representatives for the black community. While they are still alive, they are getting older...who will represent us when they are gone?

    Ok, so here is my comment about our dear President...

    I do think President Obama has a sort of 'default' responsibility to African Americans because of his genetics...but heck, his Caucasian or even Hawaiian counterparts could even say the same thing!

    For now, I think he has a responsibility to represent the black race well (which he is excelling at) and by doing so, quietly dispelling some of the stereotypes held. I don't expect him to take on an African American agenda...just an AMERICAN agenda and do what is best for the country we live in first, and also for those around us.

  6. @Miss Berneta LOL! You crack me up, girl. If you read my comment, you saw that I not only think Obama holds a responsibility but other African-Americans do as well like me and you. I'm sure you have a childhood memory of going out in public and your mom told you, "Don't you go in here and embarrass me!" Essentially, that's my take on Obama and how he carries himself as an African-American in public office, so let me stop you there. Like Miss Qui said, he has a "default" responsibility to blacks because he is in the position that he's in. I am in no way saying that it is his obligation to take on every single issue affecting blacks. As African Americans, I'd expect us to stand up and fight for whatever issues we're passionate about. For me, that's financial literacy and I'm doing what I can to change how blacks manage their money and look forward to doing much more. That's something different for you, and I would not expect you to take on my agenda if you had he power to do so and vice versa.

    @Leonnie Glad you stopped through for a lil' (or a lot) JuneBug Talking!

    @Miss Qui Vive Right on the "AMERICAN agenda!"

  7. @Leonine: I agree with your comments. As you said, it is kind of a given (this burden) when you are a black leader. He is a "de facto" face of the race...white folks are always going to view him that way. But WE (as black folks) shouldn't also be viewing him that way. Btw: your last paragraph is so true! I couldn't agree more about our need for instant analysis and how wrong that analysis sometimes is. Truman is a great example.

    @Mashari: I saw that last part of your comment, and I definitely agreed with it: we all need to be doing our part. However, I still think that it is highly oppressive to have this attitude ("Don't go in there and embarrass me.") toward black politicians, etc. We participate in our own oppression by doing that: by essentially lumping all of us together just as white folks often lump all us together, as if we are all supposed to behave the same way. Basically this is the argument underlying the "don't embarrass us" attitude: if he misbehaves, then he'll make it look like we all behave that way. That is seriously oppressive thinking. We are not one monolithic culture or group who all behaves the same way (all of us on this blog know that). And if Obama decides to get angry one day and everyone (i.e. whites) assumes we are all angry and behave like that, guess what? That's THEIR problem. They already thought that anyway. None of Obama's good, nice behavior is going to stop them from thinking that of him (or us) anyway.

    I said in the roundtable: "Ultimately, being stereotyped as a black person is unavoidable. Any wise person knows that, and I would hope that he knows it. Look, his wife merely said she was for once proud to be an American, when he won the primaries, and they painted her as a fist-in-the-air-afro-wearing black panther sort (I wish) and Michelle couldn't be further from that."

    I just want to reiterate that we waste too much energy trying to erase stereotypes of ourselves, trying to alter the way white people think of us. We need to start trying to alter the way WE think of ourselves.

  8. You last line said it BEST, Ms B!

  9. I love his attitude, his presence, his whole Ora is just calm! I appreciate him not panicking or getting angry or looking confused! It's like he has it all planned out, figured out, and solved! This is the kind of Leader/President you would want right? I know it's the kind I want. I think ppl are mistaking his confidence as not being black enough... what I mean is that he is confident within himself, his position, and his staff. He knows that if there is no plan at that particular moment, there will be one, a great one, thought of in the next few hours. He is our Leader our President, and we should put our trust in him and let him LEAD! His confidence has nothing to do with not being Black enough. Americans put their total and complete trust in BUSH to Lead America and look where he got us, LOL!