I had never heard of Barack Obama until a few days before the Democratic National Convention in 2004. I had also never watched a political convention on television. I tuned in because I was curious about this black guy, supposedly a rising star.
His speech blew me away. In fact, I was so impressed that I turned to Joe and said, “He’s going to be president someday.” An added thrill was seeing his wife join him on stage and realizing it was Michelle Robinson, a friend with whom I had shared a bunk at Princeton during that summer program. It was fun to see someone I knew on national television.
Everyone who was enamored by Obama in 2004 never imagined he would take the oath of office four years later. But what a proud season it was to watch him win primaries and tour the country, drawing racially diverse crowds. Seeing people enthusiastically support a black candidate was a dream come true for me and so many black Americans. With such a history of degradation and shame, we were proud to see crowds of white people cheering for a black man who wasn’t chasing a ball. Images of black men as absentee dads and criminals typically dominate the news. Black women are often cast as aimless single mothers. The Obamas were the model, church-going American family. Seeing them succeed was thrilling… until it wasn’t.
Facebook became the place where my conservative friends expressed their disdain for the Obamas with a nastiness that baffled and angered me. They narrated Obama’s pro-choice position as though he invented and performed abortions. They propagated conspiracy theories about Barack’s citizenship and whether Michelle had a penis. Yeah. Christians peddled this stuff.
The tension I began to feel was a whole new dynamic for me as a black person navigating a very white life. More than 95% of the people I worked with were white. More than half of my Facebook friends were white. All of my church friends were white. I loved so many of these people like family. I silently tolerated their contempt for Obama even though he felt like family too. It puzzled me that my white friends didn’t consider their black friend might have reasons to like the idea of a black president.
After he won the election, all kinds of Obama merchandise rolled out, including small tins of breath mints. Somehow, I ended up with a tin, and I distinctly remember the Sunday morning I decided not to take it to church. I didn’t want my Obama joy to be diminished by someone else’s ridicule.
Similarly, when it was time for the inauguration, a group of African American boys attending the boarding school where we live didn’t want to watch the event in the dorm common rooms. They were worried that their celebration might be ruined by conservative boys walking by. I understood this and invited them over to my house for chili. We watched the inauguration together in my basement.
The Obama years awakened me to the fact that the reason why so many white people “don’t see color” is because black people suppress our cultural identity. We do this to fit in. We also do it because in so many ways we don’t see color either. Like many black Christians, Joe and I never factored race into our decisions about where to attend church. We wanted solid teaching and a supportive community. We never thought twice about whether we would hear gospel music or see more racial diversity in church. Race didn’t matter.
Until Obama. After Obama, we saw an uptick in racism and felt new forms of racial discomfort in the white spaces we occupied. Additionally, Joe’s dad passed away two weeks after the election in 2008. The funeral took us back to Joe’s black Baptist roots and it felt like home. We attended that church for three years, exposing our youngest daughters to traditions unique to black Americans. No regrets.
I do regret, however, that I have only now begun to see that not all white conservatives engaged in Obama bashing. There are white Christians who value diversity. There are white Christians who want to understand the role God calls us to play in racial healing in America. That is such a good thing.