Commentary: All or nothing? | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: All or nothing?

Oct 22, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 22, 2008 - I’ve asserted time and time again that “race matters,” but given the recent happenings it’s also important to be clear that it is not “everything.” It seems that our default is to claim colorblindness or name race as the cause and cure. The dichotomy that race means nothing at all or drives one’s every move is false. To be an inclusive society, we must recognize what an individual’s race and ethnicity might bring while also connecting with what is common among us.

Colin Powell has the right to break with the Republican Party without it being attributed to his race. It's interesting that when Powell was in lockstep with the Republican Party, he was “a fine American.” His race didn’t matter. However, when he breaks from the party, he must have done so because of his race. The contradiction and convenience of this appraisal should be clear - never mind the thoughtful critique, which prefaced his announcement.

Seriously, Powell could have made the same comments and ended with supporting McCain, and there would have been no mention of his race in the analyses.

Voters in western Pennsylvania have the right to support McCain without being considered racists or rednecks. If we are willing to be honest with ourselves, all areas of our country have stories that we would be embarrassed to tell related to racial hatred. Nothing makes this area of the country “more racist” or “more American.” Again, that sort of either/or, us/them, right/wrong dichotomy is limiting in the long run. No wonder, as a country, we continue to grapple with how to truly become a multicultural society.

Until we are willing to recognize racial and ethnic identity as an important yet not all-encompassing part of people's lives and motivations, we will remain trapped in this dichotomy. Identities are complex. Think about your own experiences that have shaped who you are. It wasn’t just your gender or simply your socioeconomic status.

How offended would you be if every move you made was attributed to your class? Religion? Gender?

“That’s not ALL of who I am!” you would shout.

So, why are we intent on pigeonholing others? One answer is that it’s easy. Another is that we are too scared to really get to know the “other” to be equipped to understand them as more than their label. Perhaps Obama’s race was one factor in the many that Powell weighed. Perhaps the same is true for some voters in Pennsylvania. My assertion is that we cannot immediately vilify them if it is nor assume that race is the only factor at play.

Why some Whites fear people of color in positions of power is explained if the assumption is that one can only act in the interest of one’s racial or ethnic group. If that were the case, men would only lead for the betterment of men, and the rich only to further promote the interest of the rich. While the country has in some ways lived through this worst nightmare, we have also shown the potential to seek the greater good.

For example, while it took time and failed attempts for women to receive the right to vote, it was men in political positions of power who made the decision. Those parts of our history would suggest that one does not lead from only one aspect of his or her identity. Fear of the unknown, or perhaps what is thought to be known, is the only reason I can think that people would believe that race would be any different.

Powell got it right when he discussed the inherent falsehood of what has been espoused by some Republicans. He discussed the attempt to use Obama’s Muslim father as slander and a reason to distrust his intentions as president (Notice I am not articulating that McCain, in particular, stated these assumptions. In fact, he stood up for Sen. Obama. Rather it is the tone in which numerous members of the party McCain has been chosen to represent have pushed to keep raising these questions perhaps to raise doubts and sway votes. But I digress.) Powell’s response was poignant in that he stated, “The correct answer is that he is not a Muslim… . But the really right answer is, ‘what if he is?’”

Powell points out that the question itself is amiss in that it capitalizes on fear of difference. If we deconstruct the insinuation, it suggests it would be dangerous and scary if a Muslim ran our nation, because (fill in the blank). As if that person’s faith would rule every decision and those outside of the faith would be persecuted.

Were all non-Catholics persecuted after Kennedy bucked the trend of Protestant presidents? No. So why should we make such false assumptions now that we are possibly on the precipice of another change?

Perhaps it is the visible nature of this change. We couldn’t literally see Kennedy’s Catholic-ness, but you can’t miss Obama’s skin color. One can only hope that just as we got used to expanding our conceptions of our leader in the 1960s, we might be able to do the same if Obama is elected.

Inclusiveness not only means accepting people along with their differences. It means recognizing that all motivation does not come from that one aspect of who they are. It means doing so without pushing them to abdicate membership in those groups. It means moving beyond dichotomous thinking to complexity. We can’t invoke race when it is convenient and ignore it when it’s a nuisance.

While these dynamics are severely heightened during our election season within a two-party system, I believe they are partly responsible for why many find it difficult to envision a diverse and inclusive society.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.