Emphasis Added

It’s election day in the States. Over at Urban Observation, Urban Thought asks: “Why do people keep saying that Barack Obama is ‘seeking to become the first black president in U.S. history’?”

If Obama wins the larger share of the votes today, he will become the first black American President. However, Urban Thought points out, “Do you really think he is saying in his head, ‘I want to be the first black President’?”

Well — probably not. While the prospect of a black president — or a woman president if it were Hillary Clinton — is exciting, it is not the correct title. If elected, Obama or Clinton would both be the same thing: President.

I would also posit that Sir Ian McKellen did not become a gay actor, nor Louis Armstrong a black musician, nor Margaret Atwood a woman writer, nor Audre Lorde a gay, black, woman poet. They became, respectively, an actor, a musician, a novelist, and a poet.

And my point is…?

My point is, no one bothers to state that Sir Ian McKellen is a white actor, or that Louis Armstrong is a male musician, or that Margaret Atwood is a straight novelist, or that Audre Lorde is an anglophone poet.

White is expected. (In Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, Sidney Poitier was not expected.) Male is normal. (In an episode of “Petticoat Junction”, Uncle Joe assumes that the “MD” on a guest’s bag means she’s from Maryland.) Straight is the orientation of the vast majority (except in that delicious high-school auditorium scene near the end of the movie In and Out) . English is the language spoken the world over. (Apparently a politician in some English-speaking country once said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us!”).

It is good to know of successful people who don’t fit the usual model. It is good to be informed of their differences, in order to appreciate the extra struggles they had to undergo, and to rejoice with them. What isn’t good is to insist on always naming the unusual attribute, until it becomes part of the job title. Because when that happens, these successful people are no longer on the same playing field as those who fit all the criteria. They are set apart by the qualifier, often with the implication that they are on a lower rung. 

Think of it. The term “lady author” evokes someone who pens bad verses while sipping her morning tea. A “male nurse” must also be a substandard fellow, because we all know that boys, the superior sex, are doctors, and girls, the inferior sex, are nurses.

Et cetera.

It’s getting late. By the time many of you read this entry, the States will already have decided the next president. It may or may not be the man who, as the press claims, has “sought to become America’s first black president.” And maybe a few years from now, E.g. and I will be celebrating some phenomenon called a “same-sex blessing,” while Urban Thought and his fiancée will be planning their “black wedding.”

Now do you see my point?

12 Responses to Emphasis Added

  1. Gina says:

    Yes, I see your point and I hate labels. One time at church, this old gal said as Cliff passed, “who is that…oh it’s the crippled girl’s husband”. That’s an example of a horrible label. She didn’t realize I was about 10 feet behind him and heard her.

    I have noticed Americans also seem to forget Obama is half white. So he is typically not an African American or a black person.
    I am a democrat who voted for McCain and by the early returns, it looks like Obama is going to win which is no surprise because everyone hates Bush. I believe in respecting our president no matter what so I am not a Bush hater although I am certainly not happy with him, especially on the economy.

  2. Gina says:

    Uh oh…I think I just labeled the elderly lady as an old gal. 😉

  3. goodbear says:

    the only time i hear him referred to as the first black president is on television. no one i know says that.

    i am hopeful my candidate will win!

  4. lavenderbay says:

    Isn’t it ironic, Gina, that someone in your church called Cliff “the crippled girl’s husband” when there are people all over the world who have never met you two, but know your names?
    You’ve pointed out something I didn’t know, that Obama is half-white. It kinda upholds my thesis, doesn’t it: if white is normative, it doesn’t get named.

    The “gal” part might be questionable (she is over 12) , but your use of “old” seems valid to me, because the word “crippled” isn’t in general parlance any more.

    I guess sensationalism sells, Goodbear. Btw, which actor gets to open the envelope this year? Oh, wait, I’m thinking of something else…

  5. […] Emphasis Added « Voice of the Turtle […]

  6. goodbear says:

    it’s so strange to think that anyone of gina’s blog friends would ever refer to her as the “crippled girl.” she’s gina. she relates to everyone, she shares her heart with us all. that’s how we see her.

    my main thought for tonight’s election result: yes, obama won and i’m happy about that,…but…it is our responsibility as his voters to back him up and to reach, as he promises to, to others to make this work.

    that being said…i’m super happy he won and super sad that michelle obama wore that ultra weird dress tonight…

  7. lavenderbay says:

    Congratulations, Goodbear!
    Re your first paragraph: Exactly.
    Re your second paragraph: E.g. is visiting news sites from all over the world right now, and finding wonderful, supportive responses everywhere; let’s hope the buoyancy continues.
    Re the third paragraph: I thought the dress itself was okay, but maybe her designer didn’t realize she’d be standing in front of a dark curtain that would give her the illusion of being disassembled. I thought most presidential spouses went to pieces later on in their partners’ campaigns.

  8. I’m sad that Barack Obama’s grandmother couldn’t have lived another day or two.

  9. Oh say word… Your thoughts flow so well and are so crisp to the point and reality of what I was trying to convey, you do a much better job at it. I’m glad you see my point.

    People always tend to point out the obvious even though it is unnecessary. I question whether we have truly progressed as a society seeing that we always have to use these descriptive words when addressing certain people and issues.

    Great post. Great post. Great post.

  10. lavenderbay says:

    Ow, James. He must have had some pretty powerful mixed emotions last night.

    Dear Urban Thought,
    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  11. I see your point exactly, and my own thoughts on this topic echo yours.

    Funny how people not only categorize and label people/things, but also assign a positive or negative valence — consciously or not. I recall an occasion when an old (male) friend said to me, “That’s what I like about you, Bobbie. You think like a man!” I had just held forth on a topic that he wasn’t used to hearing women hold forth on — much less hold forth on in a hard-nosed, opinionated manner. He thought it was a high compliment to tell me that I thought like a man. It was not. It made me very uncomfortable, but at that moment I could not articulate why.

    I thought about it for awhile. I had known this guy for decades. I knew his whole family well — his wife, his daughters, his sister — and then it dawned on me: They, the women closest to him, never would have said what I had said, nor even entered the debate in the first place. I concluded that might be the root of his assessment. I said to him, “You said I think like a man. I don’t. I just don’t think like other women you know.”

    And then I swear I saw a little cartoon lightbulb light up over his head. In any case, he visibly brightened and he said, “You know what? I think you’re right. Now that you mention it, that’s exactly what I really meant.”

    Was he patronizing me? I’ll never know for sure, but we’re all still friends, he still pays attention when I ‘hold forth’ and regularly asks my opinion about a variety of topics — but he never again told me I think like a man.

  12. lavenderbay says:

    If you saw that lightbulb, Bonnie, it sounds like you got through to him. What a great story! Your tale makes me think of Sojourner Truth’s famous speech.

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