Emphasis Added

November 4, 2008

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?