Monday, January 5, 2009

Obama and "the whites"

THOSE READERS TIRED OF basketball posts will be relieved to know that this short piece is less about basketball and more about race.

The New York Times ran the photo to the left as part of their January 3 story of Obama as a high school student at the prestigious Punahou school in Honolulu. According to author Jackie Calmes, Punahou was known as the school where the "whites" went. Calmes interviewed classmates and school officials who experienced a much different "Barry Obama" than the young, conflicted Obama that the President-Elect writes about in Dreams from my Father.

Both Calmes and her interviewees seemed surprised that the young Obama was hard to read--an inscrutable text of outward pleasantness and inward turmoil.

As Toni Morrison notes, Americans have never been particularly good readers, and that level of near illiteracy can often extend to reading humans and their emotional terrain as texts. We tend to be shallow, easy, even lazy readers.

Except for Obama.

Navigating the dangerous waters of the elite private school for white conservatives taught him to be an uncanny reader of all sorts of texts--particularly those racial texts of skin, culture, and taste. But, even Calmes notes that this patient, observant ability to decode, served the young (and the older) Obama well:

Blacks were a small minority statewide, too. Celebrated as a melting pot, Hawaii has for years had its own racially charged brew of native Hawaiians, ethnic Asians and whites; the few blacks mostly came in recent decades as part of the American military presence.

In bridging the unusual racial undercurrents, Mr. Obama honed the people skills that helped him fit in and ultimately propelled him into politics, with the crossover appeal that won him the presidency.

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