On Being a Light Skinned “Negro”

A black graduate student at Harvard, Omar Wasow, dared to say it on The Root, and Slate dared to pick it up:  Harry Reid “was simply being honest about how voters react to skin color.”  What’s the fuss about? (See, “Was Harry Reid Right?”)

Good question!  The subject must evoke such anxiety among us that we are rendered unable to think about it sensibly.  Indeed, just to say “Negro” in public creates a startle reaction – if not a panic — causing us immediately to blame the person who scared us.

So we had a week of apologies, demands that Reid resign, dire predictions about his career, the balance of power in the Senate, etc. etc.  The papers, the blogs, the magazines were full of it.  No doubt this was all exacerbated by party politics, as the Republicans relentlessly search for anything to use against the Democrats.

But now the fuss is gradually dissipating.  Today’s New York Times may have finally put the issue to rest by noting that Reid’s words closely echoed Obama’s himself. (See, “In Reid’s Comments, Hints of Obama’s Own Words.”)

What can we learn from this?  Despite having elected a black president, we are far from a post-racial world.  Indeed, we are all so tense about the pervasive, daily racism that is part of our social fabric – and has been from the beginning of our country — that we imagine it everywhere, even where it is insignificant and relatively benign.

At one extreme, we can think about it as the symptom of a suppressed obsession.  At another, it’s like Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  If you have been through a war, as we all have been, with racial riots, lynchings, systemic injustice, oppression, and segregation, the memories of conflict do not simply fade away.  Neither do the suspicions and hatreds they   have given rise to over the generations.

It doesn’t take much to reactivate the trauma.