Our gaffe and 'gotcha' culture

Posted: Monday, February 01, 2010

I was not surprised when MSNBC host Chris Matthews mused on-air right after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address that "I forgot he was black for an hour." After all, I've known Chris for years and I often forget that he's white.

Just kidding. Let's lighten up, please. Matthews meant no offense. He was caught up in the moment, he told me the next day, with his excitement at how much our first black president has "taken us beyond black and white in our politics, wonderfully so, in just a year."

Indeed, Matthews was paying Obama a compliment - much like Harry Reid was when the Senate's majority leader was quoted as saying Obama's light complexion and "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one" enhanced his racial crossover appeal. Reid was merely telling an uncomfortable truth about the lingering role of race in our nation's politics. Unfortunately for Reid, in our nation's politics revealing uncomfortable truths is also a sure-fire way to get into deep you-know-what.

Before you ask, no, I am not giving Matthews or Reid a special break because of friendship or sympathy with their political views. Don Imus was a friend, too, when I urged him on his show to ease up on his insults to groups that could not defend themselves. Eventually he famously went a gaffe too far for his own TV and radio network employers to tolerate.

I also defended Rush Limbaugh's right to broadcast the satirical "Barack the Magic Negro" during the 2008 primaries. Whether you agree with the sentiments of the song or not, sung to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," it fully qualifies as fair political comment that the First Amendment was written to protect.

And I defend my conservative friend Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist who recently described Massachusetts Senator-elect Scott Brown as a "regular guy, looks like an American...." on MSNBC. Peggy meant no offense, I am confident, even if her observation did cause me to wonder: What is "an American" supposed to look like?

Noonan is white and therefore denied enlightening experiences of black Americans like, for example, Teresa Wiltz, a writer for The Root Web site. Wiltz writes that Noonan's remarks reminded her of episodes like the time she was "waiting in line at the Islamabad Airport, and the Customs official, apparently disregarding my U.S. passport, asked me if I'm Pakistani." That's one reason to be happy that Americans elected a president of visibly African descent. He can help expand the world's idea of what "an American" looks like.

Yet, as much progress as we Americans have made in our racial perceptions, our language has a tough time keeping up. Our cross-cultural misunderstandings, cynical politics and heat-seeking media have grown a gaffe-and-"gotcha" culture - complete with elaborate umbrage, scolding, apology and image-rehabilitation rituals like Obama's "beer summit" after a famous gaffe of his own.

Our gaffe culture has turned high-profile race leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton into go-to guys for symbolic versions of racial dispensation, a forgiveness that Sharpton told me he was happy to give Matthews after having talked to him. Ah, I'm sure Chris didn't forget Rev. Al was black, even for a minute.

At best, a statement like "I forgot he was black" strikes some ears as offensive because it sounds incomplete. The speaker is acknowledging old baggage of timeworn stereotypes and prejudices that we carry around in our heads without quite discarding it.

As blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in The Atlantic's site, imagine you're a guy who tells a female sports fan after a spirited Super Bowl discussion, "Wow, I forgot you were a woman." Even a recovering sexist pig like me knows better than to try that one.

"It's so hard to even talk about it," Matthews said on-air about Obama's race and our nation's racial odyssey. "Maybe I shouldn't talk about it, but I am." That's OK. I'm glad he brought up what I am sure many others felt but were afraid to say. Media commentators are sort of like film critics who see the bad movies so you don't have to. We aren't doing our jobs in my view unless we risk embarrassment from time to time so our audiences can learn things.

Like what a real American looks like.

• E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.



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