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Gay Marriage, Race…and Talking Like A White Guy

May 19, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his blog at The Atlantic, has a sort of meta-post commenting on his own recent comments on the gay marriage debate. Coates, a straight African-American from West Baltimore, found himself prefacing his comments about homosexuality, and support of gay marriage rights, with thoughts like “I’m not gay, but…” or “I’m as heterosexual as the next guy, but…”, much the same way white people would preface comments about African Americans with statements like, “Now, I’m not black, but…”

Coates thinks the linguistic hemming and hawing can be frustrating. That the inability to be direct arises out of a lack of conviction. But finding himself making these same sorts of disclaimers, he came to realize that, though they can be evidence of an unnecessary squeamishness, they can also be a sign of the speaker’s sensitivity to his or her own bias, as well as the perceptions of the listener.

When people of goodwill will try to maneuver through our multicultural communities, there will be the inevitable awkward missteps. What is heartening is the frequency with which these types of dialogue are taking place. And, maybe as a result of the election of President Obama–or, in the alternative, as more confirmation of racial progress in a society that could elect someone who looks like him–these conversations are happening with less of the politically correct formality that often characterizes an academic debate and with more of the jocular familiarity that happens in shared apartment between roommates. The comments section to Mr. Coates’ post is particularly revealing. A sample, from an exchange between Coates and fellow Atlantic blogger, and white guy, Jeffrey Goldberg:

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Do you realize that you’re the first black blogger at The Atlantic since Frederick Douglass?

TA-NEHISI COATES: He doesn’t count. Frederick Douglass had a white father — and he married a white woman. Thus by the evolved standard of our new post-racial America, Douglass wasn’t really black. Thus, I claim the crown. My father was a Black Panther. I’m from West Baltimore. I haven’t married the mother of my son. You don’t get much blacker than that. I am The One. I am The Only.

JG: What about Harriet Tubman? Didn’t she blog for The Atlantic? You’re not going to write her out, are you?

TC: No, no. Harriet’s the truth. Just not that Douglass character. But Harriet’s a woman, so she doesn’t qualify. There are no black women.

JG: You say that you are the One. But Barack Obama is the One. Does that mean that there are, in fact, Two?

TC: Ugh, how many times do I have to say this. Obama isn’t black. I keep trying to tell people this. No black man could win in Iowa. Did you see him dancing on Ellen? Barack is half of One. I am The One.

This sarcastic banter is reminiscent of the kind of exchange my black and white friends would have after one too many beers in college. And, significantly, it’s also typical of the kinds of conversations we white kids would have amongst ourselves after having had too many beers. Which is to say, maybe, that making these conversations utterly mundane and silly is one of the truer signs of progress.

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