ACPA Senior Scholars Blog

Dr. Sherry K. Watt is the Associate Professor of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Iowa and Senior Scholar in ACPA—College Student Educators International.

She is an author and the editor of the forthcoming book, Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications, and Facilitator Considerations. Her research on privileged identity exploration expands the understanding of the various ways in which people react to difficult dialogue related to social issues. Read her vita today

Speaking from A Place of Privilege: Why Barack Obama Can't Win for Losing on Race?

Entangled in today's discussions on race is bafflement with President Barack Obama's response to the recent grand jury decisions absolving the police officers for killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Some think that President Obama is adequately addressing race, while others think his tone is too neutral and distant, and yet others think that he is missing an important opportunity to change America's longstanding history with racism.

There is an expectation that as a Black man in the most powerful position in America that he should be able to use his influence to address racially-charged incidents. There is ongoing debate about what President Obama represents to American's race problem. While I believe history will tell us, I still ponder what role he can play in actively addressing racism in America. 

To untangle my confusion, I ask: Why can Hillary Clinton speak about racism and be heard? Why does Hillary Clinton appear to be cautious in speaking about sexism? And why can President Obama speak about sexism/homophobia/heterosexism and activate major changes in our country on marriage equality? 

It occurred to me as I pondered these questions that the common denominator is privilege. As an African American woman, I was filled with feelings of pride, hope, and even vindication after the election in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States of America.

As a child of a traditional middle-class family (two heterosexual parents and two daughters), my outward smile from the election of this nation's first non-White male president comes from deep down inside of me because Barack and Michele Obama look like me.

Without consciously acknowledging any complexity, I blindly assumed Barack Obama would address race issues as president. As I watch President Obama's handling of the grand jury decisions, I find myself defending his responses one day and then frustrated with his statements the next. 

On the one hand, I think that the president is in a precarious position. He is the president of the entire nation, not just the Black community. I want him to do the work that is necessary to protect my freedoms as an American. I know that 'freedom isn't free'. I am clear that scope of his work extends around national and international issues that I cannot even begin to fully comprehend as a citizen.

And on another hand, I know that he is our first president who has potential to understand the nuances and needs of the black community.  And I want him to seize this opportunity to make a real difference in improving the state of the Black people and race relations in America. And yet, I wonder if his view of the world is clouded over by his experience.  He has lived much of his life as an upper middle man who is Black and now president. I wonder if that desensitizes him to the barriers that exist due to structural racism. I wonder if his personal psychological survival as a politician, a family man, and as the only Black man who has been president rests on him living in this gap that can't speak to the existence of structural racism.

When Hillary Clinton condemns racism and the killing of Michael Brown, she is activating the power of her privileged identity as a White person to shine a light on a racialized injustice. President Obama changing his position on same-sex marriage aided the movement to change state laws because he is speaking from his privileged identity as a heterosexual man. Viewing racism as systemic oppression, it seems to me that we are placing an undue burden on President Obama.  We are simultaneously acknowledging racism exists and denying it has any influence on his ability to effectively speak about these very disturbing killings of Black men.

As I deconstruct my frustration with President Obama's handling of racism in America, I ponder if he can't win for losing.  As a Black man, President Barack Obama exists within a unique paradox.  He holds the most powerful position in the world as the President of the United States of America while being a Black man in a nation that devalues his race and denies pervasiveness of racism. Simultaneously, we expect him to address one of this country's most longstanding problems. He epitomizes an oxymoron -- he is both a Black man and powerful.  He holds literal and figurative power.  

His voice can address racism and yet his voice carries with it negative associations of America’s treatment of Black people historically. The paradox that is inherent in President Barack Obama's existence is the 'strange fruit' born from how privilege works within a system of institutionalized racism. 

We have to embrace these paradoxes and acknowledge that President Obama is both like and not like any other American president.  We indeed have to deconstruct racism as it relates to how he carries out his presidency. If we understand and view our social and political interactions in the context of institutional racism, then we have to apply it even to President Obama's reaction and handling of the grand jury decisions of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

The embodiment of privilege elevates one's voice when speaking to a marginalized experience. Hillary Clinton can speak about racism in ways that President Obama cannot because she is on the White side of racism.

President Obama can speak about same-sex marriage because he identifies as heterosexual. Privilege animates our voices around these complex issues of structural racism and other social oppressions. 

Hence privilege is the reason why our American President, Barack Obama, who is Black, male, and openly heterosexual, and committed to a traditional marriage is perceived as having more influence on the deconstruction of homophobia/heterosexism than he is given credit for or license to address racism.