Walking the Tightrope of Race: Social and Emotional Effects of Being the First

Thinking not only of the reaction to President Obama’s recent debate performances, but also of the manner in which he has been graded and depicted by political pundits, so called newscasters, and the general public on idiot blogs over the past four years, reminds me of a conversation my mother and I had when I was in the seventh grade. It occurred after I was publicly humiliated at school once my name and others were called, announcing our honor roll placement for the semester over the school PA system. I told her of my feelings associated with the backhanded compliments from unsupportive white peers and ridicule from a segment of my own racial group. I felt isolated and alone.

This especially held true because I was one of just two Blacks announced. This alone carried many issues and concerns. Nevertheless, my mother simply said, “Sometimes being a person of color is like walking a tight rope above folks waiting to see the blood spew from your fall.” She told me that on one side, non-Blacks will think you are still beneath them and cannot wait for your fall. On the other side were some of my own who hate that I was in a position they are not. For those reasons, they will at times subconsciously wish for your demise. This introduced me to the idea of division among Black America–a subject discussed at great lengths within Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America, by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson. Today, we can witness an increasing division among Blacks due to socioeconomic status.

Regardless, to me, the jeering and division seems to become louder and wider as one begins to occupy spaces that have traditionally been denied due to skin tone. When one is seen as a rarity, “the oddity,” the air of subjugation, fear, and at times hatred becomes thicker and forces the lungs to work harder in order to endure. Many times the pressure is so unbearable, that psychological stressors can occur and affect the emotional and physical statuses of individuals. It can create strife within the formation of an identity.

I have witnessed how the president has been depicted. I have seen in print and within the context of news stories within the 24-hour news cycle that have painted him as “too Black.” On the other hand, was it that he has forgotten Blacks and their plight? People who I admire, such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, have been seen trailing this particular bandwagon. I have seen others note that the president is not aggressive enough and not acting like a “stereotypical scary black man.” During the second presidential debate, I received an automatic shock to my brain every time someone coined his approach to his political appointment as, “angry.” Whites have often deemed him as an illegal alien, monkey, Hitler, and other derogatory figures.

In the end, I feel we as a nation have for four years viciously watched in excitement a political tragedy. The essence of racism, as seen during Jackie Robinson’s rise, is still prevalent as the president continues to move along the racial tightrope. The effects on race are truly boundless. The Kool-Aid has been drunk by not only by those seen as oppressors, but also by those seen as oppressed. In fact, the thought that race within this presidential election is absent, is credulous at best.


  1. cordoba blue

    You are correct that black people in general must be “better than”, “super human”, “beyond reproach” to achieve a white man’s position. And many people eagerly wait for that one slip-up that the black person makes so they can jeer and say, “Told you so!”
    All that being said, President Obama conducted himself with dignity and perseverence during his 4 years in office. Michelle Obama was a gracious lady who would make any country proud. Nobody can take that away from the Obamas, no matter what the outcome of the 2012 election.
    And Obama has broken that highest of glass ceilings: the presidency. We may always struggle with racism as a nation, but once each new ceiling is shattered, we are not able to return to the past. There will be too much resistance!
    Now, it will not be an aberration if a black man or woman is on the ticket as a presidential candidate.Progress has been accomplished. Even if the progress wasn’t to the extent that so many people would have wished, it is undeniable we are, as a nation, more sophisticated and accustomed to diversity now than we were 4 years ago.
    We have witnessed the gracious poise and strength the Obamas brought to the White House. We have seen them endure despite hideous humiliating portrayals and horrid “political cartoons and jests”. Everybody knows in their gut, even if they don’t verbalize it, that what the Obamas did took a tremendous amount of courage.
    Thus, I don’t see this as a tragic experiment. Not at all. Another African American man or woman may soon find themselves in the unique position of vying for the presidency. Much sooner than anyone thinks. Count on it. And that ceiling will already be broken, and all the obstacles will be a little less daunting, and the awkward moments won’t seem so awkward anymore. Because of what Obama did.
    This is always how human progress is made, in steps. Not a tragedy. A beginning.

  2. Dr. Terence Fitzgerald Author

    Dear cordoba,
    I agree with you, but at the same time, when I mention “tragedy,” I was essentially referring to the manner he has been treated and the rhetoric that has been used during his tenure. I see his presidency as an unveiling of sorts in regard to something that many people thought did not exist (or did not exist to the extent it did in comparisons to other generations). The movement of people of color is truly a sign of progress. And yes, I see it. But what we have seen and heard over the past four years does not signal such a positive perspective in terms of civility and humanity.

  3. John D. Foster

    Thank you for the post. It’s starting to get really painful coming to terms with the reality that President Obama is probably going to lose. Libs like myself had better start preparing for that moment when it happens. I am afraid that so-called “white liberals” are abandoning him, while “independents,” many of whom voted for him last time, decided Romney was good enough to vote for based on that totally fradulent debate preformance (which, by the way, shows just how much higher the bar is for minorities in proving themselves “fit” for a job). And, of course, white conservatives are so incensed we elected a black President that you can bet every last one of them will be turning out the vote for Romney.

  4. @ Dr. Foster – Whoa! Whoa! Whoa. I’m not ready to throw in the towel. There’s one debate left. Every other day, Romney and/or Ryan says and/or does something to alienate people with a modicrum of self-respect. In particular, women.

    I was shocked when he won four years ago! I’ll be greatly disappointed in our fellow citizens if he loses. I know it may, re 2000, come down to a SCOTUS decision. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel.

    @ the post – What I find so disturbing is how the polls shifted so strongly after the first debate. As though those 90 minutes, filled with Romnesia and deception and lies, completely wiped out the idiocy of the past year. Gleeful as I was when Pres Obama had that 5-10 point lead, I knew it was too good to be true. I knew his true lead was probably around 4 points tops. But those 90 minutes resulted in a greater swing that the number of undecided voters? 😯

    And the people who don’t feel the ‘hope and change’ they felt 4 years ago and so are not supporting Romney? What’s the matter with these people?! They’re upset because things haven’t gotten better? faster?

    Eh, duh! Can you count to 5 without using both hands? Or, did you think he was really a magic negro?

    Honestly, the people who didn’t vote for him in 08 and wouldn’t support a black person for the presidency even if they were said black person, those people I get. I can put myself in their shoes. After all, I wouldn’t support a Republican for president even were I to change my party affiliation and run myself! That, I can understand.

    I can understand rich people who have no intentions of voting for anything daring to champion the plebeian masses.

    What I cannot fathom are those people who aren’t rich and who claim to decry racism, but just don’t think Obama’s done enough. I just can’t get a fix on them. I mean, they did dress themselves. So, they can’t be that slow.

    The tightrope is hard to walk. I’m surprised Obama’s gotten this far without falling! Notwithstanding his first debate performance left something to be desired. Liberals just catastrophized the whole issue as though Obama showed up drunk and started talking to an empty chair. I have no doubt that their panic made things worse.

    And as for West and Smiley, I don’t know what their deal is, either. They’re doing a good thing to try to spot like poverty on one hand, but on the other, couldn’t they have started 4 or more years ago? Which reminds me . . . shouldn’t the fact that the Republicans are only just now acknowledging poverty in America alert voters to the disingenuity of their concern? Or do they really think everybody was doing just fine until we got a black president?

  5. Last thing, I promise. Wasn’t that moment when Obama said, “Governor, please proceed?” just great! The most awesome thing on TV this month! On one hand, we see not just how a “CEO” views other people; but, how white folks view people of color. After all, let’s be honest: some people who make a living digging ditches would treat a black person the same way, president or not.

    But I digress.

    Then Romney just stepped right in it! Wasn’t that just awesome!

  6. John D. Foster

    Sorry I came across that way. By all means I am not throwing in the towel. My use of the adverb probably was a tad over the top, but nonetheless I stand behind my general comment that it disturbs me how whites are so willing and apparently anxious to support Romney and blame the black guy for our problems. I agree with you totally; we don’t elect a dictator who gets to implement everything he wants and I find it troubling how little attention the “do-nothing” Congress has gotten in the debates and this election in general. It’s really quite simple: don’t let anything get done and then blame him for not getting enough done.

    • And it works only because all too many white voters are willing to believe two white men – even as we have tape of them contradicting themselves (and the facts) not a few times in the course of a day – rather than a black man. They’re more willing to blame the black guy when things go wrong because they just can’t wrap their minds around the idea of hundreds of country club white men would do anything to hurt “their country.” They endorse Romney because, essentially, Republicans won’t work with Obama rather than endorse Obama and help get more Dems and other things pols.

      If being white weren’t a privilege, our government would look and work entirely differently; and so would the labor force, btw!

  7. cordoba blue

    Frankly I’m a bit disappointed in Obama at the moment. Many reports are being issued {including by one of the fathers of a marine killed} that Obama had first hand information about how the embassy was under siege in Benghazi and did nothing. The official order from the commander in chief was to “stand down”.He knew what was happening because it’s impossible that he could not have known. When an American embassy is attacked or in danger of being attacked, the President is the first to know.
    But Obama knew how close the election was. Remember this was on Sept 11, 2012. Just two months away from November 6, 2012. Obama did not want “any issues” to have to explain. So the tactic was let the chips fall where they may and blame it on this video which made insulting remarks about Muslims.
    Now under duress from the press, the White House is saying, “Yes. It was an organized terrorist attack. No. It was not a random protest against the video posted on Youtube.” I’m sure Hilary and Obama did not want to have to deal with this. But now that the cat’s out of the bag, what is Obama’s excuse for allowing American citizens SENT THERE BY THE WHITE HOUSE to die unaided? The reason? Obama did not want a smudge on his record so close to the election.
    He takes responsibility for killing Osama Bin Laden. And that’s how he wanted the official record to look. The terminator of terrorism.Game over. But then terrorism came back via Libya. And Obama really wanted it to go away. But it did not go away. Now what?
    Sacrifice a few American marines and Ambassador Stevens and pawn it off as a random act. I am disappointed in the president’s lack of integrity here. He’s an African American for sure. A member of a minority group under-represented in American politics. But when it comes to political savvy, Obama is not stupid. He is just as Machiavellian as any other politicican. Unfortunately.
    Also, his last ditch effort is playing on “class fear”. Claiming Romney doesn’t understand the poor and middle class. And this as millions of poor and middle class Americans are unemployed. Fear is Obama’s last card. He has no solutions. But if he plays the fear card, maybe he can work this to his advantage?
    Again, I am very disappointed. Mostly about Libya, but also about playing the “class anxiety” card when he has basically ignored poor African Americans during his entire term.
    No, at this moment I don’t feel sorry for Mr Obama. I feel sorry for the millions of unemployed families whose state unemployment benefits are about to run out. I feel sorry for those marines and their families who died under the illusion that the American government would always be there to protect them. I feel sorry for this entire country going more and more into debt, while China gets wealthier by the moment, and Obama flies around in Air Force One campaigning, smiling, and waving.

  8. cordoba blue

    The real story behind allowing the Benghazi affair to unwind unaided. First Obama wanted to save his re-election. Secondly, the official account by administration officials is a mosaic of deliberately illogical reports that were necessary to cover the unpalatable truth of COVERT ACTIONS taking place in Libya, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The primary objective of our covert actions was to secretly arm anti-Assad “rebels” in Syria by funneling arms from Libya to Syria via Turkey, with other destinations that included Jordan and Lebanon. Yes, America is engaged in a covert war.
    Surprised? Don’t be. Are covert ops evil. Well, depends on your definition of evil. If you believe that America deserves to continue as the most powerful country on Earth because of the freedoms we do enjoy, despite the injustices, then no. Covert ops are not evil. If you believe presidents should not engage in illegal wars, then covert ops are evil.

    Former Central Intelligence Agency director Stansfield Turner puts it more cogently: “Covert action is the term that describes our efforts to influence the course of events in a foreign country without our role being known.” Turner also notes that covert action “has always been assigned to the CIA to perform, by means of unattributable propaganda, sub rosa political action, or secret paramilitary support.”

    An examination of U.S. covert-action policy since World War II reveals two facts that are not always fully appreciated. First, both the scope and the scale of such operations have been enormous. Paramilitary operations–which can be more accurately described as secret wars, the most extreme form of covert action–have resulted in countless deaths and immense destruction. Covert operations have become the instrument of choice for policymakers, including Obama.

    The covert operations undertaken by the United States have been demonstrated in many ways. A cursory list of the post-World War II operations would include efforts to influence outcome of elections in Western European countries during the early cold war, the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, the 1963 attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba, the 1963 overthrow of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic, the 1964 defeat of rebel forces loyal to Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the 1965 propaganda campaign to overthrow the Sukarno government in Indonesia, the 1967 provision of aid to overthrow George Papandreou and install George Papadopoulous in Greece, and involvement in the 1970 overthrow of Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia.

    The definition of covert operations differs among countries and administrations. As defined in the 1976 final report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, such operations include any clandestine activity designed to influence foreign governments, events, organizations, or persons in support of United States foreign policy. Covert action may include political and economic actions, propaganda and paramilitary activities [and is] planned and executed so as to conceal the identity of the sponsor or else to permit the sponsor’s plausible denial of the operation.
    My point? Obama is conducting a covert op secret war in the Middle East to maintain strong US positions therein. Is this unusual for a president? Of course not. We’ve been doing this for 60 years. We can accomplish a great deal by “secret wars”. The American public doesn’t complain cause they don’t know about it. The UN doesn’t whine cause it never happened. If our little war doesn’t succeed we don’t look like fools.
    The larger point is please stop being naive about President Obama or any other minority president. All presidents engage in the same activities behind closed doors. Maybe Obama has idealogical dreams about this country he wants realized. I believe he does. But he is still a politician above all else. You don’t achieve the presidency unless you are a master manipulator and negotiator, no matter what color or creed you are.
    So when you call other politicians liars etc, it’s such a part of the political game that it’s almost pointless. Obama lies too if he thinks it will serve American interests or his ability to be re-elected.Is he an evil person? No, but he is the president. Which necessitates protecting our country as he sees fit without “upsetting” the American public or drawing criticism from said American public and thus galvanizing the country.
    To do this you have to, shall we say, compromise your principles sometimes. You have to sacrifice members of the America military. Personally, I don’t like it. I resent what Obama and Hilary did regarding Benghazi because they saw what was happening in real time via drone in the White House Situation Room. And a decision was made to minimize and ignore it officially.
    In summation, merely because Obama is a minority president does not make him saintly or above reproach. It’s not about white president means Evil, black president means Nomination for Sainthood. Presidents are ultimately politicians and capable of some very complex maneuvers that are almost mind boggling when contemplated.
    I think people sometimes attribute too much of Obama’s behavior as a reaction to pressure from whites, and that in itself dictates his behavior. But Obama is as self-serving as any other politician. If the insults he endured as president effected him that deeply, then why is he running for a second term? I merely want people to realize the complexity of the presidency, and no political figure is without blemishes.

  9. edna

    Thank you, Dr. Fitzgerald, for a great post. The tightrope is a great analogy and your mention of the social and emotional effects of that tightrope very apt and true.

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