I voted for Obama

June 18, 2011

I voted for Obama is a seemingly obvious statement about a choice and yet the context in which it is said can change the meaning.  Reading a recent post on The Daily Race blog reminded me of this.

The Daily Race blog author, Starlette McNeill, tells of observing a conversation between a local European American man and some tourists in a Washington DC restaurant. The local man who led the conversation talked about the District’s turbulent racial history and the benefit of gentrification, with comments about the Obama presidency. Several local residents present were dismayed and angry at the gross generalizations being made by the man; some left the restaurant.  As McNeil got up to leave, a young woman she didn’t know came up to her and said, “I voted for Obama.”  I imagine McNeill, who acknowledges she is tired of existing within the confines of stereotypical blackness, must have had to take a deep breath at that moment:

What was I supposed to say? Thank you? She didn’t elect me. And what did she mean? That she loved and supported all socially defined black people, that she believed that all were capable of governing the country, that she was not a racist because she had voted for him? And the more important question for me is why she felt the need to express this at all. Read more.

Why the need to express this at all?  This is a critical question for those of us who are white seeking to understand how whiteness plays out in everyday life. I’m familiar with the desire to be seen as a “good white person” by people of color. Too often I have been focused on that rather than acknowledging and living in the tension that confronting racism requires. And although I hate to admit it, I know that deep within me resides a superiority complex, fueled by years of living in white skin, that can lead me to think I am the best one to intercede in such a situation and I know the best way to respond.

Additionally, white people have been taught to group people who look different than us into one category of sameness which we would never do with people who are white. It is this kind of thinking that leads a classroom professor to call on a African American student in a predominantly white class to ask what African Americans think about an issue. Or it’s what leads politicians to talk about the “Latino vote” as if all Latinos will vote exactly the same. Or to think that because we voted for a man identified by others as black that we understand and are aligned with all black people.

I can understand the intention of the young woman and hope she will someday soon understand how the impact of her actions matters beyond her intentions. Good intentions are not enough. It’s one of the more difficult lessons I’ve had to learn.  Daily I have to confront and challenge the socialization I’ve received that is invested in me walking through life in ignorant ways that keeps oppression in place.  I have to stop and ask myself, who is being served by the inclination I have to make a comment or take an action. Is it serving myself or is it on behalf of justice?  It’s often hard to know for sure and yet I vote for asking tough questions in hopes of learning some better answers.


  1. Thank you for this insightful and courageous post. What you have shared provides me with a better understanding of whiteness and for this I am truly grateful.

  2. I appreciate the critical questions you raised in your post, Starlette. They made me stop and ponder in a deeper way my own actions and the actions of others. Thank you!

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