I have a somewhat different take on President Obama’s “Special Olympics bowling gaffe” on Jay Leno the other night. But first, a story:
The place was graduate school on a majority White campus in a majority White department. The time was…a long time ago. Some grad student colleagues and I were discussing a particularly brutal statistics midterm exam we had all just taken. The general consensus was that it was one of the hardest tests any of us had ever taken. Days later the TA returned our graded exams and posted the breakdown of scores on the board. One unidentified student got a quite good mark, and thus the only A on the exam. A couple of students got fair but not great marks. The majority did horribly, in the D to F range.
After class, my colleagues and I talked again. They were united and almost joyous in their failure. “Of course” the test was not a testament to the ill-preparedness of students, but to the inadequacies of the teaching–otherwise so many would not have failed. “Of course” the one high score could be discounted because it most likely belonged to that Asian student in the class who had performed so well on previous tests.
I was silent. And almost ashamed. It was I, not the Asian student, who received the lone high mark. Correction: who had earned the one high mark. I had studied my ass off. I had attended every single office hour for several weeks. I had completed the on-line practice exercises. I had bought supplementary text books in an attempt to learn the material in different ways. I had even cut another class the day before the test in order to get in a couple extra hours of studying.
I should have been proud. I should have shouted from the rooftops. I should have said to my colleagues, “Well, too bad for you, suckas, but I got the A!”
But I did not. I did not say a word. I merely nodded in a way that made it appear that I, too, earned a D or an F.
Just that past week I had gotten some sort of academic commendation. If I recall, it even came with a small monetary award. My name had been in the department newspaper. My achievement had appeared in the window of the main office. Most of my colleagues had congratulated me, even though many of them, too, had been competing for the same award. But in some cases other comments accompanied the congratulations. One colleague asked, supposedly innocently, if the award was for “minority” students. (No, it was not. A fact of which she was well aware.) Another lamented the fact that I could not get the kudos, while the money could go to a student who “really needed it.” (Yet, it was not an award based on financial need but on scholarly merit.) Someone else commented that I sure was “racking up” the awards that year and “joked” that it must be nice to be one of the favorites of the faculty. (Yes, I sure am and yes, it sure is!)
So…you can connect the dots to my reactions after the stats exam. I was already one of the few Blacks. I was quickly becoming a resented Black. I had always had to work hard to show that I was not a scary Black. While also putting notice out that I would not be a taken-advantage-of Black.
But this balancing act rarely results in good outcomes for the balancer. When you walk that particular tightrope of achieving to your great potential but not wanting folks to fear or resent you because of it, you end up making too many over-corrections. And at some point you fall.
That’s my take on President Obama and his Special Olympics bowling statement. It is as if he is trying super hard to assure some people that he does not think he is better than them. Just as a regular old Black man he’d be scary enough to some people. But a smart, accomplished, powerful Black man? No, no, no. He must do everything in his power to knock himself down a few pegs so as not to make some people nervous. Oh, well, yeah I have a Harvard degree and am President of the United States, but, hey, I can’t bowl for shit!!!! And all over, people–even as many (rightly) chide him for his insensitive remark–breathe a sigh of relief and note that it (the statement, the lack of bowling skills, appearing on Jay Leno to talk about them, or some combination of the above) makes him “more human.”
All the stuff our new President has to concern himself with, and he has to spend valuable time and energy convincing folks that he is human. Really puts my statistics exam situation in perspective.