On Slowly But Surely Accepting The Fact That President Obama Kinda Sucks When Talking To And About Black People » VSB

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On Slowly But Surely Accepting The Fact That President Obama Kinda Sucks When Talking To And About Black People

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A few months ago, I was asked to contribute to The Meaning of Michelle — a collection of essays about Michelle Obama’s influence and legacy. My chapter (“Crushing on Michelle: Or the Unapologetic Power of Blackness”) makes a reference to the psychic impact the Obama family’s presence has had on Black America, and how our collective cathartic desire for America’s HNIC to be an actual nigga — mined out of the historical context of the Black American in America — pushed him into office and then kept him there.

This psychic impact might seem intangible and arbitrary, and this intangibility and arbitrariness could allow someone to dismiss it as inessential, but that would be a mistake. It is as much a part of President Obama’s legacy as anything he’s actually done while in office. You could even argue that the importance of his mere existence — of him being the President and the Obamas being America’s first family — surpasses the importance of any policy he’s enacted or politics he’s pushed.

If this is still too intangible, let me share something a bit more real. VSB has existed for as long as Barack Obama has been President of the United States. We launched in the spring of 2008; he was elected in the fall. In that time, we’ve grown from a blog featuring two guys sharing their tongue-in-cheek musings about dating, relationships, and sex to a critically lauded and commercially successful platform for witty and irreverent and VantaBlack content. Personally, I’ve journeyed from a college administrator who blogged in my spare time to a full-time writer who’s had people from dream-level publications like GQ, EBONY, The New YorkerThe Guardian, NY Mag, and The Washington Post actually approach my lactose intolerant Black ass about writing/working for them, who’s been honored on lists like this year’s The Root 100, and who was included with a lineup of rock star-ass writers in an anthology about our First Lady.

It’s all still somewhat surreal. But not too surreal for me to be able to step back and acknowledge that it’s unlikely much of this would have happened without President Obama. No, he didn’t create VSB. And he wasn’t with me shooting in the gym during the thousands of hours I’ve spent writing, editing, reading, failing, and re-writing over the past eight years. But I can’t deny that his existence has helped to embolden and elevate me; ultimately expanding the scope of what I believe I’m able to do and possessed to say.

This considered, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that it’s difficult for me to be particularly objective about him. I am not so in the tank that I believe his every act to be perfect and his every day as President to be halcyon. But I do extend him a benefit of the doubt that far surpasses any I’ve ever given — and likely ever will give — anyone I don’t personally know. This is particularly true in regards to his public thoughts and words and actions regarding race — particularly how he speaks to and speaks of Black Americans — where he has been a consistent disappointment. So consistently disappointing that it’s no longer disappointing. Now, it’s just expected. It’s just him.

Of course, I’m aware that President Obama is in an unenviable (and, frankly, impossible) position. His status is such that even relatively milquetoast and benign race-related statements like “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin” immediately become weaponized by virtue of him saying it. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie articulated a couple weeks ago, The Beer Summit became a perfect synopsis of this absurd dynamic. It was the type of conciliatory, fence-mending gesture Obama has become known for. But many of us (Black people) were annoyed and even angered by it, because by inviting Sgt. James Crowley to the White House, it legitimized him; putting this aggressively mediocre White man on the same level of the fucking President and one of our most distinguished academics and thinkers.

This was also apparently the moment much of White America came to the collective realization that the Black person they elected to be President was actually Black.

From Bouie’s piece:

In 2009, millions of Americans were still caught in the heady daydream of “post-racial America,” sustained by a president who was black, but who wasn’t quite a black president. Fifty-three percent of Americans, according to a Pew survey, said that the country was “making ground” on racial discrimination. Obama’s observation—that black lives still faced unfair treatment—was an abrupt challenge to that idea, and it brought a backlash.

This is the environment President Obama has had to muck his way through during his term. A melange of post-racial fuckshit congealed with a never-ending undertow of unabashed and increasingly shameless bias. Shit, the guy who very well might be the President after him is only in this position because of a political ascension based on President Obama’s suspected illegitimacy.

I’ll also concede that, if I judged him strictly on his position as President instead of the person manning the position, I probably wouldn’t be as disappointed. But this is where the disappointment exists. Barack Obama is undeniably a Black American man. A 55-year-old, Harvard educated man who is usually the smartest person in every room he’s in. The type of Black man to have the wherewithal to decide that Michelle Robinson was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. A Black man who’s the father of two Black children. And with this context, I anticipated and expected him to be better. Not perfect. But just better. I expected him to be too aware of his words to do things like go to Morehouse and scold the graduates on making excuses. I didn’t expect the strain of respectability that persists in his words to and about Black America to exist.

But even as it did, I excused it as the language of a man walking a tightrope none of us have dared step on, and defended him against those who wanted our first Black president to be less President Obama and more Barack from Chicago. But even now, as he’s in the fuck-deficient last leg of his presidency — a phase we’ve collectively anticipated since he was elected — his language hasn’t changed much. Just last week, after defending Colin Kaepernick’s protest, he asked that Kaepernick consider the pain his protest is causing military families; a false equivalency that 1) puts the hurt feelings of those upset by Kaepernick’s symbolic and peaceful response to a symbol on the same level of the very real pain and fear many Black Americans feel in regards to the police and 2) implies that there’s a connection between Kaepernick’s protest and the United States military. There is none. And the military does not have exclusive ownership of the American flag. We — the American citizens (even those justifiably ambivalent about America) — do.

Of course, there is still the hope that President Obama will be more candid and progressive on race and just better in front of Black people once he leaves the Oval Office. He is, after-all, a relatively young man who will likely be a prominent figure in American politics and punditry for at least the next couple decades. But I’m no longer waiting for and anticipating that shift. If it happens, great! If it doesn’t, well, it’s just Barack being Barack.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Negro Libre

    But he isn’t obligated to…

    One of the reasons why Tavis Smiley and later Cornell West went against the grain and criticized Obama back in the 2008 election, was because they correctly felt that he was taking the black vote for granted. Hilary Clinton at times seems to be trying too hard to get the black vote, but in fact that’s what politicians are supposed to do, doesn’t matter if it is “authentic” or not.

    Politicians are very careful not to mess up when they are appealing to a group of people’s votes. I remember in ’08 when Obama made the comment about the desire with guns and how it relates towards the embracing of religion and employment…rednecks lost it, to the point that he had to clarify and apologize; he would’ve never been in that position if he was strategically appealing for their vote. The same way if Trump was appealing to any other vote outside blue collar voters, would be far less likely to be spurting out his racist and insensitive comments.

    When it’s all done and said, when there is no consequence for being wrong, wrong words and actions will continue to occur. We can say that it’s because of some inherent or invisible force that Pres. Obama says such things, but when it’s all said and done, it’s perhaps more likely bc he knows we got him, no matter what happens.

    • Amber

      That’s why Tavis created the covenant with black America books. He wanted actual documents for which a good amount of black folks could agree to challenge politicians to advance the so called black agenda. The problem was that many repubs were so blatant in their hatred towards Obama it caused black folks to close ranks around him and limit their critique so as not be lumped in with the haters.

  • Vanity in Peril

    If you are having a conversation about racism in America and you’re not directing it 99.99997% towards Dwight PayPal you aren’t having a conversation about racism in America.

    All this false equivalency nonsense is madness. Thanks, Obama, but….


  • MALynn

    I agree with the general sentiment but in regards to that particular event, people are cherry picking. I watched the town hall. He did tell Colin to consider the pain of military families. He also went on to ask people to consider Colin’s pain when he sees so many of his brothers and sisters being killed and not getting justice. I actually applauded him for being that straight forward.

    • thasamiam

      I agree with you in that Obama was at a town hall that was specifically about the military and speaking to military personnel and their families. But my problem is that Obama FIRST put the onus on Kaepernick and fellow protesters to consider the feelings of military personnel and their families and THEN asked the military and their families to consider Colin’s pain. He should have reversed the order if he was going to take that route, and it would have made the statement more powerful and reduced the criticism from us (Black people).

      • fedup

        What he SHOULD have done, IMHO, was reiterated that Colin’s refusal to stand for the pledge in protest towards an America that does not practice what it preaches where Black people are concerned has not one single thing to do with the military, or people’s support for “Our Troops”.

        • Dcetstyle

          I agree. It would have been so powerful if he said that the protest that the players and others are engaging in has zero to do with military.
          But he always splits down the middle,

        • fedup

          Just also wanted to add: By not correcting White America’s misguided conflation of protest against how this country treats its own citizens with the notion that [somehow]said protest is a rebuke of military personnel, you inadvertently validate their ridiculous response to the protest.

          Tell it like it is, and stop playing into their foolishness. That goes for Barry, and alla yall!

        • E_Deshon

          Not in this America that thinks he’s still not an actual American.

      • L8Comer

        Love your avi! I have that shirt

        • thasamiam


      • MALynn

        I can see your point. Especially when there were black vets in the room…

    • thenameischoco

      Damon didn’t cherry pick here. As he mentions, why would Barack speak about the protest and vets in the same breath as though they are truly opposing sides? Why lend legitamacy to the BS narrative that protesting the treatment of Black Americans is counter to veterans in some way?

  • Barack was running for president when I first had the experience of teaching in a big lecture hall with all the bells and whistles. I was terrified of my mostly white students. I was filled with so much self-doubt. But I would picture Barack in my head before class. I would remember him in IOWA. In Washington state. In Vermont. In Maine. And I would gain confidence to talk about p-values in Suffolk County.

    After all these years. The movie Ghostbusters made me feel a little validated in my fears. A little less stupid for being so paralyzed by fear. Which is so insane to me. One of the first scenes is a woman preparing to teach in a lecture hall. Maybe Hillary is doing that for some girl now too.

    I’m tryna focus on the positive I guess

  • Brooklyn_Bruin

    We always knew Cornell West was right. Most rank and file black people, who are generally socially conservative, are far more militant than Honolulu Slim. And most black folks aren’t militant enough to join BLM. On the Farrakhan scale, they’re slightly above the woke kid at Oberlin with the Bob Marley poster.

    We live our lives through a racial lens that we can’t ever seem to escape.

    Like this morning

    Did they “run out” of sugar free dark chocolate sauce at Starbucks because I’m black…lemme hold on and hear a few more orders to make sure…

    That mentality is reinforced by our experiences, but installed by our black parents.

    Everyone one of us can imagine little Barry running up and down Red Lobsters like he was in his living room, and his Ma Dukes casually finishing another cheddar bay biscuit.

    Black parents matter!

    Survival skills and ways of looking at the world to keep us alive. Then the level two skills, the double consciousness to navigate their world…

    I get the feeling that Barry read about that in books. He may have some old black folks-esque critiques about the black community, but it never seems to be from a place of “I’ve been there”

    So there always seems to be this dissonance. To me at least

    That’s my dude though, even if he ain’t on some Chiekh Anta Diop

    • Duff Soviet Union

      “Most rank and file black people, who are generally socially conservative”

      I always say that the majority of Blacks would be Republicans if Republicans weren’t so anti-black. A lot of the values are the same. But alas, anti-blackness is a feature and not a bug of the Republican Party.

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        A lot of people say that, but in my view, there are a lot church style, I’m not putting up with this, anti intellectual social conservatives in the community.

        That’s not a good thing in my view. Wasn’t that voting bloc responsible for some of the gay rights losses in California?

        What did the choir director collective ever do to the congregation?

    • Blueberry01

      Lol@your sugar free dark chocolate investigation!

  • Mary Burrell

    This post brings to mind former Attorney General Eric Holder when he said Americans are cowards when it comes to having a conversation about race.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      Mrs. SS93 has been watching a lot of Jane Elliott this weekend and I agree folks ain’t really ready.

      • kingpinenut

        White folks will have a mental breakdown when they have to confront reality and not the bullshype *they* call reality.

        • Mary Burrell

          They actually live in a bubble especially when they use their favorite saying ” I don’t see race or I am color blind.” I just let out a huge sigh.

          • grownandsexy2

            And everything out of their mouths after that is all about race.

            • Mary Burrell

              And when they like to shame black people they like quoting MLK to try to shut us up.

              • truthseeker2436577@yahoo.com

                You’re right. When Dr. King was alive, the same white racists hated him. They abhorred his protests, his advocacy of civil disobedience, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Today, the white racists quote Dr. King while ignoring his revolutionary views.

          • Junegirl627

            Don’t forget my personal favorite. “Black people are mean to me too! How’s THAT! NOT racists?!!!”

            I usually reply “They’re mean to you because youre an @ssholle… That’s why it’s not racist”

      • BrownBearBear

        Jane Elliot should really hold the Nobel Peace Prize for Wokest Whyt Woman ever. I know it’s bad, but I’ve had a good laugh watching some of them break down when she cuts them to pieces.

        • kingpinenut

          We both going to hey all bruh I stay laughing myself silly watching her get em

          • Mary Burrell

            She literally scares them and reduce them to tears.

            • kingpinenut

              where my tea cup at?

              • Mary Burrell

                HEE HEE???

        • Mary Burrell


        • *back from youtube* She’s the one I was trying to think of a few weeks ago! The whole stand if you wanna be treated like Black folk. How come none of y’all standing lady. I love her!

          • kingpinenut

            all i saw was CRICKETS

            they know damb well the real deal

        • King Beauregard

          I’m white and I laugh too. I won’t claim to be the perfect ideal of racial awareness — no doubt I’ve got my blind spots — but at least I try to hold myself to account, and so I know that a person can at least make the effort.

        • lol

          the only thing jane elliot broke down is her chances of ever being anything other then that crazy $$$$ that could not get a job outside of teaching liberal arts. like most people in liberal arts.

      • Mary Burrell

        Jane Elliott has been speaking the truth for years. I know people don’t like Tim Wise but in my opinion he has been speaking the truth as well.

        • grownandsexy2

          I like Tim Wise too. 2520s can’t handle the truth.

        • kingpinenut

          Jane is cool

          I can’t take Tim he smell funky to me.

        • Why don’t people like Tim Wise? He was the first 2520 I heard of who was speaking truth to his fellow wypipo.

          • Mary Burrell

            Some people think he has an agenda of some sort. But I know lots of black people don’t like him. Especially the hoteps.

            • An agenda? Seriously? What, he wants to win a Guiness World Record for death threats?

              Hoteps ain’t never happy.

            • BrownBearBear

              Agreed. Shaun King gets hate from yt, but Tim Wise gets it on all sides. They’re neck in neck for most death threats of 2016

          • thenameischoco

            He has publicly directed some anger toward Black women who criticized him as recently as last year. He was all, “How dare you say this to me after all I’ve done for Black people.” about it too.

    • Brooklyn_Bruin

      He was a coward when it came to Wall Street..

      • Mary Burrell

        Oh really I didn’t know about that.

        • Brooklyn_Bruin

          Lookup the Holder Memo.

      • Cheech

        And torture.

    • Wise Old Owl

      I wonder if Brother Holder belives Black Americans, especially his Boule Brothers and Jack and Jill Sisters are cowards when it comes to having a conversation about racism’s illegitimate son, Colorism…

  • Brandon Allen

    Disappointment is understandable but considering that he’s a politician, he’s met and surpassed my expectations.

    That aside, we all know that respectability politics happens intra-racially as well. An Ivy educated professor president talks down to people? Kind of what I expect.

  • MoBell

    President Obama is the Jackie Robinson of Presidents. He is the first biracial/black President and their is a fine line he must walk as the “first” that other black or other person’s of color Presidents will hopefully not have to walk. Being the first comes with limitations. You just can’t go all hoodie mob on folks like you want cause as you can see, just the presence of us scares the “others”. Also, he was raised by his white mom and white grandparents. Growing up like that gives him a biracial/straddling of the lines experience us old plain black folk don’t have and can’t possibly fully understand. There is a lot of unpacking one must do from what you have been taught, been around or seen, when growing up like that in order for you to fully go all “black” when need be. He might not have done all of that work to unpack those biases yet.

    • Miles


    • 1TennisMate

      This maybe incendiary, but I daresay Barack performs blackness on a world stage. Even if he were born of black parents, he did not grow up in America so his experience of blackness is very different than African-Americans. He came to ‘American Blackness’ as an adult. Though there is no one way to be black, the blackness Damon talks to is outside of our President’s experience. He may have done the work to unpack his blackness but it is cloaked in the duality of political correctness and a legal persona. When we crave black Barack we’ll have to revisit his Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK7tYOVd0Hs

      • MoBell

        I agree, there is no one way to be black and the President is viewed as black and has had a black experience point, blank, period. My concern is his biases that he could of picked up in his formative years growing up in a predominately white environment for the first 20 years of his life. He did not grow up hearing about how family members had to survive and thrive through segregation, or deal with redlining, or having all the smarts but never given the opportunity. He grew from a place of privilege (even though he had his own identity challenges), and so his perspective is different. He can’t speak on something passionately and fully without certain perspectives or experience.

        • 1TennisMate

          His place of privilege was not one of color or wealth, so what was it? We have to be careful in assigning him biases from his formative years. It sounds like you are dismissing his experience because you don’t identify with it. Trust, color and race are or were major issues in Hawaii. From where I stand his experience was one full of burdens which could have easily broken his spirit or warped his sensibilities. Just because he did not have a black american relative, neighbor or friend to share their experience doesn’t mean he has not studied it or his very liberal and woke mother did not avail him of this education.

          His Presidency has not highlighted any biases. It has shown him to be a learned man committed to fairness but aware of the impact his words and deeds have on others. You have to give up the expectations you had for a black panther president, one of reparations, vengeance and race representation. His approach is actually more modern than I’d expect from a man of his age. Though his ‘respectability politics’ is different than Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, it only changed slowly in areas due to the pushback he has gotten i.e. gay marriage, mass incarceration, BLM…

          Is any president the one we deserve?

          • MoBell

            I don’t think I’m assigning him any specific biases, I’m saying that his formative years do play a part in who he is just like it plays a part in all of us and there are some biases that come out of that white household experience which may limit his wokeness and may contribute more to his respectability politics. I’m not saying he didn’t have challenges, even racial ones, I’m saying that white people can NEVER be fully woke to the black experience because they are not black. Their understanding is limited so fully embracing it or teaching it is limited, regardless if his mother seemed to be woke. Because his key formative years were spent in a white household this helped shaped his perspective. He heard and learned things that may have given him this so called “balance” perspective, which I view more as him playing “devils advocate” in some instances, which many white people love to do or failing in my eyes in addressing clear systemic racial issues in particular situations because he may not see it as systemic but as an individual slight.

            I think the President has done a lot, and I do have my challenges with him, but I would absolutely vote for him for a third term if I could. But even after he leaves offices, I still don’t see him all of a sudden becoming as “woke” in what he says or does as some people expect because I really don’t think he has it in him.

            • 1TennisMate

              I don’t think he is any less woke than most fifty-five year old men in a professional job with a public presence. You are biased against him simply because his family is white and so was his formative years. So you probably don’t believe white allies can truly embrace the BLM Movement?

              He has pointed out systemic racial issues but has not or was not able to affect the sweeping changes you and I would liked to have seen in his Presidency. He has done good work on prison reform…

          • The fact that he went to Ireland to celebrate his Irish heritage spoke volumes.

            • Epsilonicus

              Gotta be even though. He did visit his fam in Kenya.

          • I see your point about the particular racial politics of Hawaii (which isn’t tolerant but is different from the mainland), but at this point, he hasn’t lived in Hawaii since he was 18. C’mon man.

            • Right!!!

            • Rufus McBoofus

              Right. He’s lived in L.A., NYC, Boston, Chicago, and DC… places where he definitely got a crash course on blackness and America.

            • Lisaehanselman4

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              On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
              ??;?? http://GoogleFinancialJobsCash483TopScanGetPay$97Hour ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????::::::!cr193f:….,…….

        • AwesomeSauce

          Sooooo…he didnt grow up in America and lived 20 years in a predominately white area? Wasnt he raised in Hawaii

        • Betty’s Babygirl

          Umm, he’s married to an American Resilient woman from the south side of Chicago and had/has in-laws who lived in one of the most segregated cities in America. Do you not think he has not been schooled on how they were treated and their struggles? Don’t sleep on Barack. As president of ALL the people he is limited on what he can do specifically for Resilients. Could and should he have done more? Absolutely. However, those who thought he was our “savior” are ignorant of how the world works and frankly delusional. Whatever we may see as his short comings, he and the first family represented Resilients well.

        • Santarbeasley2

          Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours and have longer with friends & family! !ct122f:
          On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
          ??;?? http://GoogleFinancialJobsCash412ShopBrainGetPay$97Hour ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????::::::!ct122f:….,……

      • Thank you

      • Rufus McBoofus

        He didn’t grow up in America? I think you’re confused. Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961. He lived there until 1967, when he moved to Indonesia with his mom and stepfather. He lived in Indonesia until 1971, when he returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. He stayed there until 1979, when he left for college in L.A. Unless you want to make the argument that Hawaii isn’t part of the U.S., then Obama definitely grew up in America, with only four years spent living abroad.

        • 1TennisMate

          Thanks for the FACTS. Please re-read my comments, plural. I clarified that his Hawaiian upbringing was American but very different than the American experience we are speaking about here and went on to address the biases MoBell thinks he has because he did not grow-up black.

    • truthseeker2436577@yahoo.com

      I consider him similar to Jackie Robinson too in the sense of both of them displaying eloquence, being very intelligent, and having great temperament to deal with some of the most vicious, racist criticisms against them in public.

    • nothing but a bunch of BS he knows what he is doing.

      • No Google

        Exactly. As if there aren’t black folks who lived the so called “black experience” who subscribed to the same respectability nonsense Obama does.

    • Wise Old Owl

      Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was a true American Hero, who was not afraid to speak truth to power. Sadly, Black Folks demand more and hold former Chicago resident Michael Jeffrey Jordan more accountable than former Chicago resident Barack Hussain Obama. We expect MJ to solve all the problems in the Black Community and threaten to boycott J’s if he doesn’t speak out on Black issues and give back to the community, yet we make excuses and look the other way when Barry does not speak out on Black issues or give support to the Black Community. The problem is, MJ is a retired Billionaire athlete, whereas Barry is the current President of the United States…one should be held accountable, because he has the power to issue Executive Orders, which have the same effect as federal laws…, but sadly, we hold the one accountable who is selling basketball shoes and Hanes….

  • Honestly, I’ve had to somewhat disengage from President Obama. He’s just been…too timid and disappointing when and IF he addresses issues that affect Black Americans.

  • United_Dreamer

    I understand your point but Obama trolls white America just by being a black president. In fact not just Obama but the entire Obama family. In that act alone he has exposed the racist “under”belly of America like no other single act could ever do. Nothing tangible he did could outshine that. Indeed anything he did specifically for black people policy-wise would be immediately attacked and targeted for removal by the next white supremacist government. Even a nervous white liberal one.

    By setting the tone of the political debate, he has actually allowed more scope for liberal white presidents to roll out more targeted policies that he might have struggled with precisely because he is black.

    There is a saying that goes something like “it’s surprising what you can achieve if you don’t claim the credit”. That’s almost impossible to achieve as president.

    He was always going to have to be a good president in the context of overwhelming white supremacy. But he’s done the next best thing. He’s exposed the extent of it just by being black. And he’s given belief to black children growing up that anything is possible.

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