Will it be Barry or Barack?

Growing up working class and biracial in Utah, son of a Mexican American man and Scots-Irish woman, in a white, politically conservative, Mormon community, I was always reminded to “not cause problems.”

Especially by my Mexican American father.

It made sense to me as a young boy, at the time.

I considered myself a “Mormon” boy, preparing to inherit a spiritual wealth of blessings if I simply obeyed the Ten Commandments as most good Christian boys understood them and acted within the additional spiritual obligations that Mormon boys understood to be their future rights.

(Taking multiple wives if not during our temporal lives, then in our post-mortal existences when we could also expect to colonize and “replenish” multiple worlds with our progeny, multiplying our power without limits.)

So it was simply a natural affirmation that I accepted my biological patriarch’s advice that was reinforced every Sunday and throughout the week during multiple meetings and family activities and personal actions (including prayer, journal writing, and a near constant obsession with doing right and good):

“Don’t cause problems!”

This wasn’t a commercial about the world being my oyster.

There was no general sense and no personal belief that I could ever have what I wanted simply by wanting it, whatever “it” was.

This was fear incarnate, embodied in everyday living that I best understand that I could cause more harm than good by desiring something that would take some effort to get and then pissing people off by my actions regardless of my good intentions, unintended general consequences, or, even, bad behavior.

In some ways, I have never been able to shake that lesson and its corollary in the form of a lament of the moral chaos my father reads and views and experiences daily (with me, for example, and the media), “no respect.” Its power to define and shape my self-image and public behavior was deeply ingrained early and my infantile/immature understanding of the possible origins of that fear and its verbal and corporal expression took years to understand and contain.

I now see that expression of fear and its correlates–be respectful and don’t do anything to lose that respect (distract them from your inner fears by making them laugh and being “nice”)—as part of a long politico-historical and deeply cultural experience of colonizing, imperial relationships between the powerful and the not-powerful, between those who can imagine a world as theirs and create it in their image and those who feel obliged to play along with the imaginative schemes of those producing and enacting the schemes.  (In Marxist terms—egad, he said that nasty ideological word!—those who control the means of production.)

My father as a displaced, deterritorialized (de-racialized, in some basic sense) Mexican in Utah, working to raise five biracial children with a Scots-Irish wife in an alien cultural environment and who had grown up in Texas, a state with a long history of racial violence against indigenous Texas Mexican communities, knew subconsciously what he was telling me without ever explicitly explaining why I should behave myself.

There could, indeed would, be serious consequences for not acting my “part” in the dominant/subservient scheme that was and is racial/racist inequality.

And that part was and, unfortunately, continues to be in vital ways a basis for the nice, respectful, harmless, “good boy” that I am to this day.

So when I see, and here’s where I’ve been headed all along with this, Barack Hussein Obama, kowtowing obsequiously to the Republicans, hesitating to lead for fear of offending anyone, cracking the occasional joke to distract the critical multitudes, hiding behind the mask of objectivist/academic/bureaucratic legalese, and trying to get everyone to work together, I see my “brother” caught unconsciously in the trap of immobilizing self-doubt and subconscious self-alienation that can be one of the negative effects of Dubois’ notion of racial double-consciousness.

But where Obama has sometimes in his rhetoric exhibited a desire to consciously embrace a positive hybrid self-construct that he could mobilize into an active and critical social and political agenda, he has actually tended toward the negative Duboisian position of letting others construct his identity and agenda for him. (Simple, singular identities; the stuff of melodrama, tragedy, and death.) His fear to offend and his desire to please the racial master, opposing sides of the same racialized/racist coin, have become his effective masters as Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats, and Tea Partiers have clearly mobilized a white racial block to thwart any Obama initiative.  Indeed, Obama can’t even mobilize or lead those remaining congressional liberal Democrats, electoral independents, communities of color, or left-of-center supporters.

Obama’s dilemma is the same one I experienced growing up as a boy and have grappled with more self-consciously and practically as man and is one he’s going to have to figure out at some point soon if he’s to have any hope of salvaging his remaining three years and his legacy as the first president of color.

Obama’s going to have to decide what makes him tick and stop letting others decide for him what his agenda will be.  He will have to stop wanting to please everyone, to make everyone feel at ease with him as a Black man, a biracial man, an effete bourgeois intellectual man.

As offensive as George Bush was to my sensibilities, intellectual, ethical and otherwise, he was nothing if not determined to get what he seemed to believe in, at least superficially.  His apparent self-righteous desire reinforced his administration’s unparalleled efforts to undermine civil rights legislation, trample our civil liberties, and further cultural, racial, and economic inequality. And he had the people willing and able to support his divinely inspired beliefs.

Obama’s got to get over his fears of changing the character of the nation, but that means he’s got to get over his fears of changing himself to meet those challenges.

Of course, that means acknowledging at some level that he attained his current position partly because he’s not Jesse Jackson nor Al Sharpton.  (That clearly has been a conscious decision for him.  They’re too black; too offensive for his social and political tastes.) It is because he has been relatively non-threatening as a man of color and it is because of all the characteristics above, his self-conscious shaping and softening (assimilation) over the years—indeed, his withdrawal from Black folks such as Reverend Wright who aided his transformation into a more authentically Black man had to happen in order to become more acceptably “black”—that made him imaginable for many voters as a social and political change agent.

So this is Obama’s dilemma which seems, at the moment, impossible to navigate.  The question is not just one of smarts and opportunity, but one of risk-taking for Obama.

He changed himself to win the presidency.  (Who doesn’t reframe/reinvent oneself politically in politics?  I think Plato said politics is the art of lying.)  Is he willing to risk changing himself fundamentally or, better said, reassert his most progressive electoral rhetoric to regain his political constituencies and, perhaps, win a second presidential term?

Even more basically, my question is, will he be a self-defining man who understands and accepts his social and racial origins and the meaning of his relationships and their power dynamics and not be submissively, fearfully child-like.  Will he continue to be limited by culture’s definitions and paths for him?  Is he willing to risk the loss of esteem in others’ perceptions of him in the pursuit of true self-understanding and positive self-reflection that comes from thinking and acting fearlessly?

That’s my question.

How do you choose to live, Mr. Obama?  As Barry or Barack?

© 2010 Randy Rodriguez

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