My Own Racial Reckoning

“He just gives me a calming feeling.” As Barack Obama strode to the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to eulogize the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, my wife said the exact thought racing through my mind. 

There is just something about him. He is decent. He is wise. He is reassuring. Whatever it is, he has it. But 12 years ago, all I could see was the color of his skin.

I was 18 and eager to vote for the first time in my life. All the common refrains had been uttered to me. It was my duty. I couldn’t complain if I didn’t vote. So, here I went. 

I don’t remember much about that ticket, maybe an amendment that was poorly worded and hard to decipher, but not much else. 

What I do remember is the presidential ticket: Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Republican. I remember getting to the all-important vote and being ready to cast my ballot for Obama. 

It felt like the right choice for me. I had not paid much attention to the campaign, but I was struck by him. Maybe it was his youth, his vigor, his message of hope, and “Yes we can!” but whatever it was, I was ready to vote for him. 

As I reached my hand out to touch Obama’s name on the screen, the thought rushed into my head, “Can a black man be president?” 

I stopped. 

Whatever feelings I had in support of Obama were gone. I voted for John McCain that day and for no other reason than his opponent was black. 

I was a college freshman on inauguration day, sitting in a music appreciation class. Our teacher stopped the lesson to ensure we could watch the first Black president take the oath of office. There were no overwhelming feelings of shame or guilt. I was genuinely intrigued to see Obama sworn into office.

However, there should have been. To state the all-too-common white person proverb, “I have Black friends.” I had Black friends throughout elementary, middle and high school. I hung out with them. I played sports with them. I went places with them. 

That wasn’t enough. That isn’t enough. All the good will and actions I could conjure up mean nothing if I am not able to say a Black man can and should be president.

I don’t feel I was alone that day in my thoughts, either. It is quite possible or even probable that most did not consider Obama’s race while voting, relying only on their beliefs and his policy initiatives.

But more than we would like to admit probably entered the voting booth with similar feelings as me and either found it easier to vote against him because of his skin color, or, as in my case, it was the deciding blow.

It helps show the depths of racism and bigotry we have yet to address in our country. We can say and do all — or nearly all — the right things in public, but still hold private thoughts and feelings that hold us back.

I am only 30 years old now and have lived through just five administrations and just a handful of those with any sense of recollection or feeling of impact on my daily life. I assume I will live through many more in the years to come. However, I would be surprised if Barack Obama is not the most influential president of my lifetime.

Throughout his administration, I grew to deeply admire him for his leadership, principles and the devotion he showed his family and to us. If there was ever anyone I identified with the statement “my president,” it was him.

Sure, I will always admire him for all the ways I feel he moved our country forward, but most of all, I appreciate him for helping me see the changes I needed to make as an individual. Changes that have made me a better person and helped me address parts of my life I was ashamed of admitting existed.

Obama has not been my only racial reckoning in my adult life. There was a deeper, more troublesome realization I had to come to regarding my feelings toward the Hispanic community regarding illegal immigration.

I was guilty of deeply prejudiced views toward them, which bled over into how I viewed the entire community. I was guilty of using racial slurs in conversations from time to time to describe them. It came from a place of fear, hate, ignorance and misunderstanding. Thankfully, through self-evaluation and learning, this changed some years ago. 

I don’t share all of this because it is gratifying to do so or to virtue signal, but because I don’t think my story is unique in our country. I am sure many still hold the beliefs to which I used to cling. 

Some are more pronounced than others which stay hidden in the recesses of our minds and lives. Regardless of their placement, they hold us all back.

If we do not address these beliefs, we allow them to fester. We allow them to impact our daily decisions. We allow them to impact how we interact with people who do not look like us. We allow ourselves to be less than we can and should be.

Until we address their existence and confront them, nothing will change.

Change will be painful. Change will be difficult. Change will take acknowledging the parts of our lives we like to hide and disregard. But no matter how agonizing it might be, it is necessary and long overdue.