I Just Remembered Chris Matthews Was White

Here's Matthews on Obama:


I was trying to think about who he was tonight. It's interesting; he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. He's gone a long way to become a leader of this country and past so much history in just a year or two. I mean it's something we don't even think about. I was watching and I said, wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people and there he is, president of the United States, and we've completely forgotten that tonight -- completely forgotten it. I think it was in the scope of the discussion, it was so broad ranging, so in tune with so many problems and aspects and aspects of American life. That you don't think in terms of the old tribalism and the old ethnicity. It was astounding in that regard, a very subtle fact. It's so hard to even talk about it. Maybe I shouldn't talk about it, but I am.

I think it's worth noting that Chris Matthews wasn't trying to take a shot at anybody. I also think it's worth noting that he was attempting to compliment Obama and say something positive about what he's done for race relations. (See Matthews' clarification here.) But I think it's most worth noting that "I forgot Obama was black"--in all its iterations--is something that white people should stop saying, if only because it's really dishonest.

One way to think about this is to flip the frame. Around these parts, we've been known, from time to time, to chat about the NFL. We've also been known to chat about the intricacies of beer. If you hang around you'll notice that there are no shortage of women in these discussions. Having read a particularly smart take on Brett Favre, or having received a good recommendations on a particular IPA, it would not be a compliment for me to say, "Wow, I forgot you were a woman."  Indeed, it would be pretty offensive.

The problems is three-fold. First, it takes my necessarily limited, and necessarily blinkered, experience with the fairer sex and builds it into a shibboleth of invented truth. Then it takes that invented truth as a fair standard by which I can measure one's "woman-ness." So if football and beer don't fit into my standard, I stop seeing the person as a woman. Finally instead of admitting that my invented truth is the problem, I put the onus on the woman. Hence the claim "I forgot you were a woman," as opposed to "I just realized my invented truth was wrong."

Ditto for Chris Matthews. The "I forgot Obama was black" sentiment allows the speaker the comfort of accepting, even lauding, a black person without interrogating their invented truth. It allows the speaker a luxurious ignorance--you get to name people (this is what black is) even when you don't know people. In fact, Chris Matthews didn't forget Barack Obama was black. Chris Matthews forgot that Chris Matthews was white. 

I'm put back in the mind of the The Wire, when Slim Charles tells Avon that it really doesn't matter that our wars are based on a lie. Once we're fighting, we fight on that lie until the end. I would submit that a significant number of white people in this country, can not stop fighting on the lie. They can't cop to the fact that they really have no standing to speak on Obama's relationship to blackness, because they know so little about black people. It's always hard to say, "I don't know." But no one else can say it for you.

This is why Obama will never be postracial--he can't make white people face the lie of their ignorance, anymore than Jimmy Baldwin could make black people face the lie of our homophobia. It's white people's responsibility to make themselves postracial, not the president's. Whatever my disagreements with him, the fact is that he is brilliant. That he is black and brilliant is pleasant but unsurprising to me. I've known very brilliant, very black people all my life. At some point that number of white people who still can't get their heads around our humanity will have to accept the truth: the president is black, even if you don't quite know what that means.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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