Are President Obama and Other Trailblazers Victims of the 'First Black' Syndrome?
Research suggests subtle racism in everyday interaction reinforces stereotypes, expectations
Adulation and the perks of celebrity should accompany becoming the first of your race or ethnic group to achieve international acclaim or political power.
That’s probably what confused Gabby Douglas, the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the individual all-around gymnastics competition.
Instead of unified praise, some decided that the 16-year-old Virginia native’s hairstyle was more noteworthy than her history-making achievements at this summer’s London Olympics. (Douglas felt hurt by the comments, she confirmed to Oprah Winfrey, in an interview scheduled to air this Sunday on OWN.)
Perhaps this is the baggage that comes with being a “black first” – hyper-scrutiny rarely bestowed on one’s non-black counterparts.
Research by Columbia University psychologists suggests the racial scrutiny blacks face in daily interracial and intercultural interactions – on the validity of their credentials, their schooling, and even their birth certificates – comes from the prevailing assumption among non-blacks that African Americans are not supposed to do better than whites.
[SEE ALSO: 15 of History's African American Firsts]
Most of those polled in Loop 21’s State of the Black Economy survey believe that this is why President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black commander-in-chief, is held to a higher standard than his predecessors.
“[People] are astounded that we [African Americans] have achieved so much,” said Jessie Carney Smith, the author of an expansive anthology on African American achievement, aptly named “Black Firsts,” and who is, herself, the first black person to receive a post doctorate degree from the School of Library Sciences at the University of Illinois.
Smith, the Dean of the Library at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically black institution, said she could only assume that other African Americans, like her, have learned to cope with the sting of being labeled an exception to their race and with the baggage that accompanies it.
Rightly or wrongly, many felt being the first black president came with the expectation that Obama would improve the conditions of African Americans and other disadvantaged minorities. Earlier this month, Obama unflinchingly shot down a Black Enterprise reporter’s assertion that he had not done enough to support black businesses.
“I’m not the president of black America,” Obama said in the BE interview. “I’m the president of the United State of America.”
Obama bears the weight of the presidency in ways that George W. Bush did not; he’s expected to usher in an era of prosperity and safety for all Americans, while catering to the needs of the black community and having his legitimacy constantly challenged by people made bitter by his accomplishments. Arguably, no president has ever been saddled with those burdens.
One source of those burdens is what researchers call an often unintentional tendency by non-minorities to apply racial stereotypes to people of color, even for the most extraordinary of individuals. Black firsts are held to a higher standard by whites – and at times by blacks, too. But studies finds that they, like all minorities, are often subjected to a less visible form of racism, resulting in the belief that blacks must work twice as hard as whites to even be considered average.
Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, says the phenomenon of “perceived” racial slights experienced by minorities isn’t actually perceived at all. It’s very real.
“It takes a strong man [or woman] to stand in the face of microaggressive insults that are being directed at him,” Sue said, referring to the onslaught of slights that President Obama has been subjected to. “[The slights] are subtle, but so powerful in the realm of achievement and education, because they are cumulative, continuing and constant.”
Racial microagressions are the brief and commonplace verbal, non-verbal or environmental interactions experienced by minorities that communicate hostile putdowns.
One famous example, Sue explained, was the compliment gone wrong that came from Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden.
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man,” Biden was quoted by the New York Observer, answering a question about Obama’s popularity during the 2008 presidential election cycle.
With those remarks, Sue believes Biden unintentionally echoed the sentiments of many white Americans who saw “the first” as a silver bullet to societal racism.
“Many white Americans voted for Barack Obama because they perceived him to be an exception to his race,” Sue said. “By voting for him, it allowed them to say, ‘I’m not prejudiced or biased at all.’”
That type of thinking is exactly what 40-year-old graduate student and adjunct New York University literacy professor Tonya Leslie combats, as someone who trains adults going into the teaching professing.
“How do you praise someone and not offend?” Leslie said. “The spirit behind that [remark] might have been positive but didn’t come out that way. How do we have those conversations?”
Leslie agrees with the SOBE survey respondents that society uses a different lens to evaluate black achievement. She believes minorities and non-minorities must work hard to place the focus on one’s individual merits and not the sensationalism of the achievement itself.
“I was taught you have to be twice as good [as white Americans] and work twice as hard,” Leslie said of her upbringing. “It’s almost an interrogation. As a grad student, I experience [racial scrutiny] really strongly. But it’s part of the work that I do, talking about being culturally responsive so that we do not bruise one another.”
Sue says it’s nearly impossible for any person of color to avoid being bruised by racial microaggression, because it occurs from birth and throughout adulthood.
“It’s important to highlight that this is different from the ordinary putdowns we experience in our everyday lives,” Sue said. “These are based on race. They remind people that they are second class citizens. They remind them of experiences of the Japanese internment camps, or of black slavery, or of the Holocaust.”
Withstanding the unintentional racial insults requires that any person of color, whether he or she is president of the United States or a school child, employ a support system of people who will validate their experience and their worldview.
“Some people of color have been able to show resilience and strength through the adversity they have encountered,” Sue said. “They become immunized to it and they are able to moderate the harmful impact. That’s one of the things that some of our studies are revealing.”
Carlyle Leach, founder and former principal of the School for Legal Studies in Brooklyn, New York, said his most rewarding work has been in giving minority students the tools to see their worth outside of those daily slights from the larger community.
“If we don’t deal with our African American youth and show them the way, who will?” said the 60-year-old Leach, also the first director of the Junior Scholars Program at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood. “If you’re not writing your own history, someone else can erase you out of it.”
As an author, that’s been Smith’s life work.
“There will always be black firsts,” Smith said. “It’s the make up of the person that determines whether they overcome. We can be too hard on ourselves. We can also be too proud of ourselves.”
Any true achiever, Smith believes, isn’t tripped up too many times along the way, before they learn how to shut out the attacks against their integrity, as Sue’s research suggests is true.