All or Nothing

by Kira Hudson Banks
Assistant Professor of Psychology, Illinois Wesleyan University

Reaction to Powell’s Endorsement of Obama Shows False Dichotomy on Race

By Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University

Race matters, but given recent events, it’s also important to be clear that it is not “everything.” It seems that our default is to claim colorblindness or name race as the cause and cure. The dichotomy that race means nothing at all or drives one’s every move is false. In order to be an inclusive society, we must recognize what an individual’s race and ethnicity might bring, while at the same time connecting with what is common among us.

Colin Powell has the right to break with the Republican Party without it being attributed to his race. When Colin Powell was in lockstep with the Republican Party, he was “a fine American.” His race didn’t matter. However, when he breaks from the party he must have done so because of his race — never mind the thoughtful critique, which prefaced his announcement. Seriously, Powell could have made the same comments and ended with supporting McCain, and there would have been no mention of his race in the post-hoc analyses.

Voters in western Pennsylvania have the right to support McCain without being considered racists or rednecks, as Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha (D-Johnstown) referred to his constituents in recent days. If we are willing to be honest with ourselves, all areas of our country have histories, which include bigotry. Again, the us/them, right/wrong dichotomy is limiting. No wonder, as a country, we continue to grapple with how to truly become a multicultural society.

Until we are willing to recognize racial and ethnic identity as an important yet not all-encompassing part of peoples’ lives and motivations, we will remain trapped in this dichotomy. Identities are complex. Think about your own experiences that have shaped you. It wasn’t just one aspect of your identity. How offended would you be if every move you made were attributed to your class? Religion? Or gender? “That’s not ALL of who I am!” you would shout. So why, then, are we intent on pigeonholing others? One answer is that it’s easy. Another is that we are too scared to really get to know the “other” to be equipped to look beyond the label. Perhaps Obama’s race was one factor among the many that Powell weighed. Perhaps the same is true for some voters in Pennsylvania, as Murtha suggests. My assertion is that we cannot immediately vilify them if it is, nor assume that race is the only factor at play.

It makes sense why some whites fear people of color in positions of power if the assumption is that one can only act in the interest of one’s racial or ethnic group. If that were the case, then men would only lead for the betterment of men, and the rich only to further promote the interest of the rich. We have examples in our history that suggest we have the capacity to lead beyond our group memberships. Powell got it right when he discussed the inherent falsehood of some Republicans’ attempt to generate fear and mistrust of Obama based on his Muslim heritage. Powell’s response was poignant in that he stated, “The correct answer is that he is not a Muslim…. But the really right answer is, ‘what if he is?'” The insinuation itself is amiss in that it capitalizes on our fear of difference. It suggests it would be dangerous and scary if a Muslim ran our nation, because (fill in the blank). As if that person’s faith would rule every decision and those outside of the faith would be persecuted. Were all non-Catholics persecuted after Kennedy bucked the trend of Protestant presidents? No. So why should we make such false assumptions now that we are possibly on the precipice of another change?

Inclusiveness means not only accepting people along with their differences. It means recognizing that all motivation does not come from one aspect of who they are. It means moving beyond dichotomous thinking to complexity. We can’t invoke race when it is convenient and ignore it when it’s a nuisance. While these dynamics are severely heightened during our election season within a two-party system, I believe they are partly responsible for why many find it difficult to envision a diverse and inclusive society.

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