My reaction to Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize elicited some decidedly "un-peaceful" responses from my friends and followers on social networking and blog sites.
As readers here at The Notion can attest -whether with glee or disdain-I have been an ardent supporter of President Obama. Despite some disagreements, I have urged the left to view this administration as an opportunity for genuine change and to regard it as friendly to progressive aims. But my response to the Nobel Peace Prize announcement was not particularly celebratory.
Yesterday I indulged in some Nobel Prize humor on Twitter. "Maybe Obama was awarded the NPP because he didn’t smack Joe Wilson." I also made a joke on Politico.com "Maybe Kanye West will show up and grab the mic in protest."
I criticized the idea of awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to a president whose short presidency has included drone attacks with devastating civilian causalities, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and a painfully slow response to the basic human rights issues facing LGBT communities. I respect the President’s accomplishments in diplomacy but believed these issues were relevant to assessing his record on peace.
The criticisms were not meant as a sweeping indictment of President Obama’s administration, nor do they indicate my faltering support. I was using the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize award to ask what the international community recognizes as indicative of a broad commitment to peace.
I was stunned by the swift and angry responses from dozens of readers, followers, and friends. Some suggested I was a "hater." Others felt my jovial tone was disrespectful of the President. Several fretted that conservatives would justify further attacks on President Obama using my words. I have disagreed with and criticized Obama as both a candidate and president before, but I have never elicited this kind of anxiety from readers.
In these responses, I detected a very particular American racial anxiety. Let’s call it the "Affirmative Action Dilemma." Beginning in the 1980s, conservatives, led by African American thinkers like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, began to argue that affirmative action has a deleterious psychological impact on African Americans. Affirmative action, they lamented, leads black people to always wonder if their success is real, deserved, and meritorious, or simply illusory, unearned, and political. Yesterday’s anxiety about my critique of the Nobel Peace Prize Award appeared to echo these worries. Some felt that by raising my disagreement I was implying President Obama did not deserve the prize, and that politics, not merit, was responsible for the committee’s decision.
I heard the unspoken Affirmative Action Dilemma lurking. "Please professor, don’t make them think we have things we didn’t earn"
Generally the response to affirmative action anxiety is to list all of the individual’s accomplishments and thereby prove the individual is actually worthy of the award or position. Most Obama faithful pursued this tactic yesterday. Many demanded that I tune into The Rachel Maddow Show and several sent me lists of all President Obama’s accomplishments in the area of diplomacy. Uh…ok, but that strategy is limited. (Particularly because it doesn’t really negate the whole two wars, drone attacks thing)
I think a more effective counter to the Affirmative Action Dilemma is a little honesty about the wages of whiteness.
I am an affirmative action baby (born in 1973), and I have never felt any dilemma about the policy. I did not sit in my college classroom fretting about whether my white peers thought I deserved to be studying beside them. I have never lost a night of sleep worrying about my colleagues who regard my tenured position at Princeton University as a policy decision, rather than a scholarly accomplishment. This is not because I am so sure of my personal worthiness- that ebbs and flows-rather my general lack of affirmative action anxiety is derived from my clear sense of the continuing reality of white privilege.
White privilege is the bundle of unearned advantages accessible to white people in America. White privilege is not equivalent to racial prejudice. All whites share certain element of racial privilege regardless of their political or racial views. This does not mean that life is perfect for all white people. I was raised by a single, white mother, so I certainly know that white American face real barriers and struggles based on class, opportunity, gender, education, sexuality, and other cross-cutting identities. But white privilege exists and has powerful consequences. This does not mean that race is more important than socioeconomic class. It does mean that in the United States there is a preferential option for whiteness, and this preference means racial privilege produces a certain wage of whiteness.
Simply put, not everything that white people have was earned by merit. Some was, some was not. Some of the wealth, access, prizes, goodies, and political power currently held by white people are ill gotten gains from centuries of accumulated white privilege. Knowing this makes me a lot more relaxed about having to prove that I "deserve" every success, acknowledgement, or position I have.
I encourage my friends and readers to calm down a little about having to prove Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The point is that he has it now. I, for one, have been doing a little "impeach that suckers" dance ever since I heard. This one is in the history books. No turning back.
Rather than give into the racial anxiety to prove the President’s worthiness let’s celebrate that President Obama responded to the prize with humility and grace.
"I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. These challenges won’t all be met during my presidency, or even my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met so long as it’s recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone."
This is an instructive response for everyone who experiences the benefits of privilege and access. Imagine how different our world would be if, instead of proving that we deserved our prizes and positions, we chose to earn them through the service we offer our fellow man.