Even Barack’s cousin says he could do better

Published 8:40 am Thursday, July 8, 2010

In the days since I suggested that President Obama’s rhetorical style mimics feminine tropes, I’ve been informed of the following:

One, a black man cannot show anger in public lest he be considered an Angry Black Man.

Two, to suggest that a black man has any feminine characteristics, even when framed as an “evolutionary achievement,” is to emasculate and reduce him to a figure from Jim Crow days.

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These were the two most common complaints I heard in the column’s wake. Some of those who wrote were polite, self-identifying African-Americans who sort of agreed with my point but wanted to help me see things a different way. Others weren’t so civil.

Do I think people are too sensitive? Yes. Do I think I may have overstepped the line? No. It’s a column, not a dissertation. And my thesis, bouncing off the notion that Bill Clinton was the first black president, is serious only if you really think Clinton is black.

But I also recognize that my life experience is different from that of most African-Americans. And that experience allows me both the luxury of seeing people without the lens of race, but also (sometimes) to fail to imagine how people of other backgrounds might interpret my words.

As my Washington Post colleague Jonathan Capehart wrote on the PostPartisan blog — and explained to me in a telephone conversation — black males are held to a different standard than whites. They are practiced in keeping their emotions under wraps. They can’t “go off,” as some have urged Obama to do in response to the Gulf oil spill.

I hadn’t thought of it this way, but I take Jonathan and others at their word that it’s a fact of life for African-American males.

You’ll have to take me at my word when I say that I don’t view Obama exclusively as a black man — no matter what he said on his census form. Not only is he half-white, but also he has managed to transcend skin color, at least from where I sit.

As a sidebar, there’s another reason I don’t see him as only black. He is my cousin. I had intended to save this nugget for a future column, but now seems as good a time as any to brag.

I learned of this surprising family link when a cousin conducting genealogical research contacted me recently: “And by the way, did you know you’re kin to Barack?”

Apparently, we are descended of brothers whose parents — Johann Pieter Straub and Anna Maria Barbara Hoffman — emigrated from Germany to the colonies about 1733. Thus, according to the family grid, Obama and I seem to be eighth cousins once removed.

I am proud to be Obama’s cousin. But that bond doesn’t blind me to his — and our — flaws. In my earlier column, I sought only to offer one possible reason why the president is paying such a high price for his response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

American culture is complicated and gender expectations play an important part. Like it or not, that includes not only our more progressive contemporary thinking about such matters, but also our less progressive history. And together, this mix of ideas forms a minefield that leaders must traverse.

Consider: In the days leading up to the president’s Oval Office address about the Gulf crisis, there was a lot of talk about the “style” of Obama’s response. On MSNBC, Donny Deutsch argued that he “just doesn’t emote.”

Many people seemed to have a hankering for one particular emotion: Not the Bill Clinton “I feel your pain” kind, but the “Take-BP-Behind-The-Woodshed-And-Make-Them-Pay” kind. They wanted an action figure in the hyper-masculine mode, not George W. Bush but Terminator.

In fits and starts, Obama had given it to them. He wanted to know “whose ass to kick,” he told us. He wanted them to “plug the damn hole.” Press secretary Robert Gibbs assured us that in discussions with Obama he, indeed, had “seen rage from him.”

Then the president gave his Oval Office speech. And the collective reaction was, ”That’s it?! Where’s the outrage?!?!”

Obama elected to employ a certain type of rhetoric in the Oval Office that put him in line with feminine rhetorical traditions and at odds with historical precedent and the expectations for his gender. Such a choice ultimately may prove to be a crucial step forward toward a better world. But the backlash against his rhetoric suggests we’re not there yet.

Speaking as a cousin, and a not-so-sensitive columnist-citizen, I’m pulling for him to do better.

Kathleen Parker writes for the Washington Post. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.