Chris Matthews’ blunder following President Obama’s State of the Union Address is by now common knowledge to political junkies. But for those that missed it, Matthews was so enamored with Obama’s speech that, well, he “forgot [the President] was black for an hour:”
It's interesting: he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, 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, I said, wait a minute, he's an African American guy in front of a bunch of other white people. And here he is president of the United States and we've completely forgotten that tonight -- completely forgotten it.
For Matthews, Obama’s speech was significant because, for that moment in time, he was stripped of his “blackness.” Obama wasn’t race-less, per se, but instead no longer black. The faux pas falls under the heading of colorblind ideology—i.e. the idea that racial inequality and division will disappear if we just stop obsessing over racial differences. According to the ideology’s adherents, adopting a “colorblind” outlook—pretending we don’t notice differences in skin pigment—is the pathway to a more equal, democratic civil society.
The problem with this framework in general, and Matthews’ comment in particular, is the effective whitewashing and subsuming of different cultures. In other words, the colorblind rhetoric can only be realized if all races, creeds and colors simply adopt and are assimilated into the dominant white discourse. The ideology of colorblindness doesn’t call for a new, radical framework of, say, American racial identity. No, by contrast, colorblind ideology accepts whiteness as a given from which “others” must assimilate. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues, echoed by G.D. in Postbourgie’s recent Podcast, this failure to investigate whiteness is deeply problematic. Colorblind ideology obfuscates the intersection of race, power, and privilege by accepting the dominant racial identity as the standard from which all other races must acclimate. To accept a “colorblind” framework, therefore, is to accept the superiority and dominance of a singular racial identity.
Still, to defend Matthews ever-so-slightly, I do think his heart was in the right place. Look, the guy never thought he’d see an African-American leading the free world. For Matthews and plenty others of his generation, the idea of a black president was—until last year—unfathomable. So, in some respects, the intent of Matthews comment was to laud the normalization of a black man in a position of power. Which, in all fairness, is pretty remarkable. Just because Chris Matthews failed to introspectively challenge his own entrenched racial identity—no small task, if you ask me—doesn’t mean we should dismiss his astute observation wholesale.
Was Matthews’ commentary racist? Maybe—but only if we accept the sophisticated critique of colorblind ideology. Yet the average white American doesn’t exactly think about racial identity like this on a day-to-day basis. And, perhaps, it is this widespread pattern—not Matthews’ individual blunder—that lies at the root of the problem.