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Fast Start: Elephant in the room

Rochester Business Journal
February 15, 2013

Stephanie Li, associate professor of English, University of Rochester

Your third and most recent book, “Signifying Without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama,” argues that American society is not in a colorblind, “post-racial” era as is generally accepted. Instead we’re in an uneasy time in which public discourse demands that race be seen but not heard.  
What do you mean by this?
Americans continue to be uneasy when talking about race. While race defines many basic aspects of society (housing, education, employment, health care, etc.), there is general reluctance to directly confront how race is strongly correlated with poverty and diminished social opportunities.
Following the election of President Obama, the country was in a self-congratulatory mood and we began to hear talk of a “post-racial America.” Presumably, if a black man can become president, then race presents no barrier to achievement.
Such conclusions are profoundly misguided because they fail to consider Obama’s exceptional candidacy and how racism operates in more insidious and covert ways than ever before. Moreover, Obama has always had to tread very carefully when discussing racial matters.
Could you give an example?
Every time racial issues arise, he responds by not directly speaking about race. To do so racializes him in a way that makes Americans and the media deeply uncomfortable.
In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, Obama said that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. Here Obama is invoking race without using words like “race,” “black” or “racial profiling.” It’s subtle but incredibly powerful because Obama is also suggesting that his connection to Martin is familial. He uses a kind of racially coded rhetoric, what Toni Morrison calls “race-specific, race-free language.”
In contrast, in his first year as president, Obama was asked to respond to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., another incident involving racial profiling. Obama was lambasted for making a direct reference to his personal experiences of being racially profiled. That’s a danger point; Americans want a black president, but not a president who talks about what it’s like to actually be black.
Do non-minority Americans do the same thing?
Unfortunately, most often when white Americans use “race-specific, race-free language,” it’s usually done toward racist ends.
Newt Gingrich described Obama as our “welfare or entertainment president” and commented about how he’s always playing basketball and not paying attention to national issues. These are racially loaded comments that reinforce negative stereotypes about African Americans. Like Obama, he’s not using words like “race” or “black,” but tropes like welfare, entertainment and basketball are fraught with racial meaning.
How does your own unique heritage come into play in your work?
I’m the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Chinese-American father. For me, difference is a given and it can be difficult to translate my personal experiences into America’s racial language, since I don’t fit into a typical category. I think that’s made me especially attuned to how language reflects assumptions about racial identity.

2/15/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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