“Culturally, He Isn’t”

Apr 21 2011 @ 4:52pm

A blogger occasionally 24Cover-popup majority of Americans don't qualify either. Obviously, I don't consider this a negative. Obama is also bi-racial, instantly putting him in a relatively (if decreasingly) rare cultural position. And I think it's overly defensive to insist that Obama is in no way different than most Americans. He is. His formative years were spent shuttling between Indonesia and Hawaii, missing his Kenyan father. You cannot read "Dreams From My Father" without intuiting a very distinctive man in the history of the American presidency. I think it's a big advantage especially in foreign policy. And I think it's a transformative moment in the evolution of America – a multicultural, multiracial experiment in democracy that has a president that reflects its future.

And then you read a beautifully crafted piece like Janny Scott's profile of Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, and you see again how Obama is a human kaleidoscope. Look at him from a variety of angles, and it's almost as much a Rorschach test for you as for Obama himself. Here's one take on the president's extraordinary composure while being subjected to some of the more enraging racial (and often racist) scrutiny one can imagine. I know at some point, in a similar situation, I would have snapped. He never has. How has he done this? Well, this helps:

After lunch, the group took a walk, with [nine-year-old] Barry running ahead. A flock of Indonesian children began lobbing rocks in his direction. They ducked behind a wall and shouted racial epithets. He seemed unfazed, dancing around as though playing dodge ball “with unseen players,” [American ex-pat Elizabeth] Bryant said. Ann did not react. Assuming she must not have understood the words, Bryant offered to intervene. “No, he’s O.K.,” Ann said. “He’s used to it.”

And Roger Ailes thought he could race-bait him by running round-the-clock videos of a snippet from Jeremiah Wright! Then this:

“We were floored that she’d bring a half-black child to Indonesia, knowing the disrespect they have for blacks,” Bryant said. At the same time, she admired Ann for teaching her boy to be fearless. A child in Indonesia needed to be raised that way — for self-preservation, Bryant decided. Ann also seemed to be teaching Barry respect. He had all the politeness that Indonesian children displayed toward their parents. He seemed to be learning Indonesian ways.

“I think this is one reason he’s so halus,” Bryant said of the pres­ident, using the Indonesian adjective that means “polite, refined, or courteous,” referring to qualities some see as distinctively Javanese. “He has the manners of Asians and the ways of Americans — being halus, being patient, calm, a good listener. If you’re not a good listener in Indonesia, you’d better leave.”

I understand him a little better. This context matters in assessing this president. Especially when you see it as an asset rather than a marker of otherness.

(Photo: from the NYT courtesy of Ann Dunham's friends and family.)