As the nation prepares to mark the end of the four-year term of Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency, (or the beginning of a new term), we will once again be subjected to endless discussion about the significance of the nation’s first non-white president. For many African-Americans, this may be a time to again celebrate the achievement of one of their own. As a person of color, I would like to offer a word of advice on why it might be best to table such inclinations.
Clinging to an overly strong racial, ethnic or national identity is akin to addiction. It is a psychological crutch that allegedly bolsters “self-esteem” and promises to confer some a sort of “biological prestige.” But in reality, it creates barriers to our ability to relate to those outside our group in profound and insidious ways. In this increasingly globalized and interconnected world, clannishness will likely produce only more conflict.
We all must be careful not to lean on the laurels of our kinfolk. Pride can come only from individual achievement and accomplishment, not from being born into any particular tribe. As a native Jamaican, I am well-aware of the success many of my fellow countrymen have enjoyed–especially those who have immigrated to the United States. The traits they attribute to this success – resilience, strong work ethic, dignity and a “don’t-take-crap-from-nobody” attitude – are indeed pronounced for many of my countrymen. But then again, aren’t they also cited as positive personal traits of virtually every other ethnic group?
Many of my fellow Jamaicans bask in the achievement of Usain Bolt’s achievements of setting the record as the world’s fastest runner. Perhaps they feel this provides some measure of national prestige. In reality, it has nothing to do any individual Jamaican and to the extent a person thinks it does is likely to diminish their capacity for personal growth. We should be proud of human achievements, period—wherever we find them in the human community.
As a huge fan of Barack Obama, I was filled with pride at his election. But that pride flowed not from the similarity of our skin tones. Rather it was in the capacity of the people of the United States to move beyond its traditional limitations, to show the world that the U.S. has the ability continually renew itself and fully abide by the fundamental principles of its constitution.
It was, first and foremost, rational pride I felt in America and in the collective ability of a majority of voters to transcend its own clannish ways in choosing a new leader to take us forward. It is America and the American people that deserve praise for executing this extraordinary historic phenomenon. Perhaps the crowning irony came when Obama himself observed that it was easier for him to be elected president in the U.S. than it would have been in his father’s native Kenya, as his father did not come from the right tribe.
It was a collective achievement that proved itself eminently worthy of emulation. Perhaps this realization on the part of the American people has made other noteworthy political firsts possible with minimal fanfare. For example, the recent election of Annise Parker as the first openly gay mayor of Houston seems to have occurred without too much fuss among any group.
It is understandable that people flock to their own in a society as historically race- obsessed as America. You are implicated in the achievements and failures of members of your group when you are a minority. Yet tribalism goes awry when we imbue morally neutral features of a person like race, ethnicity and nationality with moral significance.
As we move further into the 21st century, we are seeing globalization spark a resurgence of ethnic, religious and nationalistic pride across the globe. Globalization is perceived as having a leveling effect, and I fear that in order to hold on to their particularity, people are going to bolster their tribal identities. To avoid letting these tendencies bring us to a constant state of conflict, we must move beyond the conventions, the binding norms and the oppressive mores of our cultures.