“People say things joking around that they really mean.”
My dad said this to me all throughout my child. Apparently, soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney never got this memo.
According to him and his surrogates, Romney’s off-color comments about never having his birthplace, his identity, his nationality questioned was merely a joke – poking fun at President Obama’s ongoing tragicomedy regarding his birthplace, his identity, his nationality.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, RNC Chair, Reince Preibus called it a “moment of levity” and he can’t fathom why anyone would read and/or interpret Romney’s comments as anything other than a gentle ribbing of this nation’s first black president. Hardball’s host, Chris Matthews was quick to take Preibus to task, asserting the seriousness of the racialized nature of the “birther” movement and continuous attempts by a cast of characters from Donald Trump to the Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, to an assortment of Republican lawmakers, who are politically committed to “othering” Barack Obama.
“Othering” is a term that has been floated about in the media of late, mostly because of the influx of academics appearing on cable news networks in this election season, but also because the term adeptly captures the collection of racial, national, and religious discourses designed to attack the president’s place as “one of us.” What has often been left out in the sound bite definitions of “othering” is that it is not simply about making racist, nationalist, and/or otherwise bigoted comments to ostracize an individual or group of individuals.
Othering is also about the ways in which those bigoted/biased comments are also used in order to define/redefine the identity of the subject. That is, Romney’s ‘joke’ is as much about his need to define himself (as one of us – whatever that means) as it is about ‘poking fun’ at the repeated attempts by some to paint the president as either Muslim, Kenyan – or both. Keep in mind here that Muslim Americans and Kenyan Americans do actually exist in real life.
All of this is to say nothing of the fact that jokes are the spinal cord of racial animus in our country – both historically and in the current Obama-era moment. People say things joking around that they really mean. And too many racial jokes or racialized jokes are just that – mean. Romney’s joke about not having to verify his birthplace/nationality, is essentially a joke about the privilege to not show his papers – birth certificate or taxes. It has a dark immediate history in birther attacks and their willful refusal to accept the facts of President Obama’s identity, but it also captures the longer arc of history where people of color in this country have had to craft origami models of their IDs in order to navigate these United States without undo harassment by the state.
Racism in the 21st Century, broadly speaking, aside from discrimination and systemic bias, is also very much about the inherent suspicion directed at certain groups of people. That a presidential candidate would delve into these problematic discourses is not funny at all.
Those very same people who would find Romney’s comments to be funny also take very seriously the meaning of the joke itself — Romney is white, male and born in the great state of Michigan, in the good ole U.S. of A. Barack Obama, is not. He is something else – something “other” than what all of the other past presidents of these United States were and are. He is an American black man.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson