Last night I woke up, startled by a b-grade racist dream. It was surreal. But aren’t they all?
The dream began with me walking down a street, and then I’m in a moment where I am making a racist remark racist about Senator Obama. It’s not that my mind doesn’t do all sorts of unpredictable, but rather that this time, something really honorless and vexing leapt out of me. I was shocked and surprised that I had done this. It was the kind of thing where I was left going, wow, I didn’t know I really felt that way. Even more alarming was the apparent fact that somehow Barack was aware of what I’d said! He overheard me, or was omniscient, or I don’t know—it was a dream!! But anyway, it startled me.
The dream quickly cut to the next scene, and I’m kind of floating above my own body, watching myself walk down a hallway, heading to a meeting with the whole Obama Family, like being called to the principal’s office. And just like that, there I am. What a dream!
There’s a lump in my throat, a knot in my stomach. I open a plain door and enter this small sterile square room, like the hospital waiting room they brought me to tell me my father had died, with bland blue vinyl chairs and couches, and I am staring face-to-face Michelle Obama’s father! … Also inside are Barack in left corner in front of me, Michelle to my immediate left, one daughter between them, and the other to the right. Michelle’s father—their girls’ grandfather(!)—is immediately to my right, his face practically in my face, and he’s staring at me with very intense eyes which are saying a lot.
But he says nothing.
Obama looks at me with a silent disappointed consternation. It’s a strong glare, though not entirely a bludgeon. He alternates this look with glances around the room at his family. And clearly Michelle is affronted.
I’ve come there to have my contrition, kind of like Colin Powel so publicly endorsing Obama last week, after selling the world on the Iraq War. I knew I had been cruel—and stupid—felt terrible, and wanted to get on with taking responsibility, admitting my transgression, let them judge me if they will, and attempt to show some honor.
What I had thought I was going to do is to walk in there, say what I had done, apologize, and hope to move on.
However, something about the energy in the room immediately threw me off. It was uncomfortable in that room, and they didn’t know what I was gonna say! Being a parent, I realized that I just couldn’t walk in there and say that stuff! The Obama’s and Mr. Robinson were broadcasting: “How’re you going to handle this one?!” I realize quickly I can’t repeat what I’d just done in front of the kids! How would that be? Adding insult to injury is how that’d be. What kind of example is that?!
So I paused, and reflected, and then something like this came out of my mouth, “I’m really learning how to appreciate people for who they are. I really have a lot to learn about respect and respecting people, and about really deeply caring, and about trusting and feeling deeply safe.” The whole room relaxed. I was so relieved.
Then I got woken up by my baby and the dream was over.
[Anecdotally I’ve discovered how having a child is such a great way to get to remember dreams sleeping through the night is so a thing of the past!]
Upon awakening, I was left with a small sense of guilt, but more strongly a sense of dignity and esteem, in having been present and powerfully responsive.
I told a colleague of mine, Ken Jordan, about this canny dream I had had, soon after that when I was at a retreat in Utah. He said my dream showed me confronting my shadow. And that everyone is having this type of experience right now. It’s happening across the culture. People are being confronted deeply, and their shadow is being confronted. Deeply. Right now. It’s happening all over the place.
That’s when I heard some bells going off inside my head. Suddenly I saw it; The whole country is confronted with their prejudices in this election—both collectively and individually. And we have a choice about how we are going to respond. While the election is not about race, per se, it is an election which nonetheless really draws a line in the sand.
The contrast between these two candidates could not be more clear. Deepak Chopra goes into this when he says that Palin particularly, and the Republican party in general, represents the shadow, while Obama “is calling for us to reach for our higher selves, and frankly, that stirs up hidden reactions of an unsavory kind.” (He follows up with part two, here.)
This time around, no one is going to make the claim that the candidates are just like each other, that’s for sure. And while the difference is way more than skin deep, nonetheless people are going to have an opportunity to make a choice that is deep and personal, a choice with dimensions which goes beyond who becomes president.
Sure, it seems self-evident that plenty of people will look at their ballot and think, “I’d vote for him, but he’s black. “ But I’m guessing that a lot of racist-thinking people will see that thought for what it is, and raise it with a bet that a Senator Obama Presidency would be better for them. I think that at the end of the day, a surprisingly low number of people of any stripes will actually vote against their economic interest this time around. A lot of pundits are mentioning that the polls may lie because people want to lie about their true feelings. But I think something entirely opposite will occur for vast numbers of people: they will surprise themselves. They don’t actually know yet that they are going to vote for Obama. I know, it sounds crazy. While some people won’t admit in advance they’re planning on voting for Obama, other people who had originally thought that his “color” would be the deciding factor, will find themselves “in the voting booth” reflecting …hey, wait a second, he’s black– but so what? He obviously does a better job of standing up for me. So many people are going to have an inner experience of something like, “well I’m either going to go with my prejudice here, or vote about something that’s a little more concrete, like putting food on the table and not blowing up the rest of the world.” People will be going wow, I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m not stupid enough to be able to deny what I see. Much has already been written about this in the press.
Having set their minds to voting for McCain, having told their friends and co-workers, and people they gather with that “Hell yeah, I’m voting for McCain,” I think countless people will meet that moment when they fill in that box, or punch that card, or touch that screen, and they’ll pause, maybe hold their breath, and maybe think about their kids, and their finances, and they’ll vote for Obama. Then they’ll walk away in wonder, scratching their heads, and they’ll chalk it up to well, life’s just confusing, and there’s plenty of things I am conflicted about, so what the hell. Self interest versus small-mindedness. It’s a beautiful, perfect bind, because people like to do things they can feel proud of.
On one level, these candidates offer us a clear choice between past thinking, and a different future. There is just no question about it. On a certain level though, the vote will end up being a referendum on prejudice. And because both of these streams are running concurrently, people will have the equivalent of a perfect storm type of moment, when those for whom it’s useful will be able to rationalize looking beyond their fears and prejudices out of a deeper sense of self interest.
I would go on to conclude by saying that in hindsight, this election will be a life changing, transformative moment for many many people. Regardless of whether Obama wins, people who vote for him after wrestling with their shadow, will come away from the experience of having taken the physical action of making the vote, as people somehow changed. It’s different than a thought, or something spoken of–or even a dream. When you take an action in the real, physical world, it has an imprint on your psyche, your consciousness, and your unconscious. Like a line drawn in the sand, it marks a moment, and a place, where someone did something different than they ever had before. And while many people will meet this moment with variations on surprise, loathing, uncertainty, and conflict, it also sets up an opportunity, if things go well, for them to look back on this in the future and feel proud that they made the change in themselves. Since people love to take credit, if they’re happy about it later, they’ll be sure to be thinking, “I did that.”
In a nutshell, or a voting booth, or a far too easily disqualified mail-in ballot, I entirely don’t think it’s too reductive to say that in a lot of ways, this choice, this election, this year, now, really does boil down to change, hope and inspiration versus racism.
Nonetheless, in order to overcome the voter caging and the traditional “hidden racism” Bradley effect, which could each account for the polls being off by as much as 5%, Obama really needs to come in with closer to 60% of the vote in order to win this. It’s far from over. But, it seems like a pretty good set-up. So I’m crossing my fingers, and I’m guardedly excited about it.
Hope is no more a platitude than racism is just a concept. They are realities. And if ballots and voting have a deeper meaning, then to a large extent this election really seems to be about a choice among these realities. Its consequences will extend far beyond just who becomes the next President. It’s the ultimate reality show, we’re all contestants, and we’ll all take away something from it—whether we’re aware of it or not.
Copyright 2008 Jeff Roth