MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews put his proverbial foot in his mouth last week following President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address.
The world was watching President Obama, the man previously with the Midas touch. He had come under fire from many in the country, including his own party, with the Democrats losing the Senate seat in Massachusetts, thereby losing power in the Senate. President Obama's poll numbers were also in decline, suggesting that citizens were losing faith in his ability to turn the country around.
I have to admit that I wasn't looking forward to watching the address because I wasn't interested in hearing him do more of the same -- accept all of the responsibility for the problems in the country that preceded him, support his lame party that does not support him and not acknowledge that the only bipartisanship that the Democrats and Republicans have is to collectively work against him.
Imagine my surprise when President Obama came out swinging, taking everyone to task and demanding that we get over ourselves in order to create the change that is needed to move this country forward. Gone was the man who seemed to be slightly off of his game, at least by all media accounts; in his place, stood the president of the United States who had finally realized his power and concretely stated that he would use it to do what is necessary for this country.
I like tough talk, so my inner Republican stood up and clapped, even if the real Republicans tried hard not to clap in opposition to his policies.
Fast-forward to Chris Matthews, who was so visibly excited about the president's speech because -- say what you will about President Obama, but -- the man can deliver a speech like few others. He has the ability to pull you in, connect and have you motivated to go out and change the world.
Matthews caught the bug and looked like he could barely contain himself. He was jovial and energetic as he ran back the plays of the actual address. Matthews, who can be a loudmouth, usually goes hard after folks, especially this president, so I waited for him to pounce; yet he didn't.
What Matthews did do was make one of the craziest public statements that I've heard in a long time: The address was so good that he forgot that President Obama was black. REWIND. Take the needle off of the record. Come again? President Obama's speech was so good that he forgot that he was black? Wow (in my Mos Def voice). In 1980s terms, I burst out laughing ... and in today's terms I was LMFAO.
Matthews dared say what so many people think, and while he tried to clean it up almost immediately, the words had landed. In the words of the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, I then remembered that Chris Matthews is white. This is what happens when blacks and whites, or people of any race or ethnicity, get together. Someone says something crazy that reminds people of who that person is and who they think the other person is; in this case, President Obama is a brother and Chris Matthews is a bro.
But seriously, this is something that happens quite often to black people -- folks get comfortable with you, start thinking you're one of them and say something completely off the wall that may or may not be insulting. Nine times out of 10, it is insulting.
It's like when your non-black friends think they're paying you a compliment by saying you're not really black, which I've had happen multiple times in my life. Why not? You're articulate, hard-working, accomplished and you get along with everyone regardless of race. While that is complimentary, what sucks is that I do see race -- mostly because people constantly remind me by making lame statements like that.
Just because I'm the only black person that you know doesn't mean that you know black people. You just know me ... just like I know you. Just because we're friends doesn't mean that racism doesn't exist, nor does it mean that you get to tell me that I can forget about being black when I deal with it every day. I can't forget it because society and you won't let me; because at some point you're going to unintentionally say something offensive that's going to remind me that you're white.
And there's the rub in why it can be hard for people to truly connect: We have to constantly "unlearn" or "unthink" racist or stereotypical thoughts about each other. When we get comfortable, we say things that are hurtful or polarizing. I believe that Matthews didn't mean any harm; in his excitement, he said something stupid. Even in his backtracking, he doesn't realize the privilege that he has in this world to not see race.
I tried it. It's impossible when you're black because someone like Matthews, in multiple settings, will always remind you that you are. Sorry Chris, you cannot make black, history. In fact, during Black History Month, let's try not to make black, history -- let's celebrate a culture that is rich and vibrant and so much more than what many people think. Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College and writes the blog Tune N (http://nsengaburton.wordpress.com), which examines popular culture through the lens of race, class, gender and sexuality.