Michael Jeffries on the Cultural Significance of President Obama

Michael Jeffries on the Cultural Significance of President Obama

Wellesley College News
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

New Book by Wellesley American Studies Professor Tackles Race in America

Michael Jeffries, Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Assistant Professor of American Studies, studies race, gender, politics, identity, and popular culture. His new book, Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America, looks at how race relies on other social forces, like gender and class, for its meaning and impact.

The book features discussions of race and nationhood, discourses of “biracialism” and Obama’s mixed heritage, the purported emergence of a “post-racial society,” and popular symbols of Michelle Obama as a modern black woman; we asked him about some of those themes.

Your book focuses on “an understanding of how race works in America” rather than emphasizing the details of President Obama’s political career; why is it important for the reader to think about the topic this way?

We need to move away from “great man” or “great woman” explanations for historical change. President Obama is a supremely talented politician, and an important thinker and speaker in many ways, but he operates within all sorts of constraints. Likewise, our impressions of the president are constrained by our cultural context—the language we use, the images we see, and the stories that are amplified by media outlets become the raw material for building our own personal models of Barack Obama. The way we talk and think about race is obviously a major factor in all this, but race is such a contentious and taboo topic that racial discussion is fraught with missteps and misunderstandings. The only way to get a grip on Obama-mania and effectively counteract racism is to force ourselves to think about race in concert with other ideas, like class and gender…

Read the entire interview here.

Tags: , , ,