Obama Needs to Watch His "Self": Reflections of Class in the President's Language
Two years ago, Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, stirred up controversy when he referred to Barack Obama as "articulate," among other ostensibly complimentary comments like "clean." As we argued at the time, the comment was reflective of racist beliefs because
[b]lack dialect is considered to be non-standard English – not merely “different” such as a Boston accent or a Minnesota accent, but normatively less desirable.Even though compared to his immediate predecessor Obama's rhetoric features stellar grammar and mechanics, like most of us, he does not speak perfect English. His errors are reflective of the social class of his upbringing, if not his race.
The non-standard grammar that stands out most prominently is his improper use of pronouns in certain situations. Specifically, he is prone to using "I" when he ought to use "me," as well as placing the reflexive pronoun "myself" in places in a sentence where it is not warranted. These mistakes tend to surface during his extemporaneous remarks rather than in scripted addresses.
Here is an example where he actually makes both mistakes in the span of a few seconds:
Well, President Bush graciously invited Michelle and I to -- to meet with him and First Lady Laura Bush. We are gratified by the invitation. I'm sure that, in addition to taking a tour of the White House, there's going to be a substantive conversation between myself and the president.(Press conference, November 7, 2008, Chicago)These are very common errors amongst American English speakers, particularly working class Americans. Using "I" in place of "me" is likely a result of the widespread backlash against using "me" in the subject of a sentence (e.g., "Me and my brother are going to the game" or "My brother and me are going to the game."). If one does not understand why it is improper to use "me" in that situation, however, the word "me" in and of itself might be seen as a problem word (alongside "ain't," for instance). But when used in the predicate, the correct first person singular pronoun is, of course, "me."
Similarly, the use of the reflexive first person pronoun "myself" is likely a remnant of the same heuristic; if "me" is bad, it's bad, so it should be avoided. Accordingly, rather than saying "She gave advice to Sally and me," a substitute occurs that, in theory, makes the speaker sound as if he or she is more intelligent: "She gave advice to Sally and myself." But reflexive pronouns are only appropriate when the subject and the object are the same person: "I gave a present to myself"; "They had to second guess themselves."
This does not necessarily fit with characteristics of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), sometimes called "Ebonics," though the close interrelationship between race and class in America is important to keep in mind as we analyze this issue. Working class parents often try to instill in their children characteristics (such as grammatical speech) that will make advancement and acceptance into the middle class more likely. As children, we develop our speech patterns in accordance with our environment, in addition to the formal instruction we get in school. When we carry errors into adulthood, it is the result of not learning to correct the mistakes we are socialized into from childhood.
A common characteristic of folks who have moved up to a higher social class is the fear (conscious or otherwise) of being "found out," of not really belonging. Obama's mistakes are likely remnant subconscious efforts from childhood to sound more intelligent. For folks who aspire to a higher social status (or wish to "pass" as being middle class), the language patterns often take the shape of longer-than-necessary sentences and inappropriately complex verb tenses.
For example, a click through daytime television programs that feature (exploit) the troubles and conflicts of working class Americans will quickly reveal evidence to support this claim. A common error, for instance, is the inappropriate use of the pluperfect tense. In response to a question about why he was carrying on an affair, a guy on the hot seat on one of these programs might start by explaining, "What had happened was, I met her at work. . ." when the simpler "I met her at work" would suffice. "I went to the store" becomes "I had gone to the store." Because we equate short sentences with younger, less proficient speakers, it is sometimes assumed that longer, more complex sentences are signifiers of intelligence.
Since "myself" is both longer than "me" and, well, not "me," it is often used as a substitute anytime "me" would otherwise be used. On the other hand, like most speakers who make this mistake, Obama does not always uses these pronouns incorrectly. Here is an example of his appropriate use of the reflexive:
Right now I want to say hello and introduce myself. (Visit with White House press corps, January 22, 2009, Washington, DC)That is, the words "me" and "myself" are not interchangeable for speakers who use them improperly; "myself" is substituted for "me," but not the other way around. Further, it is likely that Obama knows when it is appropriate to use which pronoun. In times when he does not have a lot of time to think about his phrasing, though, he is more likely to make the mistake. Similar to the way we can learn about ourselves in those times when we do not have a chance to let our conscious catch up to our subconscious (see the Implicit Associations work for ways in which this is manifested in stereotypes), these slips allow us to have a glimpse into the authentic Obama -- not who he necessarily wants to project to us, but who he really is.
How, though, can we explain away Obama's errors as merely endearing reflections of his connection to the working class when we refuse to do so for his predecessor? Isn't this simply a case of "Black privilege" or "Bush bashing" by liberals?
Regular TWIR readers understand that blanket claims of reciprocity are fallacies in logic. Context matters. It is acceptable, for instance, for African Americans to use the n-word even though Whites cannot because African Americans do not have a history of using it to oppress, and Whites do. Gay men can refer to each other with a derogatory word, but straight men should not call each other such a name (as an insult) or refer to gay men that way because of the heterosexist power dynamic that is inherent in our culture. On and on. It is not hypocritical to criticize one group for doing something while allowing another to do it if context is taken into consideration. Fairness (justice) is not predicated on equality when there is not equality of power (or opportunity) at work.
President Bush's speaking mistakes are not a reflection of his environment during socialization. He grew up with tremendous privilege in an environment of wealth. There is no question that some of his language choices are a function of the Southern influence (which is unfairly evaluated as unintelligent), but his mispronunciations and confused syntax are not characteristics of the language of his youth. Further, President Bush exhibited no other characteristics that would alert us that he was a working class guy at heart. His public policies and behavior aided the wealthiest Americans (tax cuts) and ignored the suffering of the most vulnerable (Katrina). In short, the only characteristic he exhibits of a working class person is fractured speech.
Obama, on the other hand, is the inverse of Bush: he is working class at his core, but has had to learn to assimilate into the upper class. Ivy League education certainly helps, but old habits are hard to break, particularly at times when there is no opportunity to think through the rules.
As far as we are aware, there is no widespread criticism of Obama on these characteristics -- no attempts to make the errors about his race. Obama's few critics in the first week are more focused on their concern that his policies will be successful and the status quo will be unsettled (which is precisely what Obama has promised). For instance, Rush Limbaugh made news THIS WEEK when he openly wished for Obama to "fail." Lost in some of that discussion with Sean Hannity is a continuation of the "racism is a myth" language from the campaign.
I'll tell you, you know, a lot of people right now just — they're absorbed in the historical nature of this, first black president and so forth. Well, that is wonderful. That's great. But I got over that months ago after he won the election.
I mean, Sean, he is our president now. And he's not black, he's not from Mars, he's not — he's our president, he's a human being. We're a country comprised of human beings that the Democrat Party and the left have attempted to arrange into groups of victims, and that's who he appeals to, and the victims are the people waiting around for some grievance to be resolved.
They're waiting around for something to happen for them, and he is parlaying that. I think the fact that he's African-American, his father was black, to me it's irrelevant. This is the greatest country on earth. We want to keep it that way. It is that way for specific reasons.
We want to make three quick points about this before we wrap up.
How did Limbaugh "get over" the fact that Obama is the first Black president? That suggests that he was happy about it for some period of time. It is certainly the case that many Republicans and McCain supporters were happy that the color line of the White House was broken, but those folks are all sophisticated enough to understand that it was a significant accomplishment. For Limbaugh and Hannity (who have not displayed such sophistication), race never matters at all. Racism is a myth, slavery ended generations ago, and everyone has an equal chance at success in America. If Limbaugh spent any time at all appreciating the achievement, it would indicate that he recognizes that race is still a barrier to success in America.
The equation of being Black with being from Mars typically undervalues the importance of racial barriers to equal participation in American politics. It is a version of "I don't care if they are black, purple or green, I don't see color." There are not purple or green people, and to make such a statement reflects a fundamental insensitivity to the struggle of people of color.
Limbaugh blames progressives for attempting to categorize people. Slaveholders characterized people. Segregationists characterized people. As a result, we now all characterize people. If we ignore those characterizations, we cannot do the work that is necessary to reverse the legacy of those powerful Whites who created systems that continue to oppress. Progressives do not make victims (though they may contribute to a mentality of victimization if the focus is on individuals rather than systems); they work to unmake victims.
This sort of Orwellian double speak is what Americans rejected as they propelled the plain spoken yet eloquent Obama into the White House. Conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham recognize this and have acted accordingly over the past five days. John McCain chastised his Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate for holding up the confirmation of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State saying, "I remind all my colleagues: We had an election. I think the message the American people are sending us now is they want us to work together, and get to work.To which Rush Limbaugh replied, "Well, what had happened was . . ."