Phantom Subtext (2)
August 05, 2008
Bizarre allegations of subtextual racism have been noted here before, but this one, spotted by Darleen at Protein Wisdom, is, well, stunning. A flip Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chozick on Barack Obama’s slight build has driven Slate’s Timothy Noah to heights of righteous umbrage:
…any discussion of Obama's ‘skinniness’ and its impact on the typical American voter can’t avoid being interpreted as a coded discussion of race.
Can’t it be avoided, even among sane people?
Chozick insists that she didn't intend her playful feature about Obama’s physique as potential electoral liability to carry any racial subtext. “I can't even respond to that,” she told me. “That’s ridiculous.” […] Bob Christie, Dow Jones’ vice president of communications, phoned me in a flash to reaffirm that message. I believe Chozick and Christie when they say that the Journal never intended skinniness to serve as a proxy for race… But I firmly disagree that a racial reading of Chozick’s story is “ridiculous,” and I would counter that any failure on Chozick’s part to recognize such is just a wee bit clueless. […]
When white people are invited to think about Obama’s physical appearance, the principal attribute they’re likely to dwell on is his dark skin. Consequently, any reference to Obama’s other physical attributes can’t help coming off as a coy walk around the barn. […] Chozick wasn’t asking (and, I feel sure, would never ask) whether Americans might think Obama’s hair was too kinky or his nose too broad. But it doesn't matter. The sad fact is that any discussion of Obama’s physical appearance is going to remind white people of the physical characteristic that’s most on their minds.
Noah’s determination to detect some lurking racist intent is a tad convoluted and, it seems to me, positively neurotic. Notice how Noah has to insinuate what Chozick really meant, or what she would supposedly be taken to mean, even though he can’t find any of Chozick’s own words to support that insinuation: “Would you want a whole family of skinny people to move in next-door?” Those are Noah’s words, not Chozick’s, and this substitution is done repeatedly. In effect, he’s an indignant ventriloquist. It’s rather like slipping a whoopee cushion on someone’s chair and then looking shocked by the subsequent rasping noise. And, it has to be said, Obama is remarkably thin as presidential candidates go. In fact, the thinness of his neck (rather than its colour) was the thing that caught my attention when I first saw him on TV. It’s just a neck too thin for television. Whether thinness of neck has any relevance to being president, or indeed being black, I really couldn’t say.