In My Words: Bitter taste of birtherism lingers after 2016 election
Naeemah Clark, associate professor of communications, recently published a column in regional newspapers about how birtherism claims continue to impact minorities.
By Naeemah Clark, associate professor of communications
Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008, I went to the grocery store. I remember it clearly.
Barack Obama had just been elected president the night before and I remember walking up and down the aisles with a newfound pride that I didn’t know I was lacking. At the checkout line, I had 12 items and the white male behind me had a gallon of milk. In a pre-Obama shopping excursion, I would have gestured to let the man go in front of me, BUT NOT IN AN OBAMA AMERICA, buddy. Oh, no. I was going to stand proudly with my 12 items as a way to say, “I won’t take a backseat ever again.”
Yes, I know how ridiculous all of this sounds, but it’s true. After the first African-American man was elected president, my mindset of who I was in this country changed. And it was surprising.
I was prideful, confident, self-assured. Apparently, in my more than three decades of life I was waiting for this moment. I didn’t realize it, but I was waiting for a groundswell to tell me that I was OK where I was. I was valued and legitimate.
In a country of all races and backgrounds, the majority of the public thought I could be and do anything. So, that day, at the BiLo, I was going to keep my place in line. I wasn’t going to cut the line or try to use coupons I didn’t really have the items for, but I wasn’t going to step aside from my rightful place.
It wasn’t just that the president had the same skin color as I did. It was that he believed in what I believed in. He believed in equity and social justice for women, people of color, the sick and immigrants. He was smart and wasn’t afraid to show it even though it meant that people may think him arrogant. He bragged that his wife was more than his equal—she ruled the roost and that allowed him to be an even better man.
His parents, like my own, had given him a Muslim name and he carried it with the pride he intended. Yes, President Obama was, to me, a living breathing embodiment of the America where I wanted to live and knew I could thrive.
His arrival was drinking from a cool glass of water on a hot day. I didn’t know how parched I was.
Almost immediately, claims of his illegitimacy surfaced. Chiefly, his Muslim name and African ancestry were being used to make him an “other” and a thief of the democratic process. And an iconic real estate developer from Manhattan joined in the calls of illegitimacy. No, he didn’t start it, but he added a gold-plated spotlight to it. He said he sent investigators to Hawaii and they were finding “amazing things.” Amazing how these things never surfaced.
Even when forced to admit he fueled an untrue fire, he didn’t apologize for or even truly acknowledge it. Instead, he took a victory lap stating that America should thank him for forcing President Obama to show his birth certificate. In short, he should be applauded for making the most powerful man in the world show his papers as if he were a runaway slave.
On Nov. 9, 2016, I woke up with news that that iconic real estate developer was elected the President of the United States. And that water that once slaked my thirst was not taken away, but something bitter had been added to it. It was so distasteful that it made my heart and mind ache. Even though the real estate developer made fun of a disabled reporter (It’s on tape!), joked about sexual assault, and refused to disclose his taxes (he’s smart!), it was the public endorsement of birtherism that was most disappointing to me.
Post-election, I have talked to dozens who voted for him and read their social media posts as they proudly stated they cast their ballot for him in spite of his racist, misogynist, or xenophobic values. And I’m sure they believe that they aren’t racist, misogynist, or xenophobic. Still I struggle with their declarations.
You see, much like I was emboldened at the BiLo checkout counter to keep my rightful place in line, I now fear that the person behind me is emboldened to announce on the store’s public address system that I have no business being in that line or even in the store. Someone could move ahead in the line by demanding that I be removed for stealing apples, though it’s an absurd notion.
What’s to stop that from happening? More than 40 million Americans were not offended enough by birtherism to stop them from voting for its chief proponent.
I now know that more than 40 million Americans will stand by while my identity is questioned or delegitimized. The very core of what excited me about being a part of this America—acknowledgment that I belong—is up for debate. And that is why the bitter taste lingers.