Meeting Obama in the Grocery Aisle

By Matt Stella

"Change is not only coming; change is here. Here in me. It has to do with my President, Barack Obama. This is how I know."
by Matt Stella
On Thursday, November 6th, I was shopping in the grocery store. I was pushing my cart past the white bread, looked up, and saw two tall, well-dressed black men walking toward me, shopping.

Let me give some necessary background on this kind of commonplace moment in my life, and the synaptic and limbic revolution about to occur in my Caucasian cranium. I am white, and I grew up in America. Every day of the 1970s, the play years of my youth, was spent battling and befriending on the stickball macadam, or the touch-football asphalt, or the dodgeball cement with all my best black friends and white friends in the predominantly African-American New Jersey town where I grew up.

Despite my positive racial integration experiences, there was also an ambient racial tension at the time like little embers we would find burning in the soles of our sneakers, left over from the incendiary marches of the late ’60s. The best intentions of my progressive parents could not prevent their kids, or most any kids in this country, from absorbing and storing like a lung, the ash dust and smoke of racist fear and stereotyping that blows secondhand through our streets, schools, TV shows and society.

After leaving my hometown, my 20s were spent in and out of the meeting rooms of various non-profit activist offices, working against racism and for social justice. I could not have explained it at the time, but much of what I was striving to change and "integrate" was the racist still living in my body, segregated from the slick and well spoken, politically correct, progressive ‘me’ in my head.

And now we’re back to the bread aisle. Before November 4th, 2008, when I would pass an African-American person in the store or on the street, if I were to examine the first millisecond, the time it takes to make a fist, I would notice a tight contraction of fear and mistrust occur in my belly. In the moment it takes to register the event consciously, my P.C., Obama-voting brain has already taken over, suppressed the betrayal of the racist gut, and redefined the moment as a non-threat. I cringe to imagine all the energetic insult this has caused, time after time. But on this day, my first time grocery shopping after voting day, I had an entirely different experience. When I passed those two black guys, in that first unconscious millisecond, my body’s reaction was to feel excited! Happy! A surprise treat! "My leader! My savior!" my body said.

How could this quantum leap in racial healing have happened? I have worked in different ways against racism in the world and in myself for at least 21 of my 41 years. And basically overnight, one ecstatic Obama-victory night, these brand new, positive racial associations have penetrated deeper into by bones and lungs than anything before. And if this is happening to me, then what is this doing for all the young children of color who now have a role model in the highest position of social rank? Could this serve as a magic inoculation to internalized racism? I know this shift is not the end of unconscious racism in me-but it’s a huge and promising step forward.

I bumped into my friend Maria in the same grocery store the next day. Unsolicited, the first thing she said was "How about Obama winning! I’m still high from it! This is going to change the way we see the ‘other’ in this country."

Later I asked her what she meant. Maria is an incredibly bright, highly educated woman who spent her adult identity-formation years in the United States, but was born and raised in Colombia. "I am someone who has traditionally been ‘othered’ here," she said. She articulated how people other than the white mainstream are fit into limited and stereotyped roles. Black men are seen or expected to be sports figures, rap artists and musicians, or criminals, for example. Despite the incredible successes of many African-Americans, to now actually have a black man with great personal integrity and aplomb, visible in the highest elected position in the land sends a powerful message demonstrating a new model and possibilities. "This is a call and response phenomenon," Maria said. "I hear a call, and I hear responses. I am responding. I’m not only looking upward, but also looking inward for change. I am already putting higher goals for myself, how I behave, what I can do."

Amen, Maria. Me too, amen. 

Matt Stella is a psychotherapist with Redrock Counseling in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on December 1, 2008.