Monday, March 26, 2007

Obama, memories, and me

Recent dissection of Barack Obama's youth and his memories of that youth in his book "Dreams from My Father" (see the Chicago Tribune,1,605874.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed), prompted me to think about two of my most significant and influential memories of conversations.

The Chicago Tribune article about Barack Obama states:
"He said he does recall long, soulful talks with the young Obama and that his friend confided his longing and loneliness. But those talks, Kakugawa said, were not about race. 'Not even close,' he said, adding that Obama was dealing with 'some inner turmoil' in those days."

"'But it wasn't a race thing,' he said."
The article goes on to say:
"Some of these discrepancies are typical of childhood memories -- fuzzy in specifics, warped by age, shaped by writerly license."

My own experience suggests that a remembered conversation can be "about" something, even if it was not part of the conversation. Two conversations that I had with friends, about two months apart were extraordinarily influential in shaping my career path. The first of those conversations was "about" the impact of racial/ethnic and cultural differences, the second was "about" the impact of social class.

I know for a fact that race/ethnicity and culture were never even mentioned in the first conversation, yet that is precisely what that conversation was "about." August before my sophomore year in college I gave a party to reunite some friends from high school. Much of the conversation revolved around men and romance (pretty typical of a group of 19 year old women). Two of my friends, blond blue-eyed Betty and raven haired, brown-eyed Debbe, started talking about being attracted to young men who were different from themselves. Betty's affections were drawn to a man a few years older, from South America, and Japanese-American Debbe had been interested in a Caucasian man. Betty was still seeing her young man despite disapproval by her parents, but Debbe explained that after a great deal of thought and some anguish, she had decided dating someone of another race was not worth incurring the disapproval of her parents.

Betty and Debbe's discussion became heated, when Betty suggested that Debbe needed to show some spine and independence, and stop letting her parents decide who she would date. As they argued about this for some time, it was obvious to me, as the observer, that they both thought about this argument in terms of personality and individual preference, but that it was really about racial/ethnic and cultural differences in the way they were raised, and how they thought of themselves in relationship to their families.

As a result of this conversation, I spent the next several years researching racial/ethnic and cultural differences in child raising and identity, especially among Chinese- and Japanese-Americans. I'm sure that my memory of this conversation and what is was about, is entirely different from Betty and Debbe's memory of it -- if they even remember it at all.

The second remembered conversation is from just two months later, October in my sophomore year. I was stuck in Cleveland Hopkins Airport trying to stand-by for flights to Washington, D.C., and I ran into a fellow student, Ivory, also having difficulty getting on a flight. [I always traveled stand-by, but Ivory was the victim of flight cancellations due to striking air line employees).

I had something of a crush on Ivory, and knowing what I was like back then, I could be more than a little obnoxious to the objects of my affections. So in retrospect, it was kind of him to take the time to talk with me while we both waited to catch a flight. We conversed for nearly five hours stretched out over much of the day. Most of what we talked about is lost to memory. But two things about the conversation remained with me clearly. The first was that he was desperately unhappy at Oberlin College. The second was that at least some of that unhappiness derived from the mismatch between his family's view of purpose of a college education and the view held by the faculty and most of the students at Oberlin.

Ivory's family, like my own, sent him to college to become a teacher. To his parents, like mine, college was an instrument for obtaining a decent job. But the ethos at Oberlin College, in that day, was quite different. Having an instrumental approach to education was frowned upon -- unless it was as an instrument of social change. College was for intellectual, artistic and personal discovery. God forbid that any Oberlin student should show any concern for the pecuniary benefits of education [unlike the Commonwealth of Kentucky today that has signs saying "education pays" posted on every state vehicle and along the road sides].

Ivory expressed great anguish, and a sense of being rent in two, by the differing expectations of family and college community. Although I did not experience the pain Ivory did over this clash of values, I was very much aware of the disparity between my family's views about education and the views of my professors and friends at Oberlin.

The conversation stayed with me because I felt honored to have been the recipient of such confidences, and because it resonated with my own experiences. By the time I reached graduate school (5 years later) I remembered this as a discussion about social class, and the pain and bewilderment faced by working class students in an upper middle class environment. However, in retrospect, I cannot honestly say that either Ivory or myself spoke about social class at the time we had the conversation. Perhaps we did. Perhaps we did not. That does not make it any less "about" class.

The memory of this conversation, about social class, heavily influenced my work as a sociologist. Almost everything I have done has been in some way or another "about" social class, and the millions of ways that class affects our lives.

So who is really to say, just because Senator Obama's friend "Ray" (Kakugawa) does not remember Barack talking about race, does not mean that the pain he expressed at the time did not have a racial component. Sometimes it takes years to gain perspective on our pasts and know why it really was that we suffered.

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