Since Barack Obama became president, I’ve been feeling quite smug. We won. Or to quote our outgoing president: mission accomplished. There’s a temptation for us Obama voters to pat ourselves on the back and revel in our victory, particularly in a college town like Chapel Hill. Living in this liberal microcosm, it’s easy to believe everyone stands behind our new president. We’re still proudly displaying our Obama/ Biden bumper stickers and yard signs, a secret handshake between those of us who made the “right” decision. But as we get cozy by the fire, wrapped in our self-congratulatory cocoons, I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen when this high wears off. It’s no surprise, given that I’m in tobacco country, a paraphrase of the famous Virginia Slims cigarette slogan comes to mind: We’ve come a long way, baby.
But we’ve got a long way to go.
The day after Sarah Palin spoke at the Republican National Convention, I drove 20 minutes down the road to Durham and was shocked to hear a woman talking about how good electing Palin would be for women, even more shocked when I realized she was talking to me. I had barely put my big toe outside of Chapel Hill and here I was, face to face with Conservative America. I laughed self-consciously, hopped in my car and headed back to my protected enclave where I could forget people with such opinions existed. It’s easy to do in this ivory tower, where we openly express our love for Obama because we know we’re all in agreement. (We may travel to other places, but we lead a pretty sheltered existence for all our book learnin’.)
As much as we’d like to ignore it, on the heels of our first black president taking office and celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, racism still runs deep here. My fiancé hears evidence of it regularly on the job site where he works about 30 minutes away in Raleigh: “I bet you never thought you’d see a black man as president”; “I hope he’s not a terrorist.” During the campaign, he wore an Obama sticker on his hardhat and was immune to these comments. Once his white, Southern coworkers saw he supported Obama, they considered him as foreign as their Hispanic coworkers. But now that the sticker’s off, they assume he’s one of the crowd. Just like we tend to think everyone’s on the Obama train.
President Obama says he’s going to unify this country, and I believe he can. But what are we going to do to help? Celebrate with our like-minded comrades? What about those who aren’t watching CNN or reading The Huffington Post or part of the Facebook nation? What about the 45.7 percent who voted for McCain? Every day, we encounter people with opinions different than ours and choose comfortable silence over the potentially awkward alternative. Are we going to be the “the risktakers, the doers, the makers of things” Obama lauded in his inauguration speech?
I can hope. And that feels good, too.