Paul R. Lehman, The Emotional Challenge of European Americans to President Obama

March 31, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Posted in Bigotry in America | 3 Comments
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From the moment Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America a whirlwind of emotions were set in play for people the world over. For the first time in its history, America had elected an African American as President. Naturally, the feelings about these phenomena were mixed, but little thought was given to reactions of the losing political party and the people who voted against Obama. The accumulation of negative reactions to Obama and his administration has caused some concern because of the seriousness and violence included in the reaction. In an effort to understand just what is at the heart of the matter, my thoughts took me back to an Ethnic American Literature class I taught in the early ‘90’s. Having observed over a period of time the negative reactions of many of the European American students to the literature, I finally wrote an article examining the emotional challenges they were encountering so they might understand just what was happening to them. All the students were required to read the article and participate in a discussion of the material. For the students, understanding what was going on in their minds made a big positive difference.

                What many European Americans are experiencing since the election of President Obama is akin to the loss of a very close and personal friend. What accompanies such a loss is known as grief. As we know from scholars who have studied and published in this area, grief occurs in stages. Knowing and understanding those stages can help some individuals cope with their emotional challenge. What has happened to many European Americans as a result of Obama’s election is called an emotional crisis. For many European Americans who identify themselves as “white” the challenge is extremely serious. All their lives they have relied on the myth of being special, valued, and privileged by virtue of their skin color. Part of their personal value was that they were led to believe they were better or superior to all non-whites. What was even more apparent to them was that they would always be superior to African Americans. Unfortunately, the center could not hold.

                When President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many European Americans believed that the country had turned its back on them. They believed that African Americans were never to have an equal status in society with “whites.” Naturally, they were upset and angry, so they took out their frustrations any way they could, but especially through politics. These European Americans thought they could regain the level of privilege they enjoyed prior to 1964 if they controlled the vote, and they did manage a degree of control in slowing down justice for many African Americans. Unfortunately, when Obama won the Presidency, their hopes were not only dashed, but also destroyed, because now they had to face the reality of having to be superior to no one. The idea of having to pay homage to someone who they and society treated as underclass since slavery was too much of an emotional challenge. What these European Americans are experiencing now I call the Seven Stages of Emotional Confrontational.

                These seven stages are fairly akin to the stages of grief, but different. Stage one is shock; Stage two is denial; Stage three is anger; Stage four is rejection; Stage five is examination; Stage six is understanding; stage seven is acceptance. Since the emotional confrontation occurs in stages any person can find him or herself at any one of the stages. The important part of this confrontation is to get through it and not get stuck in it. Although all seven stages are challenges to the emotions, they are not all based in the same area of concern. For example, stage one has as its basis the element of surprise. The next three stages are based in fear. The remaining three stages depend on logic or rational thought that helps to influence the emotions. A brief example of each stage should create a picture that helps to explain what many European Americans are experiencing and their reactions.

                When the news of Obama’s election victory was made known that information was a shock to many European Americans who felt secure in the idea that it would never happen. The news was a jar to their mind and emotions—Stage one.

                Once the news of Obama’s victory was verified, some European Americans refused to acknowledge the truth of the information. At the base of their refusal was the fear of having a central part of their self-image destroyed– the part that made them superior to African Americans of which Obama was a representative. Relinquishing that place of privilege must be resisted, hence Stage two, denial.

                The stages are numbered to indicate the progress of the emotional journey; that is, each stage can be examined separately, but must also be considered as part of a process. Continuing the process of the emotional challenge, we come to the most dangerous and volatile place in the process. The fear of losing one’s positive perception of self while being forced to accept a new perception of formally despised others served to create extreme displeasure that manifest itself in a variety of ways. Some of those ways include rage, indignation, resentment and even wrath—examples of incidents which the media has reported being directed at Obama. The accumulation of fear and loss of self-worth manifest itself in anger, Stage three.

                One has to take stock of the recent history recorded by the Republican Congressmen who have opposed every piece of legislation offered by the Obama administration. What would cause this type of negation to happen? The manifestation of fear through anger lends nothing to solving the problem of losing the power of ethnic and social privilege. So, some kind of actions must be taken to try and discredit the source of the problem, namely, President Obama. The elements of Obama’s character that lend themselves to intelligence, leadership, control, decency, and national unity must be denied because they contradict everything that some European Americans believe that African Americans are not capable of possessing and manifesting. Having a President who represents qualities that are usually admired in European Americans generally becomes a threat in an African American because if he is legitimate, then their views and beliefs of themselves are in danger. Therefore, the challenge to recognize or accept the reality of history must be met with rejection, the fourth stage.

                As stated earlier, the final three stages require serious thought without the hindrance of fear. When the reality of our national situation is viewed objectively, we understand that Obama will continue to be President for the next three years regardless of what anyone says or does, generally speaking. Rather than fighting a losing battle many European Americans decide to weigh the pros and cons of the situation and in doing so enters the process of examination, the fifth stage.

                One of the benefits of examining a problem or situation is that a variety of pictures are presented to the examiner. For example, taking an objective look at just what Obama and his administration are doing for the good of the country rather than trying to find fault in everything associated with him might produce some surprising results.  In other words, those pictures can help the examiner decide what avenue of approach to take in addressing the challenge; in essence, through careful examination of the situation, the examiner can arrive at an understanding of the challenge, which is the sixth stage.

                The final stop on the journey through this emotional confrontation has to do with recognizing the reality of the situation, Obama is President. Whether one likes him and what he is doing is secondary to the fact that he is the President. What impact that information has on the European American whose sense of self worth and superiority has been challenged, the journey to meeting that challenge must begin with accepting the fact that Obama is President of the United States of America. That acceptance is stage seven.

How one manages the journey depends on the individual. A former neighbor was to me the perfect picture of a Christian, patriotic, American citizen, that is, until Obama was elected President. Since that time he has not had a kind or positive word to say about Obama. My question to him was did your God make a mistake? If so, did He want you to take matters into your own hand in correcting the mistake? Fortunately, I realize that he is on a trip.



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  1. Great entry. I think I see a lot of rejection taking place. People reject the President’s ideas and practices just because he endorses them, even when the ideas were originally conceived by people they revere. For example, Sean Hannity often ridicules Obama’s teleprompter usage. Hannity is currently recording shows at the President Reagan Library. Reagan, a hero of Hannity’s, was notorious for using the teleprompter to address audiences. Bruce Babbitt once said Reagan ran a “government by teleprompter.” That history gets overlooked, however.

    • Chris, Thanks for the comments. Sometimes knowing what to look for can help to anticipate what should follow. Sometimes, however, some people get stuck in one stage or go backwards.

  2. Wow! What great analysis! Thanks for sharing…

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