The Color of Character

Mrs. Obama, I Agree

Mrs. Obama (Michelle Obama)

It Goes Back to Dr. King’s Speech

If you had to give a quick elevator summary of The Color of Character, it’s that character – good, bad or in between – has no color. Your character is revealed by your actions, your life choices, and your effect on those whose lives you touch. This is what Dr. King wanted for Americans: the chance to be judged by our character and not our color.

What I Attempted to Say

In the novel, it’s 1970, and a white junior high student endures anti-white bullying by his black classmates. He and his friends grow to dislike their black classmates. The different color of their skin was irrelevant. It was their conduct that drove the wedge between the white and black students. But in 1970, because of the growing acknowledgement of the centuries of mistreatment blacks endured, it was not a good time to talk disparagingly about the character of the bullies, because their skin color could certainly indicate that your judgement was based on race. So, the conduct was excused, and the animosity intensified. This is an early example of how political correctness can stifle productive dialogue.

What Mrs. Obama Said

In an appearance with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama said something very similar to what I tried to bring out in The Color of Character. The following is taken from CNN’s coverage of Mrs. Obama’s comments:

“Color, wealth, these things that don’t matter still play too much of a role in how we see one another. And it’s sad, because the thing that least defines us as people is the color of our skin, the size of our bank account. None of that matters.”
She said it was impossible to determine a person’s values from their race or religion. Instead, she argued people — including herself — must “act out” their ethics and principles.
“I thought, let me live my life out loud so that people can then see and then judge for themselves. And that is what I want young people to do. Just live your life,” she said.

Taking it a Step Further

Yes. Just live your life. But Mrs. Obama did not delve into the choices we can make surrounding how we live our lives, because indeed people will judge you based on what they see, hear, and experience. I believe that if you choose to live your life as a brutal criminal, and are judged harshly, you have no right to resent that judgement. If you are black, many people will find reasons to explain away anti-social behavior; instead calling out “racist” to those who choose to avoid you or wish to see you penalized for your conduct.
Excusing criminality puts no responsibility on the criminal to improve, and discourages anyone else from talking about the problem out of frustration or fear of stigmatization. If we are to judge each other by how we live our lives, as our First Lady wisely advises, then we have to accept those judgements, and not assign the blame to the race of either party. Instead we should feel free to search for the cause of any problem that we have the power to make better, and leave race out of the discussion – unless it truly is relevant.

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