A Trinity College professor who made controversial comments on social media related to racism two years ago has sparked another conversation, this time accusing the Obamas of perpetuating systemic white racism.
Johnny Eric Williams has taken aim at former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as part of an attack on “whiteness.”
“There are some people -- who you may consider to be black -- who basically have a whiteness orientation,” Williams said. “So, when I post 'white kneegrows' in a way in which I did in a satirical kind of way, it was trying to point that particular point out -- that nobody is immune from whiteness, that everybody is consumed within it.”
“White kneegrows” is a reference to a comment Williams made about the Obamas. He’s not the only scholar to criticize them for behavior that can be considered problematic.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote on essay on Michelle Obama’s book Becoming for the Boston Review. She challenges the former first lady’s assertion that she’s not a political person as a means to expose Obama for misleading her audience.
“Indeed, far from being apolitical, Obama is politically sophisticated, and any reader of her book should treat her that way,” Taylor wrote.
Taylor points to Becoming as being an “exquisite lesson in creating ideology” and that the general public should interrogate Obama on that ideology.
“When we do, we might see that her story is not in search of the collective experience but is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other,” Taylor said. “Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy.”
Lawyer Derecka Purnell wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in February that focused on Barack Obama, saying “he still can’t see the beautiful and complex range of black culture.”
Purnell looked at what the former president said at a town hall meeting in support of an initiative that mentors young black men. Obama referenced “wearing an eight-pound gold chain around your neck” in his talk, saying to the audience that they don’t need to do that to show confidence in their financial situation.
“His comments disappointed me because they’re part of problematic practices, like calling out black children for having ghetto names like mine or wearing Air Jordans,” Purnell said. “Such remarks by Mr. Obama reflect his administration's failure, and to an extent that of My Brother’s Keeper, to tackle the systemic inequality that shapes black people’s lives in America.”
Williams didn’t talk just about the Obamas in his recent posts. His overall message centered on whiteness, which he calls “terrorism.” He said he’s been misunderstood and his comments don’t mean that he thinks white people are terrorists. One Twitter user responded by calling the professor a ‘hateful bigot.”
“This is typical of someone who is immersed in whiteness is that what they do is they try to blame the person who’s telling them the facts about the situation, so they become the victims in their minds, while you become the perpetrator,” Williams said.
Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney reached out to Connecticut Public Radio with a written statement that acknowledged Williams’ ability as an educator to create more conversation and not less.
“Trinity College supports academic freedom and free expression and inquiry, which are hallmarks of academia and democratic society,” Berger-Sweeney said.
Scott Nesbitt, a 1983 Trinity College graduate, has participated in discussions related to comments from the controversial professor on an alumni Facebook page.
“I tend to be on the libertarian edge of that type of conversation and believe that speech is just that and that most things are allowed and should be allowed – especially in a liberal arts institution,” Nesbitt said. “I do think that it is appropriate for him to challenge his students with whatever his viewpoint might be and that even if that’s perceived negatively or positively, that’s fine.”
Nesbitt said he’s told Williams that Twitter might not be the place for the kind of conversation that the professor is looking to engage in.
Berger-Sweeney said that “Twitter is a challenging place for thoughtful discourse,” and that this is an example of that.
Williams, the author and sociology professor, said that he doesn’t regret anything he said.
“Whiteness itself is an ideology where the standard is always white and so we see the world through that prism and if people don’t want to see the world through that prism, they get ostracized from the society.” he said.
His goal is to start a conversation that he said gets people to realize that they’re caught up in what he says is whiteness – which he believes supports white supremacy.
Editor's note: A Tweet embedded in an earlier version of this story has been removed. The identity of its author could not be confirmed.