Saturday, June 6, 2009

Back when he was just Senator Obama . . .

[MRM Classic - from June 12, 2008 -- I love that there was so much speculation about Obama's "racial" identity and what to call him. Wonder if that will pop up again at some point during his presidency...]

"Barack Obama is our first (fill-in-the-blank)"

A few days ago there was an interesting discussion flying around on the comment section of one of Racialicious's posts titled "Is Barack Obama black or biracial?" If you click on the link above, you will see some CNN footage and then the comments section, which both does and doesn't address the CNN footage.

And really, the comment thread was fascinating in many ways. There are nearly 100 comments (mine is #97--I got in late to the discussion) but I thought given the fact that I work on issues of mixed-race, that I've been an ardent supporter of the Obama campaign, and that this is a blog called "Mixed Race America," it'd be a good time to throw out some thoughts and solicit some comments/observations from folks out there in the blogosphere.

"Some thoughts about the post & comment thread "Is Barack Obama black or bi-racial?"

*I don't think it's an either/or question. I think Obama can be black and bi-racial. And I think he has said as much by saying he is a black man raised by a white mother and white grandparents. And I think if we are going to think about environment, then it's CRUCIAL to consider the multiracial/multiethnic population of Hawaii and the particular politics of Hawaii (ie: indigenous Hawaiian population suffering under U.S. colonialism, current Asian settler community in the majority, racially speaking, who dominate positions of power within Hawaii, Islander status/mentality of not being part of continental U.S.)

*I think everyone is free to choose his/her own identity; however, I think some identities are going to be challenged more than others. If I started to tell people I identify as a black woman because I want to be in solidarity with African American people (a piece of advice bell hooks once gave to me) I think many if not all people would find this hard to accept and many people may also find it offensive/disrespectful towards African Americans.

*As much as I know racism is a pernicious and invidious force in the world, I hate feeling like it dominates or controls the way I think about myself--but I also recognize that as an Asian American woman who teaches at a university and lives in a college town, I have the privilege of not being faced with virulent forms of racism in my daily life and therefore I don't feel the effects of racism in the same way that someone else who doesn't have my profile may feel it in every way, everyday.

*We don't listen enough to one another. We are often defensive--trying to protect ourselves, our territories, our rights. I link this to an American cultural trait, but perhaps it's a human defense mechanism. When people say they suffer from racism; when African Americans of various hues talk about experiences of discrimination; when Obama himself claims a black identity but also clearly does not dismiss his mixed-race background and mixed-ethnic heritage (which includes family in Kenya, a sister, brother-in-law, and nieces and nephews who identify, in part, as Asian American, multiple family members married to various folks of different nationalities and ethnicities living around the globe, childhood experiences in Indonesia as well as Hawaii), we need to HEAR him and respect his identity.

*We have a hard time accepting what may seem (but is not) two contradictory points: that Obama is both black AND bi-racial AND mixed-heritage

[note: I'm big on the mixed-heritage thing--partly because I think there are many of us who may be "monoracial" but have experiences that are multicultural, even more than the usual push-pull of the U.S. color line. For example, at a recent academic conference workshop, I told the organizer that while I didn't identify as mixed-race, I also never felt comfortable as Chinese American because my mother's Jamaican cultural background and nationality made me *feel* like I had grown up Jamaican--at least as much Jamaican as Chinese in terms of food, cultural referents, and family members who identified as such. The organizer noted that many transnational adoptees also share similar sentiments, and that a former student of hers who grew up Japanese in Peru but was now living in the U.S. also felt distinctly dislocated and "mixed" although he appeared to be a monoracial individual. And Sang-shil at Land of the Not-So-Calm has a great post about the differences between Korean American identification and Korean adoptee identification.

*Ignoring race, not talking about race, not discussing issues of race will not make racism go away. A letter to the editor of Newsweek magazine recently suggested that people should stop focusing on Obama's race because more people were worried about the economy and war in Iraq and could care less about his racial identity--and that it's our inability to let go of race that is causing the problem.

And while I agree that there are issues that certainly seem like they should be front and center, like the economy, the war, and I'd add the environment, believing that if we stop focusing on an issue it will disappear is simply naive. Someone's "race" isn't the problem--racism is. But getting everyone to agree on what racism looks like and to understand that it will look and feel different for different people depending on life experience, what you look like, where you were raised, who your family is, what social group you hang out with, your gender, sexuality, income, level of education, height, weight, and host of other factors too long to get into...PEOPLE! HUMANS ARE COMPLEX! AND RACE IS COMPLICATED! AND RACISM HAS BEEN AROUND THE WORLD FOR A LONG, LONG, LONG TIME AND KNOWS HOW TO MUTATE. Trust me, if I thought that not talking about race would end racism, I'd have shut up a long time ago and started to blog about my dog and would have written my dissertation on Jane Austen (whom I love--don't bash Jane!).

OK, enough from me. I'd love to hear what YOU think. I'd love to hear from a variety of voices--from people around the U.S. but also around the world. From people who identify as bi- or multi-racial. Obama supporters or Clinton supporters or even McCain supporters (are there McCain supporters reading this blog? do you feel marginalized here? Really, this is a welcome space, although I could understand why you may not want to leave a comment on such a lefty-liberal blog).

What kind of first is Obama? Is it naive to think that people can choose to identify however they want? Are some identities harder than others for people to accept? And why do we keep wondering about Obama's identity and not McCains? Is it really that obvious what McCain's "race" is?

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