Thursday, March 21, 2013

Barack Obama as our first Asian American President?: Part I

It has been two months since I last wrote a post in this blog--which is embarrassing (sigh).  For all my good intentions, I have not felt compelled to write in this space, even though I, ostensibly, have the time since I'm not teaching.

But this is, perhaps, the reason why I haven't been writing in this space--because I have been immersed in trying to finish my book manuscript on racial ambiguity and Asian American culture (which also happens to be the title of the book).  I'm fortunate enough to have a research and study leave, which means I've been reading and thinking and writing and trying to make the most of my time out of the classroom.

And then, of course, as I realized how much time had passed from when I last blogged, the pressure to write something meaningful or at least intelligible increased after so much silence (sigh)--always the dilemma of the writer--the blank page and wondering if there is an audience out there.

But as I tell my students, sometimes, whether you're feeling it or not, you just have to write it.  Good advice.  So I thought I should share what I'm working on, since it has applicability to this blog.  For the last few weeks I've been thinking about the coda to my book--which is also the title of this blog post.  If race is a social construction--if it doesn't have a basis in biology or blood, then could we imagine that Barack Obama is not only our first African American president, our first (openly) mixed race president, but our first Asian American president of the United States?

Barack Obama with his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng from their earlier days

This might seem like an odd way to end a book on racial ambiguity and Asian American culture.  Yet if we think about taking the idea of racial ambiguity to its furthest extremes, if race is not just limited to what you "look" like--if you can be Asian American without Asian American family (as transracial adoptees would seem to prove), if one's racial identity is as much about culture and community as anything else, then it would seem that there are clear markers of Asian American racialization that correspond to Obama's life narrative.  For example:

*He was born and spent his formative adolescent years in the only state in the union that has a majority Asian American population.  The local culture in Hawaii is steeped in Asian American culture from the various Asian immigrants who have come to the island archipelago from the 19th C.  He can speak pidgin, he eats local food, he grew up with his grandparents preparing sashimi for guests and with Asian American neighbors and classmates.

Obama's fifth-grade class photo from The Punahou School

*He is the child of an immigrant father who came to the US to be educated (first, a BA at U of Hawaii and then a PhD at Harvard), and his name reflects these immigrant roots, with people who find it odd, foreign, and hard to pronounce (something many children of Asian immigrants with Asian names understand all too well).

*He lived for four years in Indonesia (from the ages of 6-10) thus experiencing life in an Asian country.

*He has family members--a sister (Maya Soetoro-Ng--Indonesian-white), a brother-in-law (Konrad Ng--Chinese-Malaysian from Canada) and nieces who are Indonesian-Chinese-Malaysian-white--who are Asian American.

The Soetoro-Ng family

In October 1998, writing for The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" about the ways that President Bill Clinton was being targeted by special prosecuters for potential impeachment after revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky became public, Toni Morrison famously (or infamously) wrote:
Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.
Until Barack Obama was elected to office in 2008, it was believed, in certain quarters, that Morrison had claimed blackness for Bill Clinton, thus dubbing him our first black president.  But if you read the above quote (and the entire article) carefully, you will see that it is the "trope of blackness" that Morrison refers to rather than claiming that Clinton's identity is that of an African American man.

In similar fashion, claims for Barack Obama as our first Asian American president have been made by Rep. Mike Honda and Jeff Yang -- mine is not the first observation made in this regard.  

Yet what does it MEAN for me to imagine, that Barack Obama could be considered Asian American based on the trope of Asian-ness--the ways in which parts of his life narrative contain similarities to those of Asians in America?  Is this an anti-racist move, one that can remind us that race is a fiction, a social construction designed to elevate one racial group above others?  Can knowing that race is this fluid and flexible become a means to dismantle structures of institutional racism?

Stay tuned for Part II (which I promise to write this weekend!) and, of course, if there are any readers out there, I welcome your thoughts and comments, your agreements and disagreements.  I welcome dialogue, because that's the reason I started this blog to begin with--and Barack Obama was the topic of the third blog post I wrote back in May 2007.



2 comments:

eggsandbakey said...

That's a really provocative idea - it has a great deal of merit, but there's still the matter of whether HE ids as Asian American. And there's something to be said for the way that you are socialized based on the way you look.

I love that you brought this up though, because it's something I know I'll be turning over in my brain for quite a while.

Jennifer said...

eggsandbakey,
Thanks for your comment. I think you raise (and anticipate a point I'll address in Part II) a very important point about self-identification vs. the ways that others may identify you. TIger Woods is a great example of this -- he identifies as mixed race/half-African American/half Asian American but of course most often people talk about him as being solely or simply black and/or people feel frustrated that his mixed race answer seems to signal that he does not want to be counted as African American.

And I also agree that socialization based on the way you look is an important factor to consider, but again, I think Tiger Woods (and maybe I need to do another post on Tiger) is an interesting figure to consider on this.

Finally, I love the name of your blog! Hope you stop by again soon.