Thursday, June 12, 2008

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?


Anonymous said...

That sort of resembles the conundrum of the zebra stripes. black on white or white on black? All I know is that Barack Obama is a miracle that came along in time to save our country.

Matt said...

I really like that you say Obama is both black and bi-racial. The Racialicious comments especially point to how these things are set against each other artificially.

But when I think about this, I can't help but think that when I make a claim about my identification I am often also making a claim about that with which I identify. That's why we get frustrated with white Americans from South African, for instance, who lay claim to "African American," yeah? And when Jews for Jesus claim to remain religious (not ethnic) Jews.

I've never been quite able to reconcile that with a sense that we ought to accept anyone's self-identification. (And saying, "we'll accept it if it's reasonable," still seems to be claiming authority over someone else's identification.)

Anonymous said...

He may not be black enough but what if he was green?
Nah, not green, colorless is the way to go.

CVT said...

I'm with Jennifer on this one - he's both. Hands-down.

I'm not one that says somebody can claim whatever they want - that's not true. It's what outsiders choose FOR YOU that will determine most of your experience with race. However, as a bi-racial person, myself, that's an experience few people understand or are willing to legitimize, even though it is a very specifically distinct experience.

Therefore - he's both. Because the vast majority of the world he runs into will think of him as nothing more than a black man, and his experience of race - coming from them - will be AS a black man. No matter what other choices he makes, that is a fact he cannot avoid or change (were he to even want to do so).

However, his mixed experience will have changed him also, and sometimes his mixed background will have people reacting to him differently than if he was "just" black. Therefore, he's bi-racial.

Barack Obama is a bi-racial black man. And if you're mixed or have any true understanding of the mixed experience in America, that makes perfect sense (it's actually COMMON sense, from this perspective).

From a bi-racial Asian-American.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jennifer; thanks for linking!

This is such an interesting topic. I'm particularly intrigued by the idea of people choosing their own identities, especially ones that would not be ascribed to them by others. Matt mentioned two, and of course my soapbox is around white adoptive parents who claim to be the race/ethnicity of their adopted child(ren). As a Korean adoptee, listening to a white adoptive parent stand up in an auditorium and proclaim that when she adopted her kids from Korea she "became" Korean was just plain offensive. That seems like cultural appropriation at its worst, and yet I hear adoptive parents say things like that all the time.

I wonder if claiming an identity is like free speech -- people should have the right to say/claim whatever they want, but just because they do doesn't mean that everyone else will (or should) accept it. I too am hesitant to claim authority over how someone else self-identifies, but at the same time I think it's important to actively challenge identifications that are misleading, appropriative, exploitative, or factually inaccurate.

Jennifer said...

I just wrote a LONG response and then blogger glitched...AGHHHHH!!!! I HATE THAT!

I will say that I appreciate everyone commenting--especially those who've left comments for the first time.

I'll also say, briefly and quickly, that I wonder if we can think of identities as not only fluctuating/flexible, but also as contingent, conditional, and constant.

In other words, some identities we take on are constant--no matter what I tell myself or others, I appear (and am as far as how I self-identify) an Asian American woman. But there are times when I'm with my family where I *feel* Chinese Jamaican--a contingent identity (contingent on being with my Chinese Jamaican relatives).

As for the conditional--it seems like there are certain conditions that will make me feel one of my identities more than the other parts. For example, I just wrote in a post about going to this Five-diamond resort in West Virginia. My working class roots are going to be tugged at in this atmosphere--a condition of feeling like I'm in a place where there is so much class discrepancy. And I'm sure I'll be feeling the race discrepancy as well--whereas, when I'm having dim sum in Chinatown, I'm not feeling that so much.

Anonymous said...

Another vote for this being a false dictomony--black/biracial is not an either/or question, it's perfectly possible to be both.

I didn't visit the Racialious thread, but I'm starting to be a little annoyed at the "biracial and refuse to be confined to checking one box on a form" crowd that insists Obama is not black because they wouldn't claim blackness in his position.

Eastern Reflections said...

No matter what Obama claims himself as, the rest of the world is going to automatically categorize him.

And this is a response to the last comment about being annoyed with people who refuse to put themselves in a box.......I think people of multi-ethnic/bi-racial background have just as much claim to Obama as African-Americans do.

Obama has transcended a lot of obstacles in my opinion, and the fact that in his first press conference after he won the election, he said he would prefer to find a puppy for his daughters that was a "mutt" like him...goes to show just how comfortable he is in his own skin, and how UNCOMFORTABLE the rest of us are with it.

Allen said...

Barack Obama is our first Marxist president.

Kalani said...

To some people in Hawaii, particularly myself, we will always see Obama like we do with any Punahou graduate, which is a priviledged person. He may have the appearance of a Black man and people can argue all they want about him being Black or biracial, but they fail to understand that Obama's father did not experience the type of oppression that most Blacks have had in the US, he's not a descendant of slaves, his father was able to afford higher education, and he grew up influenced by his Haole (Caucasian) side and went to a very prestigious school whose alumnus includes Steve Casie, co-founder of AOL.

Jennifer said...


I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with you on this issue. While I understand that his attendance at this exclusive and private Hawaiian school indicates a certain amount of privilege, he got there on a scholarship--he was raised by a working class single mother, albeit one whose educational and hence cultural status as well as racial status may complicate his class status, but none-the-less, he grew up working-class and went to a prestigious school not because of family connections or money but because of scholarships and affirmative action.

And while his father may not have experienced racism as American blacks have in the U.S., to suggest that he was entirely privileged or that his class status precluded the father from experiencing racism--and most importantly, believing that Barack Obama did not experience racial oppression, either in Hawaii or the mainland as a U.S. born African American man, is to confuse class privilege with racial privilege, although I would argue that Obama's class privilege is educational privilege rather than socio-economic.

So while he did grow up with certain educational privileges and hence life advantages, the fact remains that he grew up in the skin of an African American man and with a single mother who was very careful not to inocculate him and treat him as if he was "white" and hence privileged but instead exposed him and his sister to global issues of racial and class inequality (you should read DREAMS FROM MY FATHER or other interviews/accounts of his life for more information).

david said...

I see Obama as bi-racial because biologically, genetically, he's bi-racial. He has genes from an African father and a White mother. Beyond that, I think he's his own person...meaning an individual.