Thursday, November 13, 2008


I am a dog lover. Southern Man and I adopted a dog from a wonderful local rescue league that fosters dogs that are on the kill list at various shelters in our area. Our dog "B" had been found wandering around a local highway, brought to a shelter, was diagnosed with heartworm, was there for a month and was on the kill list, and then was swooped up by our rescue league. Two months later, we found his picture on-line and brought him home.

And we love him. Unconditionally. I am one of "those" people. I have pictures of my dog on my cell phone and have even been known to sneak my dog into my office (Don't Tell!). "B" is loving and fun and sweet and intelligent and loyal, as are most of the dogs I've met in my lifetime.

And our dog is a mutt. And honestly, every dog I've adopted is a mutt/mixed-breed/non-pure-bred because I've always adopted dogs from rescue leagues/shelters and these are the dogs that are dropped off the most.

[This is Coffee--I found her picture on-line through a New York area rescue league called Mighty Mutts. There are MANY rescue league and shelters similar to Mighty Mutts. If you are thinking of adopting a dog, please consider going to to find one at your local shelter/rescue league]

I start here because Barack Obama in his first "press conference" about a week ago, made an off-the-cuff comment about himself as a "mutt" when declaring his preference that the "first dog" be one adopted from a shelter or rescue league (click here ).

I bring all of this up because yesterday I asked readers to submit ideas about conversations on race/racism/anti-racism that they wanted to have and a commenter (and someone whose blog I admire greatly) wrote in asking me what I thought about the Obama-mutt comment.

And honestly, I haven't given it much thought. I know when I first heard the "mutt" comment it struck a discordant note for me--but I honestly didn't process it fully. And upon reflection, I do think that equating "mutts" with "mixed-race people" is potentially problematic, depending on whether you equate "mutts" with negativity, with whether you find it offensive to make a comparison between people and animals, and whether you have had the phrase "mutt" hurled at you as an insult while growing up--a way to demean your mixed-race status.

Having said all of that, I think one reason I didn't think much about it was that growing up I had mixed-race friends who often referred to themselves as mutts. And they used the phrase with affection and an undercurrent of pride. And I remember that there was teasing in our group, among the mixed and non-mixed among us. But this was all back in high school, and I couldn't tell you anything more specific than that. But as a dog lover, I don't find comparisons of humans to dog derogatory, because there have been very few dogs whose company I ever avoided (even the ones who act fierce are just being territorial and have their own issues, but they are fairly explicable in dog-terms). Whereas there are plenty of people I'd avoid like the plague if I found out we were sharing the same air space (Rush Limbaugh? No thank you! I'll take a pitbull-mix any day of the year).

I am, of course, being a bit tongue-in-cheek. And here's the further truth. I don't identify as mixed-race--no one has ever called me a "mutt" in a derogatory way. So I don't have a strong reaction to that word, although I can imagine that some folks might. But I do think that Obama using it to describe himself doesn't strike a bad note with me. It was a discordant one, because it was jarring to hear himself refer to his mixed-status using this analogy, but I was also pleased to hear him refer to his mixed-heritage. Because just as Tiger Woods isn't ONLY a black golfer, Barack Obama isn't ONLY an African American political figure. I'm not saying he is NOT or that Obama (unlike Woods) doesn't consistently identify as African American. I am saying that it is important to remember that the immediate family who raised Obama were white Americans. And that his mother, Stanley Dunham, was a white American woman who raised a black son in an Asian-majority culture.

And the further truth is, the idea that some of us are "mixed" and some of us aren't, is just not true, in the sense of both culture as well as "race." As I've written extensively elsewhere, race is a fiction, albeit a powerful one, and one that we can't wish away. Race is here to stay, at least I believe it is in my lifetime. But the truth is, if you go back far enough, we are all mixed. In terms of culture, I can't imagine a nation more "mixed" than the United States in terms of race/ethnicity/culture. Which makes every "American" a mutt.


CVT said...

Reactions to Obama's comment are interesting to me. I'm mixed. Bi-racial. A "half-breed." A "mutt." And it didn't really blow my mind to hear him say that because I've been known to refer to myself as a "half-breed" at times as a sort of tongue-in-cheek re-claiming - I could easily see myself making the same comment as Obama did.

Interestingly, it was a mono-racial African-American co-worker of mine that was the first to bring it to me - and she was shocked that it didn't bother me that he said that. It really bothered her.

And I think part of it is the use of "mutt" in the African-American community, as opposed to elsewhere. It bears more contempt and hurt in that community. And I think that part of this is the fact that African-Americans have a much more negative history with dogs, in general - their use as weapons by white slave masters, during the civil rights era, and in gentrified neighborhoods to this day. So, culturally, being compared to a dog in African-American culture is MUCH more offensive than it might be in other cultures. And that's how "mutt" is often used in that culture (whereas it might be used more gently, or with less of a bite elsewhere).

So - should Obama have said it? Probably not. But does it bother me as a mixed-race American? Not at all.

Greg said...

Mutts are better than pure-breds. Seriously. They are a lot healthier; pure-breds are often highly inbred and plagued with health problems. Pure-breeding is cruel.

It's funny, I don't think I've ever had negative associations with the word "mutt." Even when white people talk about their own ethnic make-up, a lot of them call themselves (European) mutts -- you know, an Italian great-grandmother on this side, and Welsh something-or-other on that side. I've never heard it used derogatorily or as a racial epithet. That's just my admittedly limited experience, though.

Jason Clinkscales said...

CVT, I think that may be the case for some of the older generations of African-Americans, but there are a lot of my ilk who may not have thought much of it. It's not that Millenials and Gen Xers to an extent are not aware of that sort of history, so much as it may be that 'half-breeds' and 'mutts' aren't exactly shocking to the system to us.

Of course, I could be dead wrong, but I couldn't recall an uproar in Harlem (where I sort of grew up and currently live) about it.

I do admit to a chuckle that he felt comfortable enough to say it and sau it so casually.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. I do think that a lot of how you take the "mutt" comment has to do with your own personal experience with the term--whether it was used as a term of affection/amusement or whether it was used as an insult thrown at you (or others) out of hate.

In the larger world it seems to have not hit that many (read white Americans) as being a big deal--the link to the NPR story in the post I just wrote today (11/14--"York, PA--what say yee") has a quote from an older white woman who found it endearing that Obama would refer to himself in this way. Although I'm sure we could read into it racially, it strikes me that perhaps her connection to that comment that Obama made is in the kind of colloquial language--not saying mixed-breed or rescue dog but saying "mutt"--that by claiming that he is a "mutt" he is acknowledging, similar to what Greg wrote, that many white Americans also feel like "mutts"--a mixture, a hodge-podge, and that this is a positive thing--something showing a lighter, more human side of Obama.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, thanks so much for writing about this (and for the link -- you're the best!).

When I first heard him say it, I was impressed that he referred so directly to his racial background in a way that was lighthearted and apparently somewhat disarming to the (mostly white) press in the room. But then I quickly remembered the long history of POC as being considered sub-human/animals, and wondered if there would be negative repercussions from people who were familiar with that history. (Or who, as you suggested, simply don't like being compared to animals.)

As an aside, one of my professors frequently brought her (wonderfully well-behaved) dog to her office on campus, and as a result I found myself visiting there much more often! It was such a nice way to get to know her outside of the classroom.

Jennifer said...

I think as CVT & Jason have demonstrated, there are a range of reactions that people have had among those who are mixed-race, AfAm, and others. So I guess this is to say that some people probably found his remarks to be a bit too cavalier about his mixed-race background/non-white identity, but I think others felt he was refreshingly casual and direct about his identity.

On the dog front, I've brought "B" into the office for a set of extended office hours and my students really seemed to love him. But he's a pretty chill dog, so I'm not surprised!