Friday, November 14, 2008

York, PA -- what say yee?

I'm listening to NPR on-line through my old favorite station in the Bay Area, KQED (Thank you live streaming! Thank you Applie iTunes!). And I just finished listening to this series that Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep and Michele Norris have been doing in York, PA (because I guess they figured York, PA was representative of "real" Americans living in a swing state).

At any rate, their conversation has touched on the issues I was writing about in yesterday's post "Mutts-R-Us" (for the edited transcript and a link to listening to this piece, click here).

But what I was really interested in, was a discussion that the voters had about a letter to the editor in their local paper in which a writer complained about Barack Obama's self-identification as a "black" man. The letter writer noted that no other U.S. President self-identified as a "white" man and goes on to accuse Obama for placing undue importance on his "race," and THEN goes on to accuse Obama of being blind to his mixed-race status:
"Where does he come off saying he's a black man?" The letter asked. "Is he that confused on color, or does he want to discredit his mother's color as a white person?"

[NOTE: The letter writer is correct, in one way: no other U.S. President has probably self-identified in a self-conscious way as a "white" man--and there's a reason for this: white privilege. In other words, "race" has been used as a code of "difference"--with the "normative" established as both "white" and "male" throughout much of U.S. history. In other words, who got counted and who continues to be counted, by many, as an unqualified "person" is a white man (and I may as well add "straight" white man). Anyone outside this category, by virtue of gender, sexuality, race, religion, ethnicity, class, etc... is noted with the "hyphen"--literally or figuratively. What the letter writer does not understand or acknowledge is this long history of white privilege in terms of basic subjectivity. Of course Obama identifies,publicly, as a black man and of course President Bush does not identify, verbally and continuously, as a white man. This is how our society has reinforced how we SHOULD identify.]

The responses of the York, PA folk, is also very interesting--and insightful:
That provocative letter started the voters in the group wondering what was really on its author's mind. Maribel Burgos, 46, who's Hispanic, thinks the letter writer, presumably white, was seeking what Orr had finally found: a sense of inclusion.

"They want [Obama] to now acknowledge the white part of him, so that they're now included in his administration, too," Burgos says.

And that, of course, has had me thinking. Because there is virtually NO ONE in national politics who "looks" like me or who "identifies" as me. There isn't a single Asian American, man or woman, on the Supreme Court bench. There is only ONE Asian American (Elaine Chow) in the upper echelon of the Executive Branch (she's the Secretary of Labor--and I'm not a fan, but that's another story and has to do with her silver-spoon pedigree and Republican ideology). And there are a HANDFUL of Asian American Congressional figures, and I believe just one Asian American governor (that'd be Republican wunderkid Bobby Jindal).

So. Do I feel alienated from the U.S. government? Should I play up Obama's upbringing in Hawaii (over 60% majority Asian American population) and his mixed-race Indonesian sister to feel like he is "one of us" (with "us" being Asian Americans).

My personal answer is no. Don't get me wrong. I want more representation in our government--I think it should LOOK like America, and America is much more diverse than any of the three branches of government currently reflect. But just because Obama isn't an Asian American woman doesn't mean I don't believe that he can't be my president. And his identifying as "black" or "mixed-race" doesn't make me feel alienated. It makes me feel PROUD, especially knowing the long and troubled history of race in America, that he is unashamed to talk about himself in the complex ways in which he is figured, racially and not.


CVT said...

I wrote a little piece addressing Obama's "acknowledgement" of his race a while back:

As for needing to be "included" in the government - I have to say that this election was the first time that I felt my vote was worth something. That I had an option of getting somebody who even SLIGHTLY represented me into office - so it IS important. That said, it is NOT important that Obama "include" white people this time around - he has no choice, anyway - government is dominated by white people and always has, so what the Hell is that guy complaining about? Obama will be president, but that doesn't change the fact that white people still run this country.

And, like Jennifer said, I don't care if Obama "claims" his time in Hawaii, even though I'm mixed-Asian, and that's where so many others of my mix are. It's enough to know that he HAS that experience; because that will shape how he acts/what he acts on whether or not he publicly mentions it over and over.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for including the link to your blog, CVT, which I find to always be provocative and thought provoking in that kind of head-nodding way.

And I agree with you about the Hawaii thing--the fact that he was born and raised in Hawaii (and spent some time abroad in Indonesia, another Pacific Rim/Pacific Island nation) gives me hope that he grew up with a set of experiences vastly different from those of us on the continetnal portion of the U.S. (to start with, his whole perspective of who counts as an "American" and the idea of American imperialism would have been vastly different than the kind of education we get here on the "mainland").

Joanna said...

This post made me think of Dr. Maria Root's "Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage." You can google it if you haven't read it. But some of the "rights" she includes are the right to self-identify as one chooses, including identifying differently that someone else expects and in different ways in different situations. In other words, if Obama wants to identify as African-American, that's his choice. If he wants to identify as mixed race on the third Tuesday of everyone month--again, his choice. It's annoying when people think this it's their choice to identify someone else. Of course, that is the construct of race in this country ("one drop rule"). But, nonetheless, it's crazy.

Jennifer said...

I do know Maria Root's bill of rights and have intended to post it/link to it one of these days, so thanks for the reminder, because I agree that how one identifies is a personal matter that is up to that person and that is free to change.

I do sympathize, to a certain extent, with people who WANT Obama to "choose" -- because there is something seductive in believing we can make a definitive and singular choice--to buy into the binary. Because recognizing the complexity of our identities--racial and otherwise, gets thorny and complicated and fatiguing. And yet, that's the reality of our identities, and the reality of race--it IS thorny and complicated and fatiguing. So pretending it's not seems not to get to the heart of the issues.

Anyway, thanks for leaving a comment--please comment again soon!