Sunday, March 31, 2013

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

So it's a bit longer than I anticipated, but here is Part II of my playful querying about whether Barack Obama can be considered our first Asian American president (click here for Part I).

As I noted in Part I, I am not the first to make this speculation--both Rep. Mike Honda and Jeff Yang (during the 2008 elections) made note of the many Asian connections in Obama's biography and background (which I already elaborated on in the previous post).

What I didn't mention in Part I was that their imagining of Obama as Asian American was riffing off of Toni Morrison's essay in The New Yorker in which she famously was quoted as saying:
white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, 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
 This quote from Morrison got a lot of play during Obama's 2008 election since it was noted, many times, that Bill Clinton was not an "actual" black person but that Obama was.

However, what is missing from this widely repeated quote is the context that Morrison was writing about Clinton--namely the Lewinsky scandal and the way that the impeachment hearings were using his infidelity as the impetus to get him out of office--the ways in which

"the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched"

which Morrison saw was akin to the experience of African American men being policed and persecuted based on their sexuality.

I mention this because while one could argue that there are tropes of "Asian-ness" that we can see in Obama's life--his time spent in Indonesia, his upbringing in Hawaii, his Asian extended family--they are but symbolic gestures--figurations.  They aren't how he identifies and it's not how others would identify him either since we are still living in an age where we believe we know what someone who is "Asian" looks like, and we know what someone who is "black" looks like--and we apply these rubrics to people and call them racial identities.  

Furthermore, the truth is that Obama does not identify as Asian American.  Technically, as far as the 2010 US Census goes, he identifies as African American rather than both black and white and certainly he didn't check the "Asian" box.  And it is important for us to acknowledge that people get to identify the way they want--something folks often forget when they refer to Tiger Woods as monoracially black when he, himself, identifies as mixed-race or half-black, half-Thai.  

So why enter into this exercise at all?  I guess I wanted to think about the limits of racial ambiguity, which is the topic of my current book manuscript--the one that has been consuming me and taking me away from being able to think about blogging.  I do think that imagining race as fluid and as flexible is an anti-racist position.  But I also think that there is a historic reality to racialized bodies that we can't ignore.  And that's the tension between theory and praxis.  It's important to be able to theorize beyond our raced bodies--to imagine a place where we can acknowledge the constructed nature of race and the ways in which multiracial people especially complicate this simplistic notion that there are pure races.  But on the other hand, there are the ways that the state has regulated bodies based on believing in race.


So I will continue to think about the possibilities of what if--what if we could say that Barack Obama is our first black American, first mixed race American, and first Asian American president?  What if checked off more than one box became the norm for all of us?


Anonymous said...

So why enter into this exercise at all?

I'm glad to see this follow-up - the "tension between theory and praxis" you mention is exactly what I think I was feeling in the first part, and I'm glad to see it somewhat resolved (well, insofar as it can be) in this piece. Still, I'd say that it's a useful thing to think about, because race is a socially-constructed category, so it's neat to poke at the shoddy workmanship from time to time just to reassure ourselves of its ultimate impermanence.

What it comes down to for me, I think, is that Obama will not have experienced racialized oppression in the same way that an Asian/American would have - which is possibly an indication that I need to look to my own "definitions" of racial boundaries, because surely what makes an ethnic group is more than simply a shared experience of oppression - still, it's been thought-provoking in a very good way.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of praxIs, I can't see how you can examine the social construct of 'race' without all the other aspects (culture, geography,appearance, etc.) that are part of the 'construction.' Self-ID in some sense isn't really very important, as much of that determination is not objective, but more often simply wishful or fanciful fruit of personal struggle. I think theory can go a long way, but don't you think the moRre informed by praxis the better? Bottom line would have to be that living among Asians or Asian immigrants doesn't make Barak Obama an Asian-American, whatever that means...

Anonymous said...

To continue; eggsandbakey said race is "a socially constructed category" but everything is a socially constructed category, so guess I don't understand that comment.

Anonymous said...

Also the fact that it is socially constructed doesn't necessarily mean / is related to its permanence.

Jennifer said...

eggsandbakey (still LOVE this name) and Unknown,

Thanks for your comments.

eggs (for short if you will), I agree absolutely with your point about Obama's racialization and the ways that he "will not have expeirenced racialized oppresion in the same way that an Asian/American would have"--that is a really salient point and it relates to Unknown's comments, which is the tension between how people self identify vs. the way that others in society will treat them based on exterior factors, like racial phenotype.

Unknown, since it's unclear who you are and since clearly you wish to remain as much of a cipher as possible, I'll say, that I'm not sure where you are coming from with your comments because race being a social construction is a very important point since not everyone has agreed that this is so. In fact, I'm sure there are still people who think race is a matter of blood--that there is an essential essence to being black that is categorically differnent from being white.

At any rate, I appreciate the chance to have a conversation about this. I disagree that self ID "isn't really very important" and don't understand what you mean when you write "that determination is not objective"--I also think that if someone, like say an adopted person, grew up in an Asian American household but s/he wasn't Asian American, yet FELT like they were Asian American, then they have the right to say that. Scott Fujita, who looks white but was raised by a Japanese American father is a great case in point.

Anonymous said...

Previously identified as 'Unknown' but not intentionally. Name is Taylor. With no disrespect to Scott Fujita, I would surmise that he is neither Asian or Caucasian, but an 'in between,' which is a 'lost place.' Because his appearance is not Japanese, he would never be accepted by Japanese, and to the degree that his father succeeded in passing on Japanese habits, he will not be accepted as a Caucasian. I don't think you can ever look at less than appearance combined with culture. Caucasians growing up among Japanese makes an intesting case, but the end sproduct I think is still a half who you could say has a foot in both identities but in fact is neither.

EJ said...

Taylor, your simplification ignores the complexity of cross-racial upbringings. While I think you have points to engage with, my biggest reaction is the impression I have that you seem more interested in labeling the experiences of interracial people yourself than exploring their personal experiences curiously and with an open mind.

When someone "no disrespect"s me and then proceeds to tell me who I am or how I feel, well, they were just lying.

Anonymous said...

Jared- I would agree with you that a disclaimer re "no disrespect' can then be followed by 'disrespect.' At the same time, to express an opinion or try to make a point about another's experience is not in-its-self a dissing. I am speaking from my experience, having raised three mixed=race children (all my kids are 'halfs'). As to your statement about "lying,' wouldn't you agree that your heated response with the use of that flane word is more likely to end what might be a fruitful exchange of ideas?

EJ said...

Yes, I am calling you on hiding behind "no disrespect" while actually discounting the above points and how, presumably, Fujita identifies. Of course that doesn't feel good, and if you don't want to exchange ideas anymore then it's your prerogative.

Your insight about multi-racial people and how they identify is interesting and not at all, in my opinion, without merit. Surely how someone appears affects how others treat them, and it makes sense that this, in turn, affects their behaviour and also how they perceive themselves.

All of this just provides further evidence, however, that race is a social construct. Where would the problem, the "not belonging", be if it weren't for people in society making these judgements and deciding that another person "didn't belong"?

I am not multi-racial. My identity closely matches the assumptions that others make about my culture, based on my appearance. I don't know what it's like to be multi-racial, but I can empathise somewhat with someone needing to "pick one." Or not. That's what self-identification is about.

It was unclear if you were saying that multi-racial people being "neither" was a result of how they should feel about themselves or how society views them. Clearly I believe the former is only properly defined by the individual, and the latter is more open to external discussion (i.e. by you, me, etc.). The author was talking about self-identification, and so I assumed that was what you were talking about, as well. If you want to talk about social perceptions that's cool, but best to be clear.

Unknown said...

Man am I glad to see that I'm not the only one feeling the frustration of this old race / ethnic system that we have here in America. I read your post and I really agree with you, but I also think that President Obama is more than all of the other sub-groups discussed.. I believe him to be of the American race, plain and simple.

Unfortunately the American race is divided up into these sub-groupings that only let people identify with part of who they factually and genetically are. Not to mention that the color scheme is ridiculous to say the least.

I would hope that you will visit my petition site that I will send you a link to and maybe consider signing it and posting it to your site for your readers to consider. Hopefully we can improve things a bit. Thank You for all of your efforts on this site. AM

Anonymous said...

If we can agree that your cultural identity is made up of both genetic heritage including skin color, facial and other physiognomy plus the full set of cultural artifacts (incl. particularly language) with which you grew up, my comment re how you self-ID being not very important was intended to downplay this element in relation to other determinants.

I think that historically, in America, we are in a transition period away from what I would term 'traditional' categories. I don't think you can get away with saying that race is simply a social construct. It is rather an organic construct which includes but is much bigger than the social construct part you reference.

If this is so, then if, say, President Obama 'decides' to self-ID as a Black or African American, it doesn't much matter in terms of what he actually is in some objective sense. His choice to self-ID is a subjective act, and does not actually make him a Black/African-American, or whatever his choice was. So I would say he is 'passing' for an African-American, but for sure isn't one. And given the prevalent racism in America, it is convenient for his enemies to ID him as African American in the trope sense. Growing up, given his options as a man-in-progress, there really wasn't a good fit, given his father and mother, with their mixed cultural background (just like those check-the-box thingys). So I am saying that regardless of his perceived need to make some ID choice, his solution to this need didn't change what he actually was/is. Racially/culturally he is not Asian or Black, or African, but a mix. American is not a race (Caucasian is, but White is not; skin colors are not races).

What Pres. Obama is made of, his essence, is the result in largest part, of what went on within his hybrid family, and you can bet it was creative and very ad hoc. The result is that he is neither this nor that; but a new and unique un-nameable something composed of the cultural compromises his parents had to make/create in order to have their relationship. Although there is no such thing as "American Exceptionalism" in general, America is the place more than any other in the world, where traditional racial-cultural mixing is quickly becoming the 'new normal.'

So to undergo the Americanization process, the bargain has always been that you are welcome, but you have to give up your racial/cultural origins, and dress/talk/look like us (English speaking Caucasians) and even then, we will discriminate against you regarding your inability to completely do that.

However, part of the price is that once you are no longer Thai, Japanese, French, Italian, etc. ad infinitum, but just plain old American, you will find that being "American" is not anything resembling the kind of traditional cultural identity you gave up. The resulting problem is that you have a certain insecurity as to who you are, and that is very American. You can even say it is the signal characteristic of being American. Creating an 'artificial' identity to replace an organic identity is somewhat difficult, maybe impossible...


I believe that Barack Obama is in fact a white man who makes serious use of sun beds and fake tanning lotions.