Note: This post is one of several that discusses issues raised by Sen. Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, from the perspective of the Baha’i Faith. It is not an endorsement of Sen. Obama’s candidacy. Please see the first entry (link below) for a full disclaimer.
It took some time, but Sen. Barack Obama’s presence on the national scene is now shining the spotlight on multiracial people in the United States. After steering away from race for most of his presidential campaign, Obama finally took on those inescapable issues in his “A More Perfect Union” speech.
In a March 31 article, New York Times reporter Mireya Navarro talked to some multiracial Americans about their experiences and their impressions of Obama’s speech. The article began with the story of a Black-White woman whose black friends gave her grief for wearing a T-shirt that said “100 percent Black.” That darn category problem again:
Being accepted. Proving loyalty. Navigating the tight space between racial divides. Americans of mixed race say these are issues they have long confronted, and when Senator Barack Obama recently delivered a speech about race in Philadelphia, it rang with a special significance in their ears. They saw parallels between the path trod by Mr. Obama and their own.
The article notes how some people challenge multiracial Americans to label themselves “by innocently asking ‘What are you?'” (I’m not sure how innocent that question is, but I’ll give those generic interrogators the benefit of the doubt.) In a previous post on this blog, I brought the issue of multiracial people’s struggle to find a vocabulary to “describe themselves to themselves” and to describe themselves to others.
As the Times article put it:
Americans of mixed race say that questions about whether Mr. Obama, with a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, is “too black” or “not black enough,” as the candidate himself brought up in his speech on March 18, show the extent to which the nation is still fixated on old categories.
“There’s this notion that there’s an authentic race and you must fit it,” said Ms. Bratter, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston who researches interracial families. “We’re confronted with the lack of fit.”
But the times they are a changin’, and that fit is getting a bit easier. The Times reports the 2000 Census showed 3.1 million interracial couples (I assume this is all combinations) or 6 percent of married couples. Those numbers are eight years old, with a new Census only two years away. The 2000 Census also showed 7.3 million million Americans selecting more than one race, or 3 percent of the population. But the really significant number is that 41 percentof those who self-identified as multiracial were under 18 in 2000. Many of those legions are now in the Obama campaign, or at least expressing support for someone whom they see as like them.
Read the Times article, and view the accompanying video of a meeting of young multiracial people. You’ll see people as diverse as the world. Yet America, despite its motto “e pluribus unum” or “from many, one” hasn’t necessarily wanted to see these faces.
In an article posted on commondreams.org, Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker wrote of Obama:
He is the change America has been trying desperately and for centuries to hide, ignore, kill. The change America must have if we are to convince the rest of the world that we care about people other than our (white) selves.
This is the change America, or White America, at least, tried to “hide, ignore, kill” with laws barring the “abominable mixture and spurious issue,” of interracial sexual relations. Yet a powerful counter-narrative has been at work for a long time. In 1831 — 177 years ago – abolitionist activist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison wrote this about interracial marriage:
“If he has ‘made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth,’ then they are one species, and stand on a perfect equality: their intermarriage is neither unnatural nor repugnant to nature, but obviously proper and salutary,” [as democracy, education and Christianity spread] everyone would intermarry and, “… the earth is evidently to become one neighborhood or family.”
Such a vision was way ahead of its time, but we now hear such sentiments all the time. It is a major theme of Obama’s campaign. Baha’u’llah, the Prophet/Founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote: “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” His son, Abdu’l-Baha, wrote this:
Consider the flowers of a garden … How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants … were all of the same shape and color! Diversity of hues, form and shape enriches and adorns the garden, and heighten the effect thereof. In like manner, when diverse shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest. Naught but the celestial potency of the Word of God, which rules and transcends the realities of all things, is capable of harmonizing the divergent thoughts, sentiments, ideas and convictions of the children of men.
Multiracial scholar G. Reginald Daniel discusses multiracialism from a more academic perspective, as summarized in my masters thesis:
“In the 1990s, the appearance of multiple or plural identities, be they racial or otherwise, are not merely symptomatic of the tendency of fin-de-siécle relations between humans to become ‘deranged’ or ‘disjointed,’” Daniel (2002, p. 83) writes. This “explosion of plural identities …” seeks to “ … transcend this loss of continuity by reconnecting and reintegrating humans with the life history of the universal and collective self,” (Daniel, 2002, p. 183). This emerging multiracial identity is based on “the ‘Law of the Included Middle,’” and thrives on concepts of “‘partly, ‘mostly’ or ‘both/neither,’” …
I know a lot of people who are “partly, mostly” or “both/neither” — my son, for instance, or my nieces and nephews. Our family tree has roots in four continents: North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Although I’m still White, I’m not quite as White as I used to be.
So the next time you ask somebody, “What are you?” be prepared for an answer that might confuse you. Just remember the confusion is yours.
Other entries in this series:
The Mavin Foundation, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading organization that builds healthy communities that celebrate and empower mixed heritage people and families.”
The Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans, “the oldest, largest and most influential nationwide organization in the US representing the multiracial, multiethnic community.”
Multracial Sky at wordpress.com