Tag Archives: multiracial

Obama Stirs Multiracial Dialogue

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:

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Cure the Cancer!”

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Multiracial Possibilities

See also:

A Prayer to Rein in ‘Forces of Divsion’

Multiple Answers to Race Question from the Same Person

Why Obama (and the Rest of us) Can’t ‘Transcend Race’

Obama’s ‘Trip’ Over and Around the Color Line

Links:

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

 

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A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Multiracial Possibilities

Other posts in this series:

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity.  (See this for an important disclaimer.) 

A More Perfect Union Through Race Unity: Cure the Cancer!

In his “A More Perfect Union” speech, Sen. Barack Obama spoke these words:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.  I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.  I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations.  I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.  I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Obama is undoubtedly right: Where else could someone of his background find a place, and even earn a fair shot at the highest office in the land?  Although the process has been slow and painful, America is irresistibly evolving to live up to its motto “e pluribus unum” or “out of many, one.”  Yes, there is resistance, argument, confusion, but no turning back the clock.

Barack Obama’s story is only possible in America, but his is by no means the only story.  It is my story, my family’s story, and the Baha’i Faith made it possible.  I was a New Yorker, a former agnostic, of Lithuanian, German and Irish descent, when my friend Jan Smith introduced me to Terri Earl.  Terri’s background is African American, with the family tree including Cherokee and a man rumored to be a white English spy.  Terri’s mother, the youngest of eight, married a white man, and from that union came her biracial half-sister.  That sister’s children extend the family tree to Holland, and they include two blue-eyed redheads, and others that could be mistaken for Hispanic.

But the family tree also branches out to India, via Botswana (in southern Africa).  Terri’s cousin Charles encountered the Baha’i Faith on his travels to Africa, and in Botswana he met Gayatri, of East Indian descent, one of many East Indians living in various parts of Africa.  Charles and Gayatri later married.  They now live in Metro Atlanta, and have two African American English Cherokee East Indian children, a boy and a girl.

It’s not that Baha’is are required to marry across racial and ethnic lines, but we get plenty of encouragement.  When our son was little, he asked if he had to marry somebody with a different color.  The married Baha’i couples he knew included Black-White, White-Iranian, Black Iranian and Biracial-Hispanic.  (Because the Faith began and grew in Iran, there are many Baha’is of Iranian descent in America and around the world.)

Baha’is believe that marriages unite not only individuals, but families.  In my case, I don’t regard the people on the Kulkosky side as “my family” and the people on the Earl side as “her family.”  Everyone is my family and our family:

Thou must endeavor that they intermarry.  There is no greater means to bring about affection between the white and the black than the influence of the Word of God.  Likewise marriage between these two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity.  — Abdu’l-Baha

… This union will unquestionably promote love and affection between the black and the white, and will affect and encourage others.  These two races will unite and merge together, and there will appear and take root a new generation sound in health and beauteous in countenance.  — Abdu’l-Baha

In marriage the more distant the blood-relationship the better, for such distance in family ties between husband and wife provides the basis for the well-being of humanity and is conducive to fellowship among mankind. — Abdu’l-Baha

For more information:

David Douglas and Barbara Douglas, “Marriage Beyond Black and White: An Interracial Family Portrait.”  Wilmette, Ill., Baha’i Publishing Trust.

The Vision of Race Unity: A Statement by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States

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Multiple Answers to the ‘Race Question’ from the Same Person

Geraldine Ferraro’s comment that Barack Obama wouldn’t be where he is if not for his race understandably sparked a rhubarb between the Obama and Clintoncamps and around the commentosphere. 

My angle on this is a bit different.  Why is everyone so sure they know what Obama’s race is?  Why not declare — more accurately, in my view — that Obama’s current status is due to his races, not just one race.  His ability to appeal to different racial groups, and indeed, his mission to reconcile often warring camps — all have developed from his life as a multiracial person, which is what he is.

Obama presents a multifaceted challenge, and often a confusing one.  Witness how some say he “transcends race” or that they don’t see him as a black man, while others emphatically see him as black.  The consensus is that Obama is the first black presidential candidate and could be the first black president.   Virtually everybody knows Obama is the product of an interracial marriage, and the words “bi-racial,” “multiracial” or “mixed race” often accompany discussions of him, but still, when it comes to definitions, he’s black.

This is the case with other prominent people of mixed parentage.  When Halle Berry won her academy award, she tearfully declared it a great day for black women, then called out to her white mother. Despite Barack Obama’s success, despite a frizzy-haired, beige-toned kid in almost every children’s show and ad for children’s clothes and products, black plus white still = black.  In this supposedly progressive age, we have yet to exorcise the demon of the One Drop Rule, which declares that any black ancestry, no matter how remote, makes someone black. 

The purpose of this role has always been to maintain white supremacy.  The myth of white superiority, with its power and privilege, would collapse if it was no longer clear who was white and who was “other.” Although it has largely lost its legal backing, The One Drop Rule, well, still rules.

As the 2000 Census developed, a political battle raged over whether to include a “multiracial” box on the new form.  Black opponents of the proposal argued the category would diminish black numbers, power, federal funding and complicate continuing programs that fought discrimination.  Somehow, to fight white supremacy, it’s vital to preserve the very categories created to maintain white supremacy.  The Census Bureau found a compromise that maintained the basic five categories of black, white, red, yellow and brown, but allowed anyone to voluntarily check boxes for racial background.  About 7 percent of respondents checked one or more of those boxes.  We shall see what happens in 2010.

Why is it so hard to accept that people’s identity can be plural?  If “African American” is possible, then why not other combinations?   Call it Postmodern or whatever you call it, but aren’t we in the Age of Multiplicity?  But the logic of identity politics can’t accept multiple identity.  The integrity of the group and its social-political-cultural-economic demands require adherence to a dichotomous identity: either you’re in or you’re out.

“Many people have a hard time believing that someone can belong in several categories simultaneously,” wrote Dr. Maria P.P. Root, a psychologist, scholar and multiracial activist.  Children can see a ball as red and blue at the same time, and artists understand that red and blue make purple, but many people can’t apply this simple logic to race.  Not only do we have a hard time doing this, but we have a hard time believing it can be done. At more of an extreme, some people refuse to try,” Root wrote.

I dunno.  I’m married to a black woman.  Our extended family mixes black, white, Lithuanian, German, Irish, Cherokee, English and East Indian (via Botswana) blood.  My son wears his hair in dreadlocks and likes the song “Play that Funky Music.”  He doesn’t have any problem being black, white or other.

If Halle Berry or anyone else wants to self-identify as black, fine.  People have the right to self-identify, but that means other people have other choices.  To paraphrase the Army’s recruiting phrase.  Multiracial people want to be all they can be, or wish to be.

Here is Dr. Root’s “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage,” reproduced in its entirety, as per her request:

I HAVE THE RIGHT…

Not to justify my existence in this world.

Not to keep the races separate within me.

Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.

Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my physical or ethnic ambiguity.

I HAVE THE RIGHT…

To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.

To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me.

To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters.

To identify myself differently in different situations.

I HAVE THE RIGHT…

To create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial or multiethnic.

To change my identity over my lifetime–and more than once.

To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people.

To freely choose whom I befriend and love.

© Maria P. P. Root, PhD, 1993, 1994

 

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Obama’s ‘Trip’ Over and Around the Color Line

Who, or what, is Barack Obama?

Although people ask this question about all presidential candidates, I see it raised much more frequently concerning U.S. Senator Barack Obama.  Shelby Steele (author of “The Content of our Character”) argues in his new book, “A Bound Man”that Obama can’t win the presidency because he doesn’t know who he is.  Obama’s quest for his identity is the theme of his autobiography “Dreams From my Father,” which was written before he found the national limelight.  In that book, he gives one answer: “A black man with a mixed heritage”.

Accurate enough, but that’s an answer virtually every black person in America could give — and probably more white people could give an equivalent answer if they knew enough about their own past.

Barack Obama, as most of us know by now, had a black African father and a white American mother, and he has a half-Indonesian half-sister.  Multiracial people such as Obama wrestle with two fundamental questions:

“Who am I?”

“Who (or what) are you?”

The first is a personal, internal question, and the answer must satisfy the individual.  The second is an external question, for public consumption, but some answers will not easily please the public.

Roosevelt University professor Heather Dalmage, herself interracially married, summarizes the struggle with the first question in this way:

Because they do not quite fit into the istorically created, officially named, and socially recognized categories, members of multiracial families are constantly fighting to identify themselves for themselves. A difficulty they face is the lack of language available to address their experiences.

This quote is from Dalmage’s book, Tripping on the Color Line: Black-White Multiracial Families in a Racially Divided World.”

In a world in which half-black, half-white Barack Obama is “the first serious black contender for the presidency,” the language with which to call yourself something else is hard to come by.

 Dvora Yanow of Vrije Universiteit, in Holland, brings out the struggle multiracial people face in answering the “who are you” question thus:

Individuals who cannot find their identity in available categories become invisible, in a sense: without a label, without a vocabulary, their stories are untellable and they themselves are unnarratable.

This is from Yanow’s 2003 book,  Constructing ‘Race’ and ‘Ethnicity’ in America: Category-making in Public Policy and Administration.”

In my masters thesis, I added:

 

Because of the state’s historical and continuing role in racial politics, Americans often address government in narratives that begin, “I am a (fill in the blank) American,” but the federal government only makes available some categories of hyphenated-American for people to use in telling their stories (Yanow, 2003). “Being unable to do so calls into question one’s membership in American society,” (Yanow, 2003, p. 194). The unsuccessful attempt to place a “multiracial” category in the 2000 U.S. Census was, Yanow (2003) asserts, just such a contested claim for membership.

Thus it is that someone like Barack Obama could, early in the campaign, be seen as “not black enough” because he didn’t bear enough markers of race, while to others he “transcends race” due to the same lack of racial markers.  But all this revolves around what other people think or say about Obama.

Is it possible for a multiple answer to both questions?  I.e., “I am black here, white there, ‘mulatto’ in a third context and God knows what elsewhere.”  As the parent/uncle of multiracial children, I believe such an answer is not only possible, but a fundamental right.  More on that in a post coming soon.

 

 

 

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