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