Tag Archives: U.S. Census

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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