by Jen Chau
Over the last couple of months, I have begun to expect that every un-identified number that pops up on my cell phone is probably connected to a well-intentioned (most of the time) reporter wondering if I could offer my thoughts on Obama‘s mixed race identity. Asking me to comment because of my work with Swirl, they have all wondered how hot of a topic Obama has been amongst other mixed race people. Was everyone excited about it? Were people taking offense to the fact that he was identifying as an African-American man? And what does he mean for the future of mixed race people everywhere? These are just some of the questions that came up during the interviews in which I have taken part (I guess though, that I should at least mention my favorite of all, “What if Obama identified as a white man? What would people think of that?” The best rhetorical question I have heard in a while. If nothing else, these conversations surely have been entertaining).
Now, before I get into my answers to any of these questions, let me say (lest I sound ungrateful) that I am thrilled that Obama is getting a chance at the Presidency. I am also happy that people are feeling pushed to talk about race. I am very happy with how Obama himself handles the whole topic, and I am happy that I have been asked to comment in the midst of all of these national discussions. With all of that said, these conversations about race are just not cutting it. Nowhere even close. Now, I don’t expect us to all of a sudden get really adept at talking about race as a country just because we have a Presidential candidate who is pushing the envelope. We can‘t and shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security because he us getting this shot (it sounds like: “Oooooh, I think Racism is ending. Look! A black man is getting a chance to be President of the United States!” I have heard some rendition of this thought several times already). We have to remember that we are at a challenging place in this country and have been here for some time -- where some care about these issues, some don’t. Some are terribly experienced with discussing, thinking and living these issues, others are more unfamiliar. This makes for a lot of the tension that exists. Those who are unfamiliar wonder why others have to talk about race so much and those who live it every day wonder why other people just don’t get it. Having a person of color lead this country doesn’t automatically make all of those tensions immediately go away.
Now I offer you a segment from my ideal interview -- where whatever I want to say, I say because I am not worried about the interviewer thinking I am too much of a rabble-rouser and moving onto someone else who is low-key and doesn’t have opinions that are too strong (borrrring). On top of that, none of my statements are edited (oh the joy of interviewing yourself and then putting it on your own blog). J By the way, let’s also say that this is a radio interview with a guy named Bob. It just sounds right, doesn‘t it?
Today we are talking about race and Barack Obama, the democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States of America. Jen Chau here with us. Jen, thanks so much for being here. Jen Chau. An activist in the mixed community, the Founder and Executive Director of Swirl. Jen, obviously people in this country have a lot to say about Baracks’s racial identity. Mixed race people must be excited about him and the fact that he is mixed. Is everyone in the mixed community going to vote for him?
Well, I can’t really speak for the entire mixed community, because we are not one homogeneous mass of people who all think the same way, talk the same way, dress the same way, oh you get my drift there, Bob, don’t you? (fake radio laugh) I do know that a lot of people are excited about Obama because of what he stands for and how he deals with identity. He doesn’t approach race as if it’s merely a black and white issue. He is inclusive of the diversity that exists in this country. This is what people have been waiting to hear and are excited about. Give mixed people more credit and give Obama more credit. Not every mixed person is going to vote for Obama just because he comes from a mixed family; he also brings additional things to the table. Believe it or not, mixed people are just as discerning as any other voter out there. We are talking about voting for the President of the United States, not playing a round of point-to-the-candidate-who-looks-most-like-you-and-pull-the-lever-or-break-that-chad-yayyy-you-did-it!!! Is this what people really think of us, Bob?
What, that all mixed people are beautiful and dumb?
Oh Bob, no. No. We’re not going to do that today.
Well, I do think that people have that perception of mixed people.
Yes, they do. And that has got to change. We are not considered a highly politicized community and I hope that we can begin to shift that perception. Lots of the mixed people I know think about race and politics and the politics of race quite a bit. We have ideas and opinions, and a vision for what we want this world to be. Those who think we are just pretty faces clearly haven’t had the opportunity to meet many mixed race people. And that’s part of the problem in how we relate to each other in this country. We don’t consider or try to learn about the depth of each person. We see the surface and many times we stop there. Consider the depth.
Well what about the person who lives in middle America and doesn’t get to run into too many mixed race people? What do they do? And tell me this, shouldn’t it be Barack’s responsibility to identify as a mixed race man if that is what he really is, technically? I mean, isn’t the mixed community angry that he isn’t owning that identity? He’s not helping with mixed race consciousness at all.
Bob, part of the reason why I started Swirl was to help in the fight to have mixed race people identify in the ways that most fit them. I am not here - and Swirl is not here - to police mixed people everywhere to ensure that they are checking off multiple boxes each time they fill out a form. The most important thing to us has been the right to identify as we really are. If Barack feels most close to his African American identity, that is for him to say. And he shouldn’t be put in a position of having to defend that identification. It is his prerogative to identify as such. Others have taken responsibility for identifying us (for us) throughout history (see the One-Drop rule). Based on the phenotypes of mixed race people, others have felt justified in deciding who we are. Identity is more complex than that, as I said before. If you go past the surface and get to where values and traditions and beliefs and experiences lie, you find identity. Identity is not just your face. While your appearance may help to construct your identity, it typically isn’t the only thing that determines identity. Barack has every right to identify as he is identifying. Any mixed person who is mad at him for identifying as a black man is a serious hypocrit in my eyes. If we have had such a hard time with people demanding we pick ONE box in the past, we shouldn’t demand that others pick more than one box. Mixed people should understand better than anyone else that identity is a personal thing, and is a complicated thing. It isn’t as easy as color-coding each other.
So you think that we shouldn’t even be having this conversation?
No, Bob, I think it’s great that we are having this conversation because there is still a lot that has to be learned from talking about these issues. I am merely expressing my frustration with this country’s collective closed-mindedness when it comes to identity. I also think it’s somewhat ridiculous that we (the public) feel the need to pull apart and prod anyone who is mixed race. Others in the spotlight who are “monoracial” don’t have to deal with the same kind of scrutiny. Did we have debates about Hillary’s identity as a white woman? Now, I don’t think the dialogue about Barack’s identity is necessarily ill-intentioned -- mixed identity is still largely misunderstood, so I think the public scrutiny is a way for our society to make sense of those who aren’t easily classified. Not to mention that it’s a big moment in history for a person of color to get this close to the White House. I just wonder if we shouldn’t really think about what race is and what it means to us here in 2008. We attribute so much importance to it, but at the end of the day, what does it all mean? Not much, I fear -- aside from a pretty effective way to keep us all divided.
And that’s what people are hoping that Obama will help with, right? To bring people together and end the divisiveness? I mean, if we have a black man in the White House, doesn’t that mean that racism is over?
Bob, please. You’re smarter than this. We cannot put all of the responsibility for undoing generations of racism onto Barack’s shoulders. First, it sets him up for failure, and second, what about the rest of Americans? Does this mean that we have no responsibility? As you and I both know, there is more than enough work to do and Barack can’t do it alone. If he becomes our next President, that is an amazing step, don’t get me wrong. BUT there is enough that we need to fix that everything isn’t just going to change over night. We need to understand that we are not going to undo racism with a savior. It’s going to be years of hard work. Individuals looking at themselves and questioning their own biases, great organizations out there continuing to do the hard work of educating and bringing people together, fixing the inequality that shows up in our children’s earliest years in failing school systems. And it goes on. These are not things that are just going to go away once Barack sits down in the Oval Office for his first day of work. What remains are generations of us working for change. Many of us thought we would never see a person of color coming this close to the Presidency, and we are seeing it, so who knows? I feel hopeful, Bob. But we have to stay grounded and remember that the work needs to continue. Obama shouldn’t be expected to do it alone.
Jen, you have raised some important points today and I think I did a good job of not being too frustrating. I let you talk for long stretches of time and I am tired of the effort that it takes not to interrupt you, so let’s end here! Jen Chau. Activist and community organizer. A lot of things to say. This is Bob, signing off. Thanks Jen.
Bob, thanks so much. Happy to do it.
1. Give more credit to mixed race people and to Obama.
2. Mixed race people should not have to defend the way that they identify. Those who are mixed are always up for public scrutiny, and this is problematic.
3. One-person solutions to racism are not reasonable or realistic. We all have a lot of work to do together (whether Obama is our next President or not).