Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Can We All Claim Him?

Of course, I watched hours of Obamarama TV all day long. Of course, I was moved to tears, cheers, and jeers (whenever they showed a shot of the pitiful Mr. Cheney). I am still tingling and swear the sun started shining a little bit brighter after 12:04pm when Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president of the United States.

But here is my question? Have you all noticed the media is in the midst of a labeling crisis with our new president? Have you witnessed how they stumble and stammer as the declare him the first er, um, African-American, or is it Black, or Biracial president? I have heard news broadcasters use all three terms but they all appeared pained as if they weren't sure they were saying the right thing.

As a former fact-checker, I feel their pain. How do we refer to President Obama when we are trying to place him in the annals of history? I mean, technically, in the truest sense of the word he is an African-American, dad is from Africa, mom hails from the U.S. of A. But we all know that's not what the label means. Is Black a better option, since Black can and often does encompass all of those people involved in the African Diaspora? Of course, Mixed or biracial is probably the most accurate term and if we weren't speaking of the president of the United States, let's say he was a champion golfer for example, I think we probably wouldn't be having this discussion.

Despite the fact that we've been inter-mixing since the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock, I think we are still quite uncomfortable acknowledging the effects. Or are we just too stuck in our old one-drop ways to legitimize the Mixed identity? Of course to you, my Meltingpot readers, this may be a moot point, but the rest of our fellow citizens, as evidenced by our stuttering media, seem to be having a hard time with this.

It is my belief that the person to answer this question is President Obama himself. He should send an executive memo to the press (who will then disseminate the info to the masses) that from now on he wishes to be referred to as, African-American, Black, Biracial, Mixed, African, Hawaiian, Mix-y, Person of Color, HNIC (Head Negro in Charge), whatever. I don't see see it as anyone else's decision, but I do think the issue should be addressed. I'd hate to think Mr. Obama has built an identity for himself that is now being ignored. Maybe he hasn't. Maybe he doesn't care. Maybe I'm making an issue out of nothing.

What do you think?



meeshtastic said...

it's so funny we just had this discussion on the special mixed chicks chat live podcast today. it's a hard question and no one was sure our new president would claim being a mixed person.

btw-i'm reading kinky gazpacho for a second time right now since i blew through it a few days ago and needed to read it again and savor it slowly.

Spring said...

I like the idea of asking him and letting him define himself. Isn't that the ultimate freedom? That we can be who we decide to be?
(although admittedly inconvenient during an inauguration...)

LOVE that his family looks like mine. We are white, Asian, and...yep, I just tripped into it too. Sigh.

LT said...


I'll have to tune in to Mixed Chicks chat and listen to the discussion. I'm glad other people besides me are thinking about these things.

Spring, it is inconvenient but def. important. And I think a lot of people like you are excited to see that the president's family reflects their own.

Green and Natural Mommy said...

Since his run, I have been wondering how he will continue to define himself as well as how he has been defined by the media and the world. I appreciate and am excited about the history that has been made since a person of color(s) is now the most powerful man in the world. On the other hand, I question how to properly explain to my children that they are more than just African American, but instead a combination of their father and me when their new president's biracial heritage is overshadowed by being "the first African-American president!" Either way, I congratulate Mr. and Mrs. Obama on their new journey.

ieishah said...

i think, and i've always thought, that black and african american are not the same. that is to say, how can african american and black be synonyms, in a global context? would you call a black british person, 'an african american british' person? (why can't he be african american (which you point out, HE IS) and mixed?

Carleen Brice said...

From reading Dreams from My Father, I believe he chooses to identify as black or Af Am, and can do that without denying his mother's family.

Did you see the NYTimes story today about how diverse his family is? http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/21/us/politics/21family.html?_r=1&hp

That's the America I know. I'm glad more of the country and the world will get to see it and realize it's normal and common.

LT said...

To all my readers, thank you for your comments.

This is such an interesting conversation, one which I continued standing outside in the freezing cold for 30 minutes today outside my son's preschool. During that chat my friend argued that Obama is a Black man, plain and simple and that he will be remembered as such. Just like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington are remembered as Black. Did you even know that Frederick Douglass was biracial? Booker T. Washington? Why are they not identified as mixed, biracial, or even mulatto as was common practice for the day?

In some ways history makes a difference. There is a vocal community of Mixed people asking for acknowledgement from our new president, but he seems to be happy keeping mum on the subject, without being evasive or race neutral. He' no Tiger Woods. "He's kind of got a don't ask, don't tell" vibe going on my friend joked this morning.

And finally, I listened to my friend Jesse Washington on WHYY this morning explain to the host that like himself, Barack Obama is a Black man with a White mother. It is what it is. He's an American.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Nif said...

As a mixed race/biracial/African American bisexual/lesbian (and troublemaking fence-straddler), I tend to disagree that there can be a “correct” label. The more labels the merrier! Truth is complicated, and I don’t believe that there is or can be One Right Way.

I’m also not sure that how Obama is labeled IS his choice. In fact, I saw a clip of him saying so. No, Obama isn’t African American the way I am African American, with my ancestry of slavery and the memories of how racism shaped my father’s bitterness. But growing up looking like a black man in American, he was treated like other black men in America. Race is such a social construct. There is heritage, and there is presentation. We can’t control what other people think or do.

I know that I am African American, even though I am often perceived to be white. I know that I am bisexual, even though I am perceived to be a lesbian. I spent a great deal of time and tears being upset by other people’s misperceptions of me. At 25, the injustice of knowing that other people would never see me as I see myself -- not without jumping up and down and loud announcements on my part -- was a big, daily, painful drag on my spirit. Oh, I was angry. The developmental work of early adulthood is defining oneself. At nearly 40, it is a lot easier to let it go. I talk to the people I trust, knowing I have built a network of people who embrace both/and.

I also know that a lifetime of my white mother’s love, care, and support isn’t going to erase the existence of the “one drop” rule. She taught me that herself. She doesn’t feel diminished or denied because her kids are as likely to call themselves African American as they are to call themselves biracial. She knows that both are true.

Nif said...

I just remembered this line, in a parenthetical aside in a sentence about how people react to finding out that he is mixed race.

From the intro to Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama p. xv:

"(I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites)"

What I like about this man is his ability to see things as complicated!

LT said...

Hi Nif,

Thanks for posting. I think you're right when you say it's complicated. And I think Obama is fully qualified to handle the issue.

SolShine7 said...

I'm biracial as well and sometimes there isn't one solid label I call myself other than human and Christian. Sometimes I say mixed, sometimes it's biracial, sometimes it's multi-cultural and sometimes it's something completely different so it all depends on the day, my mood or whatever. We have the right to be flexible about how we chose to identify. I'm just glad that Pres. Obama is causing people to talk about this subject.