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Race, Terminology, and Self-Identification

Race, Terminology, and Self-Identification

So there’s this letter in today’s Dear Abby about the way President Obama is referred to by black Americans/self-identifies as a black man. And it contains an argument I’ve heard before about the white “half” and so I feel compelled to point out a few bits of historical and social context in the interests of not listening to people make this argument any more. First up, we live in a society that coined the One Drop rule to ensure that racism had a solid generational footing. The impact of that rule, Jim Crow etiquette and laws, and a host of other bits of institutional racism are still being felt today. Terms like mulatto and colored carry a whole lot of cultural baggage in America that most (if not all) people with good sense want to avoid heaping on anyone else. So, that brings us to words like biracial or multiracial. And yes, President Obama (much like my eldest son) is technically biracial. However, he is not light enough to pass and so he has spent his life (regardless of the color of his mother and grandmother) being treated as a black man in his everyday interactions.

My son isn’t light enough to pass (not that I’d want him too) either and he sees himself as a black man. Some of that is definitely influenced by upbringing (after I divorced his father, I eventually remarried and his stepfather is black), but it is also a product of what he sees in the mirror everyday. This idea that a society that engineered distinctions like the One Drop Rule, mulatto, colored, quadroon, octoroon, and quintroon is going to be filled with people that look at someone with a skin tone that reflects black ancestry and see the white/Asian/Latino/Indian/NDN ancestry as paramount is frankly ludicrous. I’ll let you in on a secret, your average black American with a family line present in America for longer than 2 or 3 generation is part something else. Maybe white, maybe NDN, whatever the racial background, when they go outside and walk down the street unless they are light enough to pass for white (and have the requisite features of thinner lips and a nose that is high and narrow enough) someone is questioning their background. More importantly they are encountering racism (subtle and overt) that constantly informs their experience.

And yes, there is some backlash (from all sides) attached to the notion of self-identification for multiracial people especially if someone feels that the racial identity established is too narrow/disrespectful of the other ancestry/too general. We’re a country that likes boxes and labels (see every single discussion of Tiger Woods) because we’re a country that has built an entire caste system on racial classifications. My son’s biological father is white, but his experience in society? It’s not that of a white man. It will never be that of a white man. When President Obama refers to himself as a black man it’s not a denial of his mother, it’s an acknowledgment of his experience. Is that a good statement about the state of American race relations? Probably not. But this the reality of living in a country that periodically trots out the idea that being tolerant or color blind is the only way not to be racist.

33 comments to Race, Terminology, and Self-Identification

  • I have a thought that’s been bothering me, but have been hesitant because if I phrase it wrongly (which I very well might) it can come out sounding like a whining “what about the white people?”, which is not what I intend at all (*nervous*)… but it’s been in my head because of racial history in the US, particularly with the One Drop rule. If this isn’t the appropriate forum to be asking, I’m sorry…

    My question is how to classify someone who is technically multiracial (according to ancestry), but looks white — possibly because of familial ignorance, possibly because part of that ancestry chose to pass — and succeeded at it. Would it be inappropriate / insensitive for that person to identify as multiracial, as they haven’t suffered discrimination because they’re for all appearances “white”? On the other hand, would it be inappropriate for them to deny their multiracial heritage?

    I won’t lie and say this isn’t about me, because it is. I remember being shocked as a child when my mother told me about one of our ancestors (possibly Cree, though we’re not sure) who was struck from the family genealogy. Her husband was there, and their children, but not her — because “she was a disgrace to the family”. Because she was brown. Amazing and shameful that it took me so long to realize that such discrimination wasn’t a thing of the past…

    • Momsomniac

      Hi Lysse,

      As I understand it, allowing people to self-identify is key. It’s also important to never *ever* try to use one’s heritage as a “get out of being-called-out-on-racist-behavior free card.” If you don’t do that, people generally respect what you say.

      I am 1/4 Cherokee, and when I am able to do so, I identify as Cherokee and white. I do this with an awareness that I usually move through the world perceived as a white person. My decision was based upon 3 generations of family either outright LYING about our heritage or acknowledgeing it WITHIN the family but stressing it was to be a SECRET outside the family. On one side of the family, it greatly influenced our up-bringing, but was still to be a secret. The lying felt wrong to me.

      I would think there are many multi-racial people who self-identify as A for similar reasons, knowing full well that people who don’t know them well will see them as B. I imagine there are even MORE “white” people walking around who have no idea they are multi-racial….

      All that said, this is a completely different topic than the OP, which is about President Obama identifying as a Black man because, frankly, that’s his experience in this world. And I am beginning to think my own tendency to derail may be an act of priviledge (or an unfortunate personality trait). Either way, I really need to work on it. So, I hope that helped…

      • LDR

        It seems like the rules are different for different ethnic groups, too. I don’t know if the one drop rule applies to other people of color, or just blacks.

        But I do know that in this day and age, lots of white people boast about being part Native American. I’ve never met anyone who looks white but boasts about “their black grandmother” in the same way.

        • Momsomniac

          I don’t know for sure, but I think “one drop” was explicitly about anti-black racism, used for barring potential voters and the like. For Native blood, the U.S. government used to say 1/8 until land reparations came about, then it was 50% (tribal rules vary).

          And yes, you are absolutely right about the boasting and not boasting…though if every white looking person with a black grandmother starting talking about her, it might be a good thing. The risk to one’s priviledge will be greater, of course…

          (and if every other white-looking person who ever told me they were part Cherokee actually was, then we have secretly conquered this nation :)

        • MJ

          The rules are indeed different. There’s an old adage amongst many in the tribal autonomy movement that goes something like “Whites are continually finding more blacks and less Indians.” It was meant to sum up the contrast between the inclusive “one-drop rule” and the exclusive blood quantum calculation.

          Before the advent of blood quantum, many tribes both in the East and the Plains had a completely different approach. If a member of another tribe became woven into the fabric of one tribe’s community, they were often accepted as a member of that tribe.

          I tend to believe that the rigid blood quantum requirements established through treaties and later the policies of the BIA were designed to ensure an eventual cessation of treaty obligations on the part of the United States. Borrowing from the convenient “disappearing Indian” myth romanticized in popular European fiction as early as the 1500s and still going strong today, even many of our own people have come to believe in the inevitability of tribal decline and/or the legitimacy of blood quantum as the measure of their own “Indian-ness.”

          Personally, I think racial terms should apply to the experiences we have. The other day I was speaking with a young woman who was embarrassed of her low blood quantum to the point where she was ashamed to participate within the tribe despite her desire to do so. I told her that though she may not share the experiences of an Indian woman, she was still 100% Cherokee in the eyes of her tribe and she should not let the Department of the Interior deprive her tribe of her contributions.

          Goodness, that did get awfully long but I think it can be a disservice to consider the identifiers of race and tribal membership to be one and the same.

    • Thank you so much to everyone who answred! I agree fully that one’s heritage justifies nothing, and thank you Momsomniac for reminding me of it :)

      I don’t think I could (conscientiously) identify as multiracial because I’ve benefited from white privilege my whole life. On the other hand, it would be wrong for me to claim that my heritage is monochrome, particularly when my cultural heritage is multi-.

      As far as I know, “one drop” WAS fully related anti-black racism, but I also think (which relates to President Obama’s self-identification) that a lot of the US tends to think of race on a black/white binary (particularly in the media). I think a lot of the “Obama’s also white!” cries come from camps that don’t want to fully let go of white presidency. I’d say more, but as I’ve figured out above, I don’t really have any personal experience to go off and shall leave that to people who know more and better. (Quick plug, however, for , which says some very interesting things!)

      I think I also have a tendency to derail… I need to work on that.

      Again, many thanks for taking time out to educate me — it is highly appreciated!

  • rys

    right on, karnythia. i’m a white guy who didn’t even meet any people of color until i went into the army in the late 1960s. in the years since then i’ve become close to black and latino and asian friends, just enough to realize how deeply my own racism runs, even with the best of intentions. your description of how racism originated and evolved in this country, and how one’s self-perception of racial identity works, should be read by every “white” person, especially in our schools. thank you.

  • Zahra

    Amen. Identity is formed in dialogue, between one’s self and one’s society, and there are complicated personal factors–historical context, appearance, upbringing, etc.–that go into it. But once someone has settled on an identity, and publicly stated it, it is the height of rudeness to question it. Onlookers don’t get to make that decision.

    To try to overrule what Obama himself has said is an expression of the “everything must revolve around white people” rule–both the insisting on Obama’s white heritage be the focus of discussion, and the “you brown person doesn’t know about this to make up your own mind; it’s my (white) opinion that matters.” Color me aggravated.

  • Rob Hansen

    Halle Berry’s father skipped out when she was very young and she was raised by her white, English mother. In her teens, confused about her identity, she apparently asked her mother what she was. To which her mother replied that society would always perceive her as a black woman. And her mother was right. Halle and Obama may be biracial, but does anyone really believe that’s how the majority of people see them? I gather Tiger Woods takes the opposite view, as is his right, but while being biracial is something everyone knows exists, I’m not sure it’s something enough people choose to *recognise* yet.

  • sammyo

    Tall white guy here, this just burned me up during the election. I’m not much of an activist or political but any time I heard that one: “he’s half white” I did make a point that in any other context he would not be accused of being in any way white. Sheesh, yes I am rather embarrassed at times, well yeah, way way too often.

  • I don’t see why it’s so hard for people to accept – like Ann Coulter, for example, being all indignant about Halle Barry and Obama choosing to identify as black. If they walked calling themselves white, what do you think people would say?

  • During the election, the people that informed me Obama wasn’t really black, due to his having a white mother and having been “raised white,” were all on the far-right, and I am fairly certain (I found it difficult to engage with them long enough to be absolutely certain) that they were making this claim in order to show me, the idiot liberal, what a liar Obama was.

    See? they were telling me: he’s just playing you! Pretending to be black! Using the blackness that isn’t really his to scam his way into the White House! Isn’t that just the way black people operate? Can’t trust a one of them! (I do live in Arkansas, where critical thinking isn’t paramount.)

    I attempted to make the argument ABW made, about Obama living in America, where no one cared who your mama was, only what color you were, but arguing with a Winger, as I am sure you all know, is like arguing with a brick.

    It’s sort of depressing to find the same arguments still being made, though.

  • My cultural and racial background is diversity (like many AA) but I define myself as “black” because that is what people see. I know my rich cultural heritage, but I also know my reality. Nobody’s going to give a shit about my Argentinian great nana or my jewish nada or my whatever when all they happen to see is a brown person who “appears” black to them. I have let go the anger I feel around not being able to define myself as I wish in some public spaces. That said, I never stop talking about my cultural heritages and challenging people’s assumptions about what “biracial” looks like.

  • moon

    I am a biracial Arab-German Woman (50-50 so to say), which in my experience always means, to be unsure about how people are going to position you…at times you are too ‘not wearing hijab’ to be a ‘proper Arab’ and other times my name is just so confusing in Germany that people ask me how I learned to speak German without an accent (sometimes it is even the same people leaning towards one direction or the other)…even though I clearly position myself as a WoC in public spaces people here still try to position me whichever way pleases them…

    • Moon, do you look German? I ask this, because physical traits are extremely important when dealing with race dynamics. Most people are not going to be investigating your background. Instead racism involves subtlety, where traits are through one’s physical features, name, and what not.

      The fact that you have a German accent is more striking as well. Do understand that throughout Western history, people of color, have been classified as perpetual foreigners. That remained even as PoCs assimilated including pushing the interests of imperialist states.

      It is possible that you could assimilate. If you don’t appear Arab, feature a German name, it’s very unlikely for one to perceive you as one. You may identify yourself as a PoC, but it’d be no different from white people who claim to be part indigenous. It doesn’t change the fact that they are the recipients of immense privileges.

      PS: There was a time when even Jewish and Irish people were considered color. Those groups had to sell out, ultimately oppress others, in order to enter the club. One does not have to have blue eyes/ blonde hair to be white.

      • moon

        Well I don’t know whether I look German or not because, people tell me one way and the other. There are people who tell me that they can see “what’s in me”,mostly referring to my nose, lips, cheekbones, facial features in general, and they are both white and PoC. My name is clearly Arab (which, upon hearing it, seduces people to ask “where are you from?”, thus, placing me outside the nation) and confuses many as I have said earlier, mostly I have to spell it; it does confuse them to the point where they are suprised, that albeit having my name I am very well able to speak German, and do hold a German passport (as well as a Jordanian one). Moreover, I have already been told that, having a name like mine I shouldn’t be suprised one might think me a refugee (really weird situation) on top of all sorts of remarks and “jokes” about terrorists, hijab, my worth in camels and so on and so on. Authenticity (especially around the issues of being Arab, Muslim, German) is a big issue. So when I speak up against racist remarks about Arabs and/or Muslims I am told to take it more lightly, me not being a “real” Arab/Muslim or “only half an” Arab and/or Muslim after all. However, when I argue about Muslim feminism with Muslim men and women, they, too tell me I’m not real, not 100%, because I don’t wear hijab, mostly grew up in Germany and so on.

  • Nick

    I was actually one of those people who mentioned that Obama was raised by a white mother and grandmother. My intention was to highlight the reality of our mixed heritages, and the fallacy of just labeling ourselves by color (social constructs meant to divide us). However, in hindsight that may not have been the best response to my conservative family who were saying that we are post-racial now that we have a black man as President. I’ve been understanding white privilege for 4 years now, trying to sharpen my awareness of my complicity in structural racism as well as hidden (to me) biases and prejudices. And a few years ago, I committed myself to being a white ally. I am constantly strategizing on-the-go how best to engage my white family and friends with a focus on white privilege and awareness of structural inequities based primarily on race. The spider webs of our stereotypes constantly entrap conversations and meaningfulness and clarity, and people get trapped in “I’m not a racist” thinking, instead of seeing (or wanting to see) the historical American reality that Whites have always been favored in policy-making and community-building.

  • Karnythia, identity is not just formed by how other people see you; identity is a very complex issue of treatment by your community and by strangers, how your family views you, and how you feel yourself, internally. Each one of these item is enormously complex; put them all together and you simply cannot predict what you’ll get at any given moment.

    This is why multiracials very often change their declared identities, often more than once, over a lifetime. Why? Because we can … and because we need to. Especially for white/poc multiracials, sometimes it’s more important to own your non-white heritage, so you can find strength against the racism you grew up with. But eventually, when you’re older and start to recognize that, yes, you DO have access to white privilege, even though you’re not seen as white, you need to stand in that as well. This is partly to own your responsibility, but also partly so that you can take advantage of that privilege to make things happen in the world for yourself, your family, even for your poc community.

    Some young multiracials go the other route and insist that they’re white (Keanu is one of these) because they were raised white and that’s who they genuinely believe they are … but also because they were denied any access to their poc heritage, and would feel fraudulent claiming it. Again, many of these change their minds later in life, realizing how much racism they actually have had to contend with.

    Each multiracial’s choices are different, and you can’t use one multiracial to talk about all multiraciality. I would be very careful, in any case, of using Obama-the-politician’s declarations of identity to talk about black/white biraciality. Even were he not currently the most powerful man on Earth, or even a politician, his background is rather unusual among American black/white biracials. And, of course, he IS a politician, a very successful one. Although his career and personal choices in adulthood declare very clearly that he identifies as African American, his declarations of identity during his campaign were just as clearly designed to make him palatable to a voting public that still doesn’t understand, and is threatened by, multiraciality. Anyone who has read his books knows that he has a much more sophisticated understanding of multiraciality (not to mention transnationality) than he will ever cop to in a speech.

    And finally, I would caution a monoracially-identifying parent against using their multiracial child’s identity to make arguments. Parents have a stake in how their multiracial children identify; both a personal stake, and a parent’s stake (i.e. parents want their children to identify in the way that is most advantageous to their children, be it politically, economically, or personally advantageous … and how this plays out will be different in each family.) And, of course, parents have more influence over how their children identify than anyone else in the world, although it may not always seem so. Often, how even an adult child identifies is in part a reflection of their parents’ politics. And often, a multiracial who is comfortable with multiple identities, will declare only one identity to a parent who is uncomfortable with other identities for their child.

    • karnythia

      Claire, I’m sure you mean well with this comment, but you’re so far off track about how being biracial is experienced by people who are neither Model Minority nor light enough to pass that you’ve grabbed a stick that isn’t in the fire. I’m talking about people who have a white parent and still are visibly of Africa descent, not any other context of being biracial. This is a conversation about my community and how we relate to this topic and have for hundreds of years here in America. Life in a society that doesn’t grant white privilege (and in fact has gone out its way to legislate lack of access to it for anyone with that one drop of black blood) is very different for children like my son, Obama, and dozens of other people who have had this experience. As for how I treat my son’s identity formation, you know nothing about my biological background, my parenting methods with him, or what I’m comfortable with in terms of his identification.

      • how being biracial is experienced by people who are neither Model Minority nor light enough to pass

        Karnythia, I did not “mean well.” I meant to rebuke you, the same way you meant to rebuke me with your use of the offensive term “model minority,” and your implication that I’m “light enough to pass.” Race does not equal skin color, and “being light” and “passing” are two different things. The fact that you equate being light with passing, even or especially for African multiracials, is an item of ignorance. Have you never met any black/white biracials with light skin and features that are more African than European? Have you never met a black/white biracial who tripped everyone’s race wires because no one knew what they were exactly? When it comes to biracials, have you forgotten that identifying race has as much to do with context, visible affiliation, dress, gait, speech, adornment, attitude, and other cultural cues as it does with features, hair textures and skin color?

        you know nothing about my biological background

        If you identify as biracial, please say so. In the post above, you seemed to be identifying as the monoracial parent of a biracial child. And no, I don’t mean do you have any non-African blood in your heritage. I’m well aware that the African American community is inherently multiracial. (Are you equally aware that the Asian and Latin American colonies my family is from are also inherently multiracial?) I’m also aware that identifying as monoracially black despite this history of multiraciality is partly a result of internalizing the one-drop rule and partly of turning it into a source of personal and community power, among many other things. And no, that’s not what I’m talking about when I say “biracial,” any more than that’s what you’re talking about when you say “biracial.”

        If you are not biracial, then you don’t get to school me on the biracial experience, any more than I get to school you on the black experience. Because when I wrote above about multiraciality, I wasn’t writing about black/white multiraciality or Asian/white multiraciality, I was writing about the shared experiences many biracials or multiracials of all mixes have, of having our identity flattened, even by our own families, having our beings essentialized by people with their own agendas, and identifying differently than our parents would have us do. I don’t know if you’ve read this, but I’d suggest you read it (again), carefully, with an eye towards what you wrote in your post above. Are you preserving for Obama and other multiracials all of these rights when you write the sort of post you wrote above?

        I’m talking about people who have a white parent and still are visibly of Africa descent, not any other context of being biracial. This is a conversation about my community and how we relate to this topic and have for hundreds of years here in America.

        And this is exactly the problem. I’ve been involved in multiracial organizing for years now, although I’ve stopped for a few years because multiracial organizing is moving into a different phase. When I talk about biracials and multiracials, I AM TALKING ABOUT MY COMMUNITY, not one that is exclusively yours. Many black/white biracials do not identify as multiracial, and even more don’t associate with any general multiracial community. BUT MANY DO, and many of them do so specifically because African Americans like yourself dismiss the complexity of their identities, and try to relegate them to one identity.

        These folks, who declare themselves to be part of MY community, and who have written many, many books, and articles, and given many interviews, and made films and art and etc. etc. about this topic, have helped to move the national understanding of race and multiraciality pretty far along. Obama’s candidacy and now presidency have moved this discussion along light years, and at lightning speed. The one-drop rule is one of those pieces of history that leaves a mean and powerful legacy. But it is no longer the only rule. And the way it operates now is increasingly complex and spotty and context-determined. In fact, there are tons of positions along the spectrum of dealing with race, and Americans are now pretty interestingly distributed across them all. Your continuing to insist that the one drop rule is the only rule we need to pay attention to when it comes to black/white biraciality just indicates that you’re one of the ones stuck in those pockets of history.

        Even if the one-drop-rule still applied universally though, Karnythia, multiracials themselves have always been pretty interestingly distributed across the spectrum of identity. This is because how the outside world treats you is not the only thing that forms your identity.

        I’m shocked that you don’t seem to know this.

        And finally, I do realize that this post was prompted by white people who use Obama’s multiraciality to derail discussions of race. But just because the intention of the argument is bad and derailing, doesn’t mean the argument itself isn’t valid. Allowing that, yes, Obama isn’t JUST BLACK, doesn’t put you in a bad position in an argument about race … unless you think that the African American community is diminished if some of its members are also white.

        Likewise, accepting the biracial argument derails the derail, and also suddenly opens up your race discussion to a nuance it didn’t have before.

        But we wouldn’t want that, would we?

        • karnythia

          Actually the means well comment was about your efforts to critique my parenting since I assumed you have some semblance of home training and knew you were well into overstepping any semblance of polite discourse when you turned two sentences about my child into an argument about how I’m raising my son. Clearly I was incorrect. As for rebuking me? You are the one that seems to have lost your grasp of the facts of life for people who do not look like you and are living in America. How I identify has nothing to do with my biological background, nor did I say that the one drop rule was the only one we should recognize. But then it looks like you were so busy knee jerking that you ignored what I actually said in favor of leaping to your own conclusions about how your experience must be the universal one. This conversation is very specifically about being black and white, and has (as I already told you) very clear parameters, ones that do not have anything to do with your experience no matter how hard you insist that you are the voice of authority. As for whether or not I know that there’s more to race than skin color? Claire, you seem to have expected this post to be like one that you wish to see written. If you want to discuss areas that you feel I left uncovered (after all it’s not like I would have any idea of the racial dynamics of colorism in my own community…oh wait. Or that I know that Obama’s parentage isn’t at all unusual in America…oh wait, that was your claim because you seem to have a very limited view of the black community clearly viewed through a lens of privilege and distinct ignorance. My mention of passing wasn’t an insult, it was a statement of fact about my son because one of the first things required to pass is to be light. Yes there’s more to it than that, but when you’re talking about black/white it starts right there and then moves forward. As for Model Minority? My intention wasn’t to offend (trust me, that was not a rebuke because I have so many other areas to rebuke I don’t need to resort to any behavior as ignorant or tactless as yours) but merely to point out that the experience of someone with a different racial background cannot be expanded to include all people of mixed race. Like most (if not all) black people in America my biology includes a lot of different racial and ethic backgrounds…the fact that I don’t feel the need to identify them to random passerby or someone who thinks they are the gatekeeper of multiracial identity discussions isn’t an indication of how I view being multiracial. But then you don’t want this discussion to include any pesky facts when you’re really here to rebuke me for daring to discuss a topic that clearly makes you uncomfortable.

          • Ah, now I see why you shut your ears to my perfectly reasonable arguments. I mentioned your son and you automatically heard me critiquing your parenting skills. Go back into my comments above and quote me where I’m giving you “an argument about how (you’re) raising (your) son”. Seriously, where do I “critique your parenting”? When you’ve calmed down and realized that your defensiveness is none of my doing, you’ll also realize that I’ve said NOTHING about your parenting, about which I know nothing and care less. Here, I’ll make it easy for you:

            I would caution a monoracially-identifying parent against using their multiracial child’s identity to make arguments. Parents have a stake in how their multiracial children identify; both a personal stake, and a parent’s stake (i.e. parents want their children to identify in the way that is most advantageous to their children, be it politically, economically, or personally advantageous … and how this plays out will be different in each family.) And, of course, parents have more influence over how their children identify than anyone else in the world, although it may not always seem so. Often, how even an adult child identifies is in part a reflection of their parents’ politics. And often, a multiracial who is comfortable with multiple identities, will declare only one identity to a parent who is uncomfortable with other identities for their child.

            I’ll make it even easier: these are GENERAL PRINCIPLES, gleaned from being multiracial, from reading a lot of academic literature studying multiracial families, and from working in a multiracial community where I’ve seen all kinds of examples of monoracial parents using their multiracial kids to make all sorts of points. I wasn’t saying that YOU do any of the things above (I wouldn’t have ANY way to know if you did); I was suggesting that using your son to make these points is a bad idea because SO MANY PARENTS do these things, that it’s hard to tell whether or not YOU’RE doing them. And I don’t mean it’s hard for ME to tell; it’s IMPOSSIBLE for me to tell from one stupid, simplistic blog post. I mean it’s hard for YOU to tell because you’re so close to it and have such a huge stake in it. And that goes double now, given how defensive you are about it.

            And for you to get all defensive and silly because I talked about your son is, well, silly. You’re the one who brought your son in to make a public argument. If you don’t want people to grab hold of that, leave your kid out of it in the future and tell us all how to think about Obama based on general principles. And, in fact, that’s pretty much all I was saying above: leave your poor kid out of it and speak from your own experience.

            And finally, quit trying to shut me out of this discussion. Your post above and all your responses to me so far have been essentially saying that I don’t get to draw on my own experience in this discussion because you’re only talking about YOUR community. And I keep telling you that this is where you’re wrong. When you try to make Obama ONLY a member of YOUR community and not a member of mine, you’re wrong. I’m a citizen of the country Obama leads. I’m a multiracial in a culture in which he is a multiracial. I share the following experiences with him: being raised multiracial in a white family, being raised at all in a white family, being raised transnationally in an Asian country, having a sibling whose racial self-identification is distinct from my own. There are also many important experiences that I DON’T share with him.

            THIS is why multiraciality is such a complex issue, and one that deserves a great deal more thoughtfulness than you’ve shown yourself able to produce here. Because a multiracial person can’t just be restricted in the public mind to one experience, one community. No one single person can identify themselves with all aspects of a multiracial person. Many people from many different communities share experiences and heritages with a multiracial person, and all of those people get to talk about it in public. Obama can choose how he identifies; that’s his right. But YOU don’t get to choose for the rest of us how we get to talk about Obama’s obvious, open, and public construction of his identity. He has deliberately made the construction of his identity a public one — through books, speeches, and public performances of family — since 1995 and the publication of “Dreams from My Father.” He put that out there at least in part to give us something to talk about. And we’re talking about it.

            You’ve accused me of arguing not against what you said, but against an argument that I constructed in my head. But what else have you done here but that? I laid out my understanding of this above and you accuse me of trying to school you from ignorance. But if I hadn’t laid out my understanding, you would have simply accused me of ignorance. You accuse me of acting like a gatekeeper, but what have I done except try to keep you from closing down this argument to your own narrow view? Everything I’ve said here and above has been an effort to keep this discussion OPEN, COMPLEX, AND INCLUSIVE, not closed, simplistic, and exclusive.

            And everything you’ve said about it so far on this thread has tended towards trying to shut up that argument with your authority as a black woman who claims Obama as simply and solely black.

            I really have to ask: what WAS your purpose in posting this in the first place? Because if you had really wanted a complex discussion of biraciality, you should have welcomed the opportunity I brought here to discuss it. Instead, you’ve been trying to shut me down.

            • karnythia

              Your argument was never reasonable, but I didn’t shut my ears to it (though I see now that I should given the fact that you think you’re in a position to rebuke me like I’m the devil out to bring down multiracial identity) instead I tried to understand how you gleaned so many fallacious assumptions from a post that said none of the things you continue to ascribe to me. As for me being silly? There is so much wrong here with your approach to the initial post, all the follow on discussion, and this comment that I don’t know where to start because I keep using facts and you want to wave privilege and prejudice all over the place. The fact that you clearly came here to be deliberately derailing (after all it’s not like you’re lacking a platform on which to have the discussion that *you* want to have which is not the discussion that happened here because I was having a different conversation) and offensive and are still engaging in the same ridiculous behavior makes me think that trying to have an intelligent discussion with you was always impossible. I do wonder why you bothered to air this screed here weeks later without actually reading for content or context, but then the more I see from you the more I think that I won’t care about the answer. Please feel free to tell yourself you did a good thing here. Everyone can see the reality, but I’d hate to deprive you of your (apparently) comforting delusion that you’re seeking a complex discourse on race when you’ve already proven that you really wish to air your issues with with people who identify as black. You want to lash out? Do it somewhere else, because you’re not going to act just like the people who inspire all those bingo squares in my space.

            • yeloson

              Ah, now I see why you shut your ears to my perfectly reasonable arguments.

              Privilege. Always first to claim “reasonable” while defining other people’s lives. Well done.

              Newsflash: black and native folks have been navigating “multiracial” experience since get go. Of course a “reasonable” person might, you know, read history and consider that before shooting off.

            • I suspect you’re going to delete this comment because I don’t see a “reply” on your comment below, which indicates you’re done with this discussion. If so, it’s too bad you’re so eager to give away an opportunity to really discuss what you wrote above (because you still haven’t. This entire thread has been you attacking me and telling me that I don’t get what you wrote, and not actually addressing my arguments or discussing the issue at hand.)

              Karnythia, I didn’t wait to comment here for some nefarious reason. This is simply the first time I’ve seen this post. (And it’s sad that you would feel it necessary to add such an innocuous detail to your attack.) I don’t check in here all that often because I feel that the “discussion” here is decreasingly discussion, and increasingly only either fighting or sycophancy. Usually I don’t add a comment when I come, but I did this time because you’re saying something here that affects a lot of people, and you’re stating it as fact, while leaving a LOT of issues, and opinions out.

              And you finally break out the accusations of “privilege” and “derailing.” I wasn’t derailing the discussion. I’M still IN the discussion, still talking about multiraciality and Obama and concepts of the same. YOU’RE the one who has stepped away from the issue at hand to accuse me of “privilege” and “derailing” and to avoid addressing any of my points. THAT’S DERAILING.

              And no, you don’t get to cry “model minority” and repeatedly tell me that I’m not black in a discussion about MULTIraciality, and then accuse me of privilege. Just because you’re using polite terminology doesn’t mean that you’re not tapping into oppression olympics.

              NOW we’re done. You can have the last word if you want to, but really? What’s the point? “makes me think that trying to have an intelligent discussion with you was always impossible” is pretty much the conclusion I’ve reached, too.

      • Well said. If one looks Black, they’ll be treated as such. There are very little exceptions to that rule. Racism is extremely subtle and it’ll hit visibly black bi-racial children regardless of whether s/he recognizes or not. That is one of the reasons why mixed children are largely choosing to identify with one race.

        As for Obama, I really find it hard to look at him as a role model. On the other hand, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, I can see it. Despite being a recipient of a Noble Peace Prize, he has stepped up war crimes. That is, the non-UN sanctioned (yes, illegal) war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

        In addition, he has bailed out bankers, is waging a war against education (high education, included), welfare, and unions as well. I don’t see how he is very different from George W. Bush. His ability to receive so much campaign funding has a lot to do with maintaining policies that fall under a continuum that includes Bush. I feel that as a black man that our definition of “role model” needs to be heightened substantially.

        PS: My reply isn’t necessarily directed at you, but Claire and others. Stop falling for the hype!

  • @ Claire,

    You really need to step back and read what you just wrote. Who do you think you are to tell karnythia or any other parent of a bi/multi racial child what you wrote there. You speak about “multi-racials” and their choices. Do you honestly think we get a say in our ethnicity pre-birth? I suggest you stop projecting your issues with “multi-racials” and other insecurities onto someone else. For the record, it’s multi-racial ethnicity, not multi-racials as if people of mixed ethnicities are some rare breed of dog you discovered.

  • karnythia

    @ Claire, I didn’t lock the reply feature nor am I going to delete your comments. You’ve pretty much proven my point repeatedly with your refusal to listen to anything anyone has said about your approach or the things you’re ignoring in the actual conversation at hand. You comment was to rebuke me remember? I didn’t start attacking anyone, I merely responded to your attacks. And I kept addressing my post while you addressed things I never said and the things you thought I should say. I’m not here to be all things to all people or to be a mouthpiece for other interests. I had something to say from my perspective and I said it. If you wanted to discuss it? You would have talked about what I said, instead of rebuking me for not saying what you wanted me to say. I find your choice of language throughout this thread telling, it’s the tone argument all over again with a side of “validate my bad behavior” and no I don’t feel obligated to play to that, not even with your sudden assertion that you want to discuss my post when you’ve made it very clear that listening to what is being said here wasn’t at all part of your plan from the start. You can be done, but I’m not going to be silenced by you. Ever.

  • Christine

    I think the majority of people acting terribly upset about people like Mr. Obama or Ms. Berry calling themselves black are probably doing so for very oblique reasons.

    Mr. Obama and Ms. Berry are undeniably very successful people. If they are black, then we have two very successful black people. One of whom is the President. This challenges people’s prejudices. If they’re white people who happen to have some black ancestry… then we just have two very successful white people and those people’s prejudices are safe and sound.

    Racism can take some pretty weird turns. I was “raised white” by a mother who seems ashamed of her heritage and tries hard to pass and a racist white father who hates me because he couldn’t tell my mother was multi racial before he married her and had kids. I’m one eighth each Black, Chinese, Munsee (Native American) and Jewish, the rest is varied and mostly undocumented. I pass for white about 80% of the time, whether I want to or not… unless I get some sun, which does weird things to what people think I am.

    What does that make me? It depends on what heritage is hated by the person I’m talking to… because that’s the heritage they focus on. I’ve been called all the racial slurs for the different races in me… most of them, I heard from my father first. Along with slurs for Hispanics, Vietnamese, Korean, etc. I’m just unidentifiable enough to be a convenient target for anyone racist enough to notice that I don’t look quite right… that my skin has a certain odd coloring and texture, that my hair is a little more coarse than it should be. It was worse before I discovered the joys of proper care for my kind of hair but that still gets noticed, by that tell-tale “stiffness”.

    Oddly, most of my “friends of color” seem to consider me to be plain old white if they care at all. Most don’t. Those who do, always seem to base it either on my social experiences or what I choose to identify as. Yet, I almost never feel excluded with them, usually I just get included in whatever heritage they happen to have. It’s something that is acknowledged, accepted, then pretty much ignored. They’re much more interested in sharing what’s going on in their lives, finding out what’s going on in mine or just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company. I’ve had a few bad experiences… but very few and from what I can tell my experiences there are within the normal range of light / dark conflicts.

    Most of my white friends however seem to care. They seem to stop considering me white after they find out about my heritage. I become their “insert race” friend and a sort of token to prove they’re open minded and diverse… or a target for their hatred. I’ve been accused of lying about my race because I didn’t tell them and just let them assume I was white. (Why they would think they assumed I was white, never really gets explained.) Every conversation with them ends up bringing up my race (which can be one I have or one they just sort of tack onto me whether I have it or not.) They don’t tell me about their kids and families as much. I do hear a lot more about that person at work they talked to, though… I dread being asked if I know them. Very little of any of this is extreme or in your face. It’s subtle. I’m not even sure if they realise what they’re doing. It does make me sad though, when that sweet little girl I was introduced to and who gave me such a big hug to thank me for baking the cookies… is suddenly three years older and her parents haven’t said a word to me about her in that entire time unless I specifically asked. It hurts when the answer to “How’s Shelby doing?” is “She’s fine” instead of “She did this at school, or that at camp or this other at soccer practice.”

    It isn’t rational. It doesn’t make sense. Racism NEVER does.

    I’m Black. I’m Chinese. I’m Munsee. I’m Jewish. I’m Scottish/Irish/Welsh/German. I’m a woman. I’m an American citizen… and a citizen of China (Thank you, Grandma!)… so how do I identify?

    I’m a person. I can’t identify as all of the things I am and I refuse to give up some part of my heritage to fit into a label. I can’t let others push me and pressure me, hurt me and leave me confused and uncertain about my own identity.

    I’m proud of all of my ethnicities. I’m proud of all of yours. I’m proud of us all as a people… except the bigots. They suck. :)

  • [quote]
    yeloson
    Privilege. Always first to claim “reasonable” while defining other people’s lives. Well done.

    Newsflash: black and native folks have been navigating “multiracial” experience since get go. Of course a “reasonable” person might, you know, read history and consider that before shooting off.[/quote] That’s not an unusual trait. In addition, those privileged can make unsubstantiated claims, because popular “knowledge” revolves around them. However facts is not predicated on mass appeal. It goes through a strenuous peer review process to ensure that bias and other errors are confounded.

    Saying that, history tells us that history of people of color is not very different from bi-racial people. That is unless, it’s assumed that realities in our world have changed. The truth is, whiteness is valued in our society and proximity to that construct often resulted to immense economic returns.

    There was often a push within the PoC communities to become white. That is what any human that achieves to live would attempt to do. However, the prerequisites were heavily tied to skin tone. The “cut-off” was often quite high and it ultimately led to a color-based hierarchy within Blacks.

    This may have resulted to animosity by darker-skinned blacks against the lighter, closer-to-white-but-not-white-enough, individual. It developed, because we live in an individualistic, cut-throat society. I thought that explanation would be obvious, but it seems like some are ignoring hard realities.

    However that experience would be quite similar since power centers would classify her or him as a person of color. Racism centers around a white ideal and it’s downright inane to argue against the mythical “antagonist” Blacks. Basic morality would suggest that frustrated black children can’t take on a white-run state(s*) maintaining the most powerful armed forces in the world.