The Multiracial Activist
January 20, 2009
From the Editor:
Given that today we are inaugurating the first multiracial President in the history of the United States, I found it fitting to probe the minds of some of the authors, community, organization and activist leaders within the multiracial community. I wanted to know their general reaction to the election results, their opinions on the impact of a biracial President on the multiracial movement and how President Obama’s historic election to the highest office in the land will affect race relations going forward.
I cast a wide net to ensure varied political and social perspectives were represented in the responses. Those who answered the call or were able to participate include (in alphabetical order):
- Charles Michael Byrd is author of “The Bhagavad-gita in Black and White: From Mulatto Pride to Krishna Consciousness” and also founded, edited and published Interracial Voice. (http://www.interracialvoice.com/)
- Lise Funderberg has authored several books. In addition, her articles, essays and reviews have appeared widely in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Salon, Newsday, and many other publications. (http://www.lisefunderburg.com/)
- Kevin R. Johnson is the Dean, Professor of Law and Chicana/o Studies, and the Mabie-Apallas Public Interest Law Chair at the University of California at Davis in addition to authoring several books on multiracial identity. (http://www.law.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Johnson/)
- A.D. Powell is an author and columnist for Interracial Voice and The Multiracial Activist. (http://backintyme.com/adpowell/)
- Frank W. Sweet is an historian, author and was a frequent contributor to Interracial Voice. (http://backintyme.com/publishing.php)
- Rebecca Walker is a best-selling author, an acclaimed speaker and teacher, and an award-winning visionary and activist. (http://www.rebeccawalker.com/). With her kind permission, Rebecca’s comments are excerpted from her blog .
Your reaction (or organization) to the election results?
Charles Michael Byrd:
I voted for John McCain because he was the most experienced and most qualified. That said, he ran against a candidate of historical significance who skillfully linked the Arizona Senator to an unpopular sitting President. Lingering opposition to the Iraq war as well as the faltering economy were the other reasons, particularly the latter, that sealed McCain’s doom.
I was thrilled for all sorts of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with his–or my–being biracial.
Kevin R. Johnson:
I am very pleased by the presidential election results. Senator Obama ran a masterful campaign and the vote turned out as expected. The so-called "Bradley effect" never became a reality in election 2008. Both candidates offered conciliatory speeches to end the evening.
My reaction to the election of Barack Obama is mixed. I really despised the Bush regime and I considered the McCain/Palin ticket to be a continuation of that kind of discredited government. I definitely did NOT want the Republicans back in the White House. On the other hand, I see in Obama's victory a certain danger to those who oppose forced racial classification and wish to promote the legitimation of multiracial identities and racial ambiguity. Why? Too many of the black-identified members of the political and intellectual elite and their "white" allies will probably be emboldened to try and silence us forever (I have already seen some of this in Amazon.com's censorship of book reviewers known to criticize forced black identity) because their Democratic comrades now rule the roost.
On the other hand, I have been struck by the large number of "white" Americans who have openly asked why Obama is "black" when he is half white and was reared by white relatives in a totally non-black environment. "Mixed race" is no longer an abstraction to growing numbers of "whites." They may not be interracially married themselves, but they are the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. of mixed-race people. They see their relatives, who are usually white women and often single mothers, pour all of their love and resources into their biracial children (just as Obama's mother and grandmother did). They are far less afraid to say that there is no logic in claiming that those children are totally "black" or "African American" and not entitled to claim their white parents' "race" and ethnicity.
Frank W. Sweet:
My reaction to the election is relief that it is over. Presidential campaigns go on much too long. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent in advertising intrudes into and distracts from our ordinary day-to-day activities.
We won. All of us. Yes. We. Did. (from blog entry )
What do you believe will be the impact of a biracial President on the future of the multiracial movement?
Charles Michael Byrd:
Does the movement that ceded control of multiracial discourse to civil rights organizations still exist? I have my doubts. What came to be known as the multiracial movement acquiesced to demands of the aforementioned organizations to define the mixed community as a series of sub-groups, subsets or sub-cultures of the larger minority groups – e.g. multiracial blacks and multiracial Asians but never simply multiracial without the politically correct modifier or, perish the thought, multiracial white.
I think his visibility will further normalize the notion of a multiracial identity in our society. The novelist Paule Marshall once said that "once you see yourself truthfully depicted, you have a sense of your right to be in the world." She wasn't speaking about mixed-race people, but I've always thought the sentiment applies to us as well, especially since our culture has historically functioned on the principle of hypodescent, i.e., that one component of a person's background will necessarily trump the other components. In my view, President-elect Obama projects an ease and affection towards his mixed-race heritage, even as he claims an identity as a black man. I know that some people feel you can't do both, but I believe in the absolute hegemony of self-identification, and so I accept that this is the truth of who he is.
Obama's positive association with all of his roots goes a long way to countering the tragic mulatto stereotypes that have long-influenced public opinion.
Kevin R. Johnson:
This is hard to tell. Part of my uncertainty is that Senator Obama ordinarily is publically identified as an African American rather than a biracial or multiracial person.
I propose that the multiracial movement see the election of Obama as an opportunity to reach out to more ordinary "white" Americans with the question "Why is Obama "black" when he is equally "white"? I propose that we contrast Obama with the late New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard. Obama was born into and reared in a Hawaii-based white-identified family and had no ties of blood or culture to the native "African American" community. Broyard was born in New Orleans to a Creole family falsely labeled as "Negro" by the racist government of Louisiana, which was determined to subject its mixed-race Creole population to a documentary genocide of forced assimilation into the "black" Anglo population/caste. Obama left Hawaii with the intention, according to his autobiography, of finding a "racial community" of people who looked like himself. Broyard, whose family moved to New York City when he was a small child, refused to self-police himself and accept a "Negro" or "colored" classification. In the free environment of New York, he chose to be identified as white. Indeed, his parents had themselves moved back and forth across the color line because they also had European phenotypes. Obama married a woman "blacker" than himself and produced two children who look "black" to most Americans. Broyard married a woman "whiter" than himself (Norwegian-American) and produced two children who look totally white to most Americans. Why is Obama praised for moving toward "blackness" while Broyard is demonized by the black and white liberal intellectual elites for moving toward "whiteness"? How about some equal rights here? I would be far more impressed by an open defense of Broyard's whiteness than I am by Obama's election. White racism has always rested on the assumption of white racial purity. Obama claims that he is "black" because he "looks black." Why wasn't Broyard "white" because he "looked white"? The Obama/Broyard comparison would require open criticism of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (foremost advocate of the "one drop rule" in the U.S. who first "outed" Broyard as a so-called "light-skinned black") and Anatole's daughter Bliss Broyard (who has openly sided with Gates and denounced her father as "black"). This is a chance to strike at the "one drop rule" and we should not miss it. The fact that Obama, Gates and Bliss Broyard are already all over the media should make the task easier.
Frank W. Sweet:
Obama's impact on the multiracial movement depends upon his own feelings about freedom of choice of ethnic self-identity. But his feelings are impossible to gauge.
Early in the campaign, his public persona was zealously hyper-black.
He told CBS that he was Black only, not "biracial," and that he had been forced into this position by White people. He refused even to discuss his White relatives. He defended Wright's insane rantings as representing the will of the Black community and said he could no more distance himself from them than from his own family.
The day after he won the nomination he suddenly became color-blind.
He talked only about his White relatives. His press releases suddenly switched to referring to him as "part Black" or "mixed." He refused to discuss the excesses of zealously hyper-Black political leaders.
I have no idea which persona is the "real" Obama, or even if there is any substance behind the chameleon-like facade. He seems willing to embrace whatever position is strategically useful at any given moment. Nevertheless, there are far more U.S. voters who fear freedom of ethnic-identity choice than who support it. Hence, I would expect the new president to come out strongly against multiracialism.
Are ideas about race changing? I think they obviously are. Do I think these ideas are going to continue to change until we reach the point of recognizing the absurdity of making conclusions about someone based on indicators as arbitrary as the color of their skin? Yes, I do. Do I have any idea how long these changes will take to manifest globally? No I don't.
But honestly, and this one of the things that impresses me most about Obama's approach, there is not a whole lot of time to get everyone on the same page about this–at this point in the game, shifting the dominant discourse to species survival is critical. The language for that has yet to be crafted, but we know it includes concepts like balance, sustainability, peaceful co-existence, ending slavery and hunger and genocide based on any criteria, be it gender, race, religion, language, economic status, etc.
He gets, perhaps because he is "mixed race" or "multiracial" or "half and half" and has had to write his own identity script, that human potential is vast. We are, at least in our minds, what we believe ourselves to be, and because of human imagination, the possibilities are great. It is important to note that many who do not experience or define themselves as "multiracial" also have this understanding:
We have to write a new story.
How the future of race relations in the United States will be affected by a black-identified biracial President?
Charles Michael Byrd:
That depends on just how directly President Obama chooses to address the issue. Will he continue to speak to Americans primarily as a black President who just happens to be half white or will he engage the citizenry as a multiracial President that many people, because of this country’s longstanding one-drop rule, identify as black? Will he speak to the issue of most Americans being racially mixed to some degree, which will hopefully begin bringing people closer together, or will he speak solely from the perspective of a black-identified biracial, a stance that perpetuates the black/white racial dichotomy in this country? Much depends on just how necessary Obama views the need for radically changing the racial paradigm in America.
Will he appoint Supreme Court justices inclined to rule in favor of affirmative action programs and other race-based policies that demand the continuation of racial classification? Probably. Would he support the right of a person to opt out of filling in a racial designation on the decennial census, confidently leaving the race box blank knowing that no government bureaucrat would fill it in later? Probably not. We’ll just have to wait and see.
For anyone interested, I discuss all of these issues in my book “The Bhagavad-Gita in Black and White: From Mulatto Pride to Krishna Consciousness” available on Amazon.com.
I see great possibility for progress in racial attitudes, among all contingents, because Obama acts with an attitude of inclusivity rather than divisiveness. Is this a result of his biracial experience or simply that he is a smart, smart man? I don't know the answer to that, but I say whatever works, works.
Kevin R. Johnson:
Senator Obama has a richly diverse family history, racially, economically, and otherwise. Just look at the pictures of his mother, father, grandparents, half-sister, and their families to get a sense visually of that diversity. Senator Obama's ascendancy to the presidency is likely to bring to light for many Americans the deep complexities of race, national origin, and class in the united states.
Frank W. Sweet:
I doubt that Obama will have any impact on race relations in the United States, despite his self-identifying as Black. U.S. attitudes towards racial classification change very slowly, on the scale of centuries. Such attitudes are learned in infancy, along with language, and are seldom within volitional control in adulthood.
No matter how much Obama might call himself "black," his white ancestry and white upbringing are too well known to be denied. "White" Americans are already asking questions. We must encourage them to do so and point out that the denial of freedom of racial/ethnic identity and the abuse of black political power in support of that denial affects their own families, now and/or in the future.
It was illegal for my parents to marry because they were of different "races," today a "mixed race" man is President.
The story to glean here is not necessarily one of progress, but of how quickly motivated human beings can change the story, flip the script, change the world.
At this point, it seems we are moving toward a "post-race" future. Whether that future will be the utopia many imagine it to be is another story altogether.
What I hope is that my grandchildren have clean water and air, and edible, non-toxic food to eat. I hope they are not in mass prisons, protracted wars, or victims of hypercapitalist ideologies. Unless the color of their skin is a determining factor in the above, whether they think of themselves as a "race" is fairly irrelevant.
Culture is created everyday. It's what we as human beings do: make meaning out of phenomena. My hope, as we move into the future is that we can make meaning that, to borrow a cliche, benefits the many and not just a few. This, more than a racial identity, is what I try to pass on to my son.
If notions of race need to be jettisoned in order for that to happen, great. If people need to embrace ideas of race in the extreme in order for it to happen, fine. The main thing is for it to happen, and to avoid letting the discourse of race itself keep us from the change we need.