Last Wednesday the 10-minute break splitting my 2-hour class, another student commented on the Obama stick on my laptop. I don’t remember where precisely the conversation went for the next minute, but soon, he said something that surprised yet didn’t surprise me: Obama is about as white-washed as you can get. I then launched into a 5-minute sermon in defense of dear Barack, some of which might have been decent, some of which probably was just rambles. So today I have decided to argue this in a more organized fashion for the benefit of all my readers. (You can follow with your own rebuttals, if need be.)
Barack is openly biracial and obviously did not have an African-American father. He grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii with few black cultural influences. BUT he began to own his black identity in a deeper way during college, has read works by significant black leaders such as MLK, Jr. and Malcolm X (ok, the tip of the iceberg, but I know he’s talked about them; I don’t think he’s on Library Thing, so I’m not sure what else he’s read…), and has experienced in the black cultural world through his work as a community organizer, as well as his marriage into Michelle’s family. Does this mean it was his birth culture? No. But does he likely identify with this culture to some extent? Surely! After all, I’m white and my mere tip-toes to the edge of the black community have influenced me in various ways.
To say that Barack is in no way culturally African American betrays an ignorance of the multi-cultural identity. In my experience, those that grow up in multiple cultural worlds not only may feel an affinity for those cultures but also be generally more open to culture learning and intercultural attachment. For example, my Kiwi/Canadian/British/(newly) American friend (who has also lived in Romania) loves Latin American and Latino cultures. She’s spent three months in Bolivia and volunteers weekly in North Carolina’s Latino community. Does it make her Latina? No. But that’s not the point. She still identifies with them in some way. Same goes for my friend that was adopted from Korea by white parents. Going back to Korea a year didn’t erase her Euro-American cultural influences, but it added to who she was in significant ways. She is Korean American, even though she didn’t grow up in that community. Barack has spent enough time in the African-American community that I’m pretty sure he speaks their language, though I don’t think he has disowned his Euro-American on Kenyan heritage, either.
Did any of you see that audio that got released a couple weeks ago in which Barack said the Civil Rights movement didn’t go far enough because it never went into economic (as well as political) justice? Indeed, this was a “tragedy” of the Civil Rights movement. If that doesn’t make you an ally…
With that said, as much as I love Obama, I can’t say I trust him to be able to get everything done for the black community that he probably should, and I know at some points he may sell out and not try as hard as he could. That’s reality. (I hope it doesn’t happen, but anyone that fights for justice faces a constant temptation to sell out–I wouldn’t expect Barack to be any different.)
Still, if you look at the general direction of his policies, he is on the “right side,” which is of course, the left side. In other words, he’s on the side that most black people, Af-Am professors, etc. would think is going to do the most good for the black community. He’s not Clarence Thomas. I think we can trust him to be generally aligned in a way that will benefit not only African-Americans but ethnic minorities in the U.S. generally. After all, his family is about a diverse as you can get–Kenyan, Chinese Canadian, white-Asian biracial, African-American, white… As a community organizer he worked with Latinos along with blacks, and he also thinks he’s got a little Native American heritage. He’s not going to represent any of these groups perfectly, but I think he values multi-ethnicity and the African-American community in particular.
While others don’t have complete say over who you are, community acceptance is somewhat significant. For example, just because I participated in a Pow-Wow doesn’t mean I can just decide to be Occaneechi. Just because I attended a black church for a couple years doesn’t make me black. Just a friend studied abroad in Japan and loves Japanese doesn’t make her Japanese. Part of this is up to us, but a good part of it is up to others–will they accept us and recognize us as one of them rather than an other? I think that in this campaign and election, the black community has stood up and said yes, we will own Barack Obama as one of our own.
Ultimately, I think we’ve just got to get past this people. I’ve heard before that Obama’s not really black because he’s one of those arugula types. Listen, people. Anyone can like arugula. Just because you are intelligent, are lucky enough to go to a good school, and have some money in the bank doesn’t make you white. I would be interested to know how the same classmate (who I’m not dissing, just disagreeing with) would speak of Michelle. Is she white-washed, too? Because I think she’s pretty clearly black. Unless Princeton changes that somehow.
Black kids have got it hard enough with their own peers calling them white because they’re smart, motivated, and successful. Please, white people, do we have to do the same?
Lastly, I think it’s very significant to consider one last category:
He has chosen this path, this identity. It’s only respectful that we accept it as who he is, even if we at points want to criticize his politics (as perhaps not being radical enough in their favor for the black community).
And if that doesn’t convince you, what white person his age do you know that went to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on their first date with their now-spouse? Uh huh. Thought so.