April 16, 2010

Obama & the Census: Pick a Team and Play

Fellow Hoosier and really serious strategic thinker Thomas Barnett admits Obama's identification of himself as black on his census form disappointed and offended him. (As an aside, why do we even know what Obama filled in? Isn't that stuff supposed to be confidential? I guess he told).  To Tom's way of thinking, Obama missed the boat:

To me, the rising-above-race choice is he checks both and says in effect: This is who I am. Deal with it.
Instead, he did the safe, least offensive thing, because let's admit it, if he recognized his European half officially, he'd encounter more hassle for "denying his blackness" than he does now for pretending he's not half-European. I am unimpressed. Being half-European isn't something to be ashamed of, any more than being half-anything.

My reaction to Tom's reaction was wow.  On some levels, the issue of race and color in America has reached a super heated simmer.  Its always right behind the tongue now, a frizzy issue frothing on the edge of our civil consciousness. I do not envy Obama's positioning as the focal point of so much of that frission. And I'm beginning to get really intrigued by the degree to which white people are perhaps invested in the white side of Obama's heritage and his relationship to it.

I'm sorta of aghast at Tom's disappointment and being offended by Obama's self identification and sort of blown away at the idea that their might be a significant number of white Americans who feel like Tom does, that Obama denied his white identity.  I mean thats just wow,  I guess because I'm used to black people having that reaction to other blacks, and its sort of strange contemplating the idea that whites may react to other whites that way and just really confusing that whites would react to Obama this way.

Its a little hard t explain why its wow, but I'll take a stab at it.  I guess firstly, "race" is a sort of funky, artificial, social construct on some levels anyway, right? These racial distinctions are not truly real.  He's not really black, I'm not really black, we're actually just human.  So on some level, its absurd that it matters to Tom or to me whether he identified himself as bi-racial or plain old black or white or whatever. But the "black" is a proxy for ways of thinking, ways of reacting and behaving, for the history of interactions. The "black" or the "white" distinctions are relevant to behavior in our society. 

That brings me to the practical reality of being black in America, and the sort of "pick a team and play nature" of being mixed race.  Here's the deal - if you are a brown skinned brother like Obama, you're black.  Thats what people see when they look at you, people will react/act accordingly.  As a country, we think in black and white.  We don't think in black, white and biracial.  Fair skinned blacks get to dance on the edge depending on their complexion.  My own family tree has a small branch of folk who were fair enough to "pass" for white and did, willingly discarding their black identities. They picked a team and played and their choices were enabled by their appearance.  While there is a growing number of bi-racial people in America, there isn't really a team bi-racial.  That group mostly has to make a choice, and how flexible their choice is varies with the light or dark of their skin tone.

One reason among the list of reasons why Obama receives over 90%+ support from blacks is because when you look at him, you're clear that early on, he picked a team and played. His pick was heavily conditioned, I'd even say determined by his outward appearance.  You would not know him to be mixed race merely based on his appearance alone. When you look at his choice of wife, his choice of a worship community, its clear he picked a team.  But those choices were dictated too, by the way we function as a society.

Tom's post posited that Obama would likely have received a lot of flack (I presume from black people) if he had selected bi-racial and thereby embraced his whiteness with his choice of census classification.  Tom  suggests that blacks would have interpreted such a choice as denying his blackness. I think he's wholly incorrect on that score. For blacks, being biracial is not new, not unique.  Its just a fact of your existence that you had a white parent and a black parent.  Whats significant is whether you pick a team and play.  Obama clearly and early on picked the black team if you will and decided that he would play that side, wear that cultural uniform.  A decision shaped by the fact that the society in which we live also dictates what team you play for when you look as Obama does.  So black folks would not have thought he was denying them by checking bi-racial, most would have simply regarded it as Obama acknowledging his mom was white and his father black. Why be offended by facts, especially when the guy plays for our team? (Yes, I'm aware the census form does not actually say bi-racial, I think you understand me conceptually, give me a little latitude here for purposes of this conversation).

I think its interesting that perhaps many white people interpret Obama's census response as an indication that he is actually "denying" his half white roots. Which brings us back full circle to the artificial cultural construct that race is.  Being half white/half black is just an accident of Obama's birth. Living black is a choice he made and one which the society he lives in enforces.

Tom went on to say that he thought Tiger Woods had the better way of it:

I think the better example is Tiger Woods, who, when asked what his race is, basically answers, "all of the above" when he references his African, Asian, Native American and Caucasian roots......Woods revealed his "Cablinasian" self-definition in 1997 on "Oprah," but he made it up when he was 16. He has consistently maintained that to pretend he's only black would be to deny his mother (she is Thai and Chinese) and the fact that he feels as much Asian as anything else. Tiger obviously has/had two very strong influences as parents and he seeks to publicly respect both. The acronym-like construction refers to: CAucasian, BLack, INdian and ASIAN, because he's 12.5% Caucasian (white, particularly Dutch), 25.0% Black, 12.5% Indian (Native American) and 50.0% Asian (25% Thai, 25% Chinese). Woods likes being all those things and likes being known as all those things. That is the choice he makes as a supreme role model (putting his recent transgressions aside), and it's an impressive one--to me.

Obama offered a more narrow answer (and an inaccurate one), not because he is ashamed (just read his two autobiographies and you'll see that he's not), but because he's very political and worries about how his decisions get interpreted. I don't admire that, even as I appreciate how his profound capacity for such calculations makes him a strong politician.

Again, I found this reaction really fascinating and unexpected and just an interesting contrast on how white and black Americans interpret the same thing.  To the extent that I think this is an awkward conversation to have, its also a measure of how twisty and absurd we are when it comes to "race" in this country and the way we interpret it.

To most blacks, Tiger Woods is an example of someone who never got clarity for himself around this self identification.   Wood's "Cablinasian" self identification strikes most blacks as a dodge, a refusal to pick a team and play, a dodge which his fame and money permit him to make because he lives in the rarefied air of super celebrity and wealth, a realm most of us are not admitted to. 

But many blacks find his approach to be lacking in authenticity, particularly since even your average black American can lay claim to various percentages of this or that ethnic heritage, but indulging in that sort of self identification simply isn't culturally practical or realistic for regular people, which Tiger isn't.  His statement that to claim his blackness would have meant denying his mother strikes most blacks as fairly bogus.  Playing on one cultural team doesn't equate to a rejection of the other.  Claiming all the teams is effectively saying you're not on any team (this team analogy is getting very unwieldy, and I find it a somewhat distasteful nomenclature but its the best I have for a subject matter that's touchy and difficult to get language around, sorry).

Tiger's approach, justified by the idea for example that he didn't want to deny his mother's heritage comes off (to many black Americans and to me) as very insincere and really represents Tiger's way of being able to say "I'm not black". It lacks sincerity because he doesn't seem particularly consistent.  He didn't for example marry a Thai or Chinese woman, does not even appear to have ever even contemplated a relationship with a woman who looked remotely like his own momma, something blacks would have regarded as entirely rational. But as we've now all come to see, Tiger's vic profile as a serial philanderer is remarkably consistent.

What that kind of behavior says to blacks is that you're a person with unresolved identity conflicts.  You claim that you're not part of any one team, but thats really a strategy for avoiding being on the black team because you're concerned about how you will be perceived, or more directly, you don't want to be perceived as black, anything but that.

I think in the reverse way, Tom is suggesting this is what Obama has done. He argues that Obama made a political choice to deny his white heritage because he cares about how his actions are interpreted (I presume by his fellow blacks, the team he picked to play on) and Tom doesn't admire that, but I'm somewhat hard pressed to see how Tiger's desperate machinations to avoid being black by claiming every drop of his varied genetic heritage (a silliness we all could engage in but do not) should be interpreted any differently or be seen as admirable in contrast.  It seems to me that  the motivation and rationale of Tiger's approach isn't any more laudable than Obama's, it simply cuts in the other direction and lacks sincerity because he overtly picks every team in a strategy thats really about covertly avoiding one.  I prefer Obama's approach as the more sincere and honest one.  He picked the black team and played and accepted the good and bad of that decision, while Tiger sought to avoid making any decision at all as a way of avoiding being on the black team.  He kept his mother's religion granted, but then again, you don't wear your religion on your skin.

Its not lost on me that this whole dialogue has a certain "ick" factor, that there is a perverse absurdity in these distinctions about race and ethnicity and culture we make that provoke these feelings, which Tom and I admit we have about the choices of these men. We're offended, disappointed, dismayed by their approaches on this issue of race.  Our reactions to them and each other highlight how raw, complex and sadly irrational these distinctions and divisions still are for us in our society, and how difficult we find it to understand ourselves and each other across the divide of this construct called "race".

What's your reaction to Obama's census choice? To Tom's position? To mine? Is the difference that Tom and I see really about the teams we play on and how we accordingly interpret Obama and Tiger's respective "rejection" of those teams?  The comments section awaits you.