Jul 1, 2011

Obama's gay marriage flip-flopping | Fred Karger

I came across an article this morning from The Guardian that got me thinking:

Obama's gay marriage flip-flopping by Fred Karger 
The author says:
"I am puzzled that a man who is the product of a biracial marriage, whose own parents could not have married in 16 states before 1967, seems unable to understand the extreme pain that bigotry causes."
That comment makes me think about something that has bothered me for a long while--President Obama does not identify himself as biracial. He identifies himself as black. Throughout his presidency, multiracial people have shared their feelings about his choice. Some feel offended, let-down and discouraged. Some argue that his decision to self-identify as black is proof that the "one-drop" rule--that originated in the era of slavery--still thrives today (in other words, if society sees him as a black man, why shouldn't he identify as a black man?)

Here are some opinion pieces that got me thinking even more about the issue:
  • An NPR podcast (with transcript available) from 2008 argues that the term "biracial" is too vague for many. "Biracial" could mean Jewish-Korean, Filipino-Mexican, or some other mixture that isn't specific enough for the President.
  • An Op-Ed from the LA Times that discusses the fact that Obama's personal history--being raised by his white mother and grandmother--led to him being labeled "not black enough" in Chicago politics. The author speculates that maybe this accusation pushed the President to focus on his black heritage.
  • truthdig piece that tries to tie Loving Day history to current same-sex marriage debates. (The author also mentions another story that has stuck with me: my favorite artist, Jill Scott's comments regarding the pain she feels when she sees interracial couples.)
When I put all of these thoughts together, and then I go back to Fred Karger's comment from The Guardian about how he doesn't understand how President Obama, the product of a biracial marriage, could be "unable to understand the extreme pain that bigotry causes," I wonder... What happens to that logic when you factor in that Obama doesn't identify himself as "the product of a biracial marriage?" If he doesn't identify that way, can you really argue that the Loving's legacy should make him  sensitive to the pain of LGBT people?

What about another explanation altogether: what if the extreme pain of bigotry is what caused the President to identify himself as only black?  Maybe carrying that kind of pain around makes it hard to empathize with the pain of others.

I don't know what goes on in the mind of our President. I do know that his choice to identify as only one race impacts both black culture and mixed culture.
Is the impact good? bad? indifferent? What do you think?

**Note** After originally posting this, I found yet another article on the same topic. Check out this article by a mixed race gay man, writing about his experience in London. A judge asked him, point blank, to choose whether he is "black" or "mixed race." What's Race Got to Do with Identity? | Same-Sex Couples News - gay & lesbian couples, marriage equality, gay weddings worldwide


  1. I think Obama identifies with being black because that what society labeled him as. We have to remember, he was born back in a time when the "multicultural" movement wasn't around, and still to this day (especially in the south), people see you as either black, white, Chinese or Mexican (sad but true). Obama's aesthetics also come into play; for, his phenotype expressions aren't of the "average" biracial-looking person...he can easily be mistaken for a light-skinned black man and not a biracial man.

    Going back to society, besides Obama, there are many famous biracials who refer to themselves as being black because not many other cultures are accepting of who they are besides the black community.  From a historical point, African-Americans have had no choice to accept biracial children because many of them were the products of white slave owners. Although they were biracial, they weren't allowed to claim "biracial" or "multiracial," and they weren't seen as part of their white families. This mentality has been embedded across generations among blacks and whites in America.

  2. Eliss, you make some great points but I am totally tripping on *"he was born
    back in a time..." *because I was born not too long after him...I'm feeling
    ancient right about now LOL! I grew up near Chicago and at least for me,
    things weren't always so black and white. My elementary school had hundreds
    of ethnicities represented (I attended k-6 in the mid-late 70's) and we
    talked about it just like that, as *ethnic heritage*. Many of my classmates
    were first or second-generation Americans, so I was exposed to lots of
    languages, cultures and foods, both in my family and in my neighborhood. The
    multicultural thing was definitely around back then in Chicago for sure--we
    got many days off of school to celebrate our diversity: Columbus Day in
    honor of Italians, MLK Day in honor of African-Americans, Casmir Pulaski Day
    in honor of Poles...If it wasn't a day off of school we still were able to
    attend many, many neighborhood ethnic celebrations. Don't get me
    wrong--there was still racism and prejudice; but there was also a spirit of
    multiculturalism that thrived because of liberal-minded people who grew up
    in the 50-s and 60s (like my immigrant mom, President Obama's mom, and the
    Lovings to name a few!)

    I know things weren't like that everywhere and still aren't. But I wonder,
    though, when people will move on from the impact of the history you wrote
    about, and change things for the future? Maybe it will only be the next
    generation--our children--who will give themselves a name that isn't
    dictated by history. My own kids call themselves "mixed" and tell me
    regularly that almost all the kids in their classes are mixed in some way
    (Senegalese/Russian, Mexican/American, African-American/German.) It will be
    harder for their generation to see things as just "black," "white,"
    "Mexican," or "Chinese" when so many people around them can't be described
    by just one label anymore.

  3. O, no...I don't mean ancient, lol!! I guess I'm looking at it from a perspective of multicultral then as compared to now. Currently, there is a plethora of information out there; yet, as a country, America is still far behind when it comes to accepting race relations.

    I think the future generations are the ones who are going to change the perspective. My mother is an ex Black Panter Party member, and I asked her that question, and she stated, "The change will have to be forced with multiracial children." It may sound cliche, but the children really are our future, and they will be the ones to change the perspective of people who refuse to accept a variety of ethnicities and and cultures.

  4. Jill Scott's essay is so heart-rending. I don't like for anyone to feel pain at seeing biracial couples together. I have a friend who moved to South Carolina who faces this same issue. I empathize with Scott's feelings and the history behind why she feels the way she does. Time is the only salve for these kinds of wounds.

    As for Obama, how he identifies should be his personal choice. What I'd love to see is for us to be able to ask the question: As a reasonable and empathetic man, shouldn't he be able to sympathize with pain and bigotry?

    On a personal note, our son is Mexican-Italian and I wonder everyday how he will ultimately identify. He gets a daily does of both cultures with his Spanish-speaking abuela-grandmother (who lives with us) and Italian-speaking grandparents. I believe that choice should be his, and his alone to make. Do I hope he identifies with both? Absolutely. Do I want him to acknowledge that he's "biracial"? Yes. Self-identification is mental and what comes to the heart, the rest of it just DNA.
    Now this post made me think, Jen. <3

  5. I agree--Jill Scott's essay is heart-rending. It hurt to read it, and wanted nothing more than to apologize on behalf of my race (my husband thought that was a ridiculous response, "You didn't do anything! That's her problem.") Time (and perhaps her music?) as you say, is the only salve.

    I love your question about Obama's ability to sympathize. I would like us to go one step further, even, and say: If this reasonable man sympathizes with pain and bigotry, shouldn't he be able to use his influence to try to end it? That would take a lot of courage, conviction, and a willingness to reform our current political system (such a reform seems impossible given the influence of money.)

    Your son is very lucky to have the cultural influences of his abuela, nonna and nonno! No matter what he calls himself when he is older, he will have so many wonderful memories and stories to share!

  6. There's a long way to go with regard to race relations, for sure. I think your mom is right--the change will have to be forced. The census shows that change is coming...soon! When those (including mine) multiracial children are about my age they will be the majority. I wonder what that will be like...

    On a different note, I saw that you were going to be a guest on ITYC! Hope that went well! I will try to give a listen to the podcast soon :) Have a happy weekend!

  7. Jen, that's probably one of the most frustrating things about trying to bring about any kind of change, that how much courage, conviction, and willingness our leaders show to reform our current political system is nearly always directly tied to "ratings," lobbyists, campaign contributions, etc. I wish I knew the answer to this. To do otherwise would be to become a kamikaze politician. I hope that over time we continue to grow a more empathetic, compassionate and civic-minded "community" so that real change trickles upward.

    I read this week over at Latinaish.com a post about the tension that exists between Mexico and El Salvador. When I finished reading it, I was horrified that I'd never heard of this tension (typical American me focused inward), I felt guilty, and I WANTED TO APOLOGIZE on behalf of any Mexican who'd hurt a Salvadoran. (read here if you have a few minutes: http://latinaish.com/2011/06/30/mexicans-vs-salvadorans/)

    My point in sharing that is that I understand how you'd want to apologize to Jill Scott, and also why it hurt to read it. You're the beneficiary of bad history. Same with me and what I learned this week.

    Is it fair, right, reasonable to hold an entire population of people accountable for the behaviors of a few?

  8. Ezzy, I just read the story at Latinaish.com and I can see why you would
    draw a parallel. Why is it that human beings always seem find a way to
    consider themselves better than someone else? I think there are examples
    from every corner of the world.

    I grew up 20 miles west of Chicago, a city with a very storied ethnic
    history. As each new group of immigrants came to the city they were placed
    at the bottom of the social ladder--even if they were all white and
    European. The Germans put down the Irish, who put down the Italians, who put
    down the Lithuanians who put down the Latinos (and collectively, they all
    put down the African-Americans.) It goes on and on, with each new immigrant
    starting at the bottom and working their way up to a place where they could
    judge themselves "better than..." whichever group got there soon after them.
    I lived in Miami for a while and saw the same thing there between Haitians
    and Cubans. It seems to be everywhere, throughout world history, in any time
    or place where one group decides they want to conquer or assimilate another.

    You ask: Is it fair, right, reasonable to hold an entire population of
    people accountable for the behaviors of a few? I think not. But there are
    people (like you and me) who feel connected in some way to the so-called
    "sins of our fathers." We will spend our lives trying to help equalize the
    negative imprint others have left, searching always for a way to balance the
    hatred and ignorance--of both past and present--with knowledge and
    acceptance. Some day I may need to tell you about my personal struggle with
    this: I am the granddaughter of a WWII Nazi. That knowledge has both
    profoundly and indirectly affected me. A lot of my sensitivity, my wish to
    apologize, comes from that knowledge. Fair, right, reasonable or not...I am
    bothered by my grandfather's history. But that is another story...

  9. Oh, Jen. My eyes just welled with tears. : (

    I understand now why you have such profound empathy and compassion. Both which come through on this blog. I understand, my friend. You will share when you're ready and when you do, I am certain it will touch a lot of people's hearts and minds. I can't even begin to imagine what's gone through your mind.

    I'm wondering ...

    Where do you think "empathy" comes from? Do you think that in order to feel real "empathy" we have to have suffered in some manner? I've been wondering about this lack of "compassion" and "empathy" that I see in the world. Why do some feel so much when so many feel so little? I'm confounded by this question.

    Sending you a big hug.


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