Monday, June 09, 2008

Black Or Bi-Racial – Pick One?

Now that Barack Obama is officially the Democratic Presumptive, the media is starting to talk about race in earnest. This morning, CNN began a discussion they promise to continue about the difference between black and bi-racial and what that difference means in how people perceive Obama (“Wow, do you think we’ll ever really be color-blind!?,” gurgled the pretty blonde anchor). MSNBC, which on Morning Joe really gives Fox a run for its right-wing money, is not troubled by esoteric distinctions; to them, it’s a simple matter of Black is Black, they see Obama as such, and they ask What Role Race Will Play in voters’ decision-making. Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times says Obama couldn’t have come this far if America hadn’t already greatly changed its racial attitudes; we’re a better and far more “deracialized” nation than we used to be, he says.

As a bi-racial person, I find this social conversation fascinating and unsettling and bitter-sweetly long overdue. When I was a teenager (after a peculiar childhood during which I encountered several extraordinary instances of entrenched racism), I believed I was put on this earth to be a communicator and a conciliator, to represent the positive aspects of Ultimate Integration and hopefully to articulate the merger of races, to show that in blending there is unity. But except for writing a college sociology paper on “The History of the American Mulatto” (imagine my chagrin when I discovered that mulatto, the only word that describes exactly what I am, is considered a derogatory term), I never did write about race in any meaningful/extensive way – and still haven’t.

Early on, I realized I was very racially confused and didn’t know what I wanted to say about race, except that I could have done without the whole dilemma – but I didn’t care to admit that politically embarrassing fact. The difference between bi-racial and black always comes down to appearance, regardless of one’s experience. Barack Obama heartily acknowledges his mixed heritage, but he identifies as African American because that’s how he looks. Identifying as bi-racial is, one might say, an elite privilege only enjoyed by bi-racial people who look white – as I do. It was in my teens that I started describing myself as Beige or Gray or Mulatto (linguistic convention be damned); we didn’t yet have the terms bi-racial or mixed race. Indeed, there was little language or daily example for me to connect with when I was young. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, racial intermarriage was still illegal in many states and, in any case, was an extremely rare occurrence.

To this day, it frankly surprises me whenever black people genuinely like white people. It’s also hard for me to believe that white people ever really accept blacks as just Other Regular Folks. Whenever white people use the term African American (a term I dislike, but that’s another post…), I think they must feel pressured into doing so; it rings forced and false. It’s been my experience that most people generally prefer to “stick to their own kind” – in social circles and on the job. Now, with Barack Obama, it remains to be seen what’s been racially transcended or not. He’s probably not black enough for some black people – and probably a little too black for many whites. But perhaps the future I once imagined, one in which races blur and important human qualities hold sway, is finally upon us. Wow, do you think we’re really about to become color-blind?

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