Monday, February 21, 2011

Containing Multitudes

"Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men-- and in the civil rights movement those dreams had seemed large. In the sit-ins, the marches, the jailhouse songs, I saw the African-American community becoming more than just the place where you'd been born or the house where you'd been raised. Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned. And because membership was earned--because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself-- I believed that it might over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life." - Barack Obama from Dreams From My Father

Alright, I know, I know, talking about Obama and multiraciality is like beating a dead horse. But, I swear, I have a really good point (or two) to make!


It sounds simple enough: Race is not biological, it's a social construct. Identities are fluid, they change and even expand over time. But most of U.S. society hasn't caught on yet. And ultimately we need to ask, who gains from keeping these strict boundaries around identities?

In the U.S. we've gotten pretty good at essentializing identities into strictly defined, carefully bound, digestible boxes. The black American community, in particular, has long been seen as a monolith-- a static and unassimilable one at that-- and yet nothing could be further from the truth. I recently watched the Kobina Aidoo documentary film The Neo African-AmericansThe film aims to explore issues facing Caribbean and continental African immigrant communities and their descendants in the U.S. Though, it was at best an introduction to some very deeply rooted issues concerning black people in the Diaspora, the film definitely brings up some provocative points around identity, authenticity and community. The film got me thinking about the (often invisible) multitudes racial and ethnic identities contain and how crucial and yet limiting the process of "self-naming" can be for historically marginalized groups. As people of color, many of us live on the "hyphen"-- as hyphen "Americans" in a way that members of white ethnic groups do not.

Indeed, many of the issues faced by mixed people, mirror those faced by many "monoracial" people of color, especially as our society becomes increasingly defined by it's heterogeneity while migration, gender, socioeconomic class and sexuality further shape and shift our identities over time. We're all struggling to define and (re)define who we are as individuals and as collectives. Thus, crises of authenticity, legitimacy, community, progress and belonging are not the sole domain of one particular ethnic or racial group. In significant ways, we can say that they have become woven into the very fabric of our racial inheritance in this country and as such we are ALL implicated:  black, brown and (perhaps especially) white in tackling these issues head on. 


Today, I attended a discussion on Nell Irvin Painter's polemic 2010 book, audaciously entitled A History of White People. In it she breaks down how whiteness has been constructed historically and has come to function in U.S. society as the marker of all that is "free", "unbound", "privileged", "powerful", and "sovereign". Painter's book ends with a compelling conclusion which suggests that since whiteness has, over time, shifted and changed (through simultaneous acts of inclusion/exclusion) to encompass certain groups (ie: the Irish, Italians, European Jews)--in the 21st century, the new beneficiaries of whiteness may actually be educated, wealthy black Americans. She cites Oprah as an example of such a black individual being included in the whiteness "club."And in a way it makes sense. Oprah, through her socioeconomic class, has ascended into the realm of of the "free", "unbounded" "privileged" "powerful" and "sovereign" which defines the essence of whiteness according to Painter. But does Oprah, really count? Individuals may be "let in," but the whole collective is ages away from gaining admittance.  Is this, then, really "whiteness" or something else entirely? Should we conflate socioeconomic class mobility with equally mobile racial identities in U.S. society? Poverty, state violence and the prison industrial complex continue to cripple communities.

Painter offers Obama as another example of an individual of color who is for all intents and purposes "white", not because he has a white mother-- but because of his status. He is, after all, a Harvard educated lawyer and the head of one of the most powerful empires (yes, I said empire) in modern history. True, Obama came at the right time in U.S. history. His multiracial body (however presumptuously) coming to represent race reconciliation and racial redemption. He is America. But while he may be the mirror, he also becomes the canvas upon which many liberals have haphazardly and yet desperately cast every dream of social change and justice in a country whose racial inheritance is dark and burdensome to say the least. In addition, despite his white ancestry, the political right challenges Obama's legitimacy at every turn-- his very claim to citizenship, nationality and belonging are contested. In significant ways, the tea party, birthers and even the less obvious, but no less insidious anti-Obama rumblings can also be seen as symptomatic of a crisis of whiteness, the upheaval of seeing a "black" man in the White House. Whiteness doe not suffer that same objectification, the same scrutiny, instability, contestation or (as I would argue is the case with Obama) the voracious consumption.  It is wholly free of it and protected from it, on both the individual and collective levels. So is Obama really white even according to Painter's criteria?

I consider the quote above, from President Obama's first book Dreams From My Father (which I half-jokingly call the story of how Obama became an African-American) to be one of the most profound statements about what it means to be black in America, but also what it means to be mixed in America. One need only go as far as this book, written years before Obama became president to understand (in his own words) his often contested racial identities

I'd also like to rethink the idea that whiteness has dibs on freedom and sovereignty. The fighter in me wants to believe, there is a way that we can think of blackness, or browness as "free" and "unbound" as well. Perhaps, not in a huge macro, super-structure way that magically dismantles centuries old inequalities in one fell swoop, but in a gradual manner that acknowledges the power of not just the individual, but also the marginalized masses to be agents and arbiters of their own destinies.

With that understanding, we can also  (re)imagine Obama's choice on the 2010 census to only check "Black" as staking claim to an identity he came to understand as just as much his own as his white identity and to claim as a form of political resistance--as a means to bring about change-- personally and collectively. It's just a hunch- maybe a crazy one. But no harm in considering it. Perhaps he's not limiting or making invisible all he is at all-- instead he is exercising his right to choose, name and define himself-- a right that was bitterly fought for by black people in the U.S years ago. And which is reflected in his words  "Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned. And because membership was earned--because this community I imagined was still in the making, built on the promise that the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself-- I believed that it might over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life."

Ultimately, America contains multitudes. Black contains multitudes just as white and Latin@, Asian mixed etc.  When will we accept the "uniqueness" of Obama's life--really, the uniqueness of our own lives--and let that wield a transformative power all its own?