Growing up in an international community made up of dozens of nationalities, I developed a keen ear for accents. I could not only differentiate the Swiss from the German, but also discern the Chinese by way of Taiwan by way of California.
Maybe that’s why it jarred me to hear Barack Obama speak to a church audience before the primaries in South Carolina. His inflections, his word choices and his pronunciations were—how else can I put it?—black. It was particularly obvious because the radio report followed that clip with one in which he spoke to a group in Michigan. There, he sounded much more—how else can I put it?—white.
We in the media presume blacks identify with Obama in large part for his race. But he isn’t just black. He’s biracial, and I along with my millions of mixed-race brothers and sisters can tell you that’s a different thing entirely. Like Obama, I grew up in a community that tolerated and even celebrated biraciality. Like Obama, I came to understand only in college that America saw me as a minority. Like Obama, I struggled to accept and then ultimately embrace that label.
The thing is, I’m not half black. I’m half Asian. And in America, that too is a different thing entirely.
Gary Kamiya tackles this sticky topic today in Salon. The piece is long, but stick with it; it’s as beautifully, thoughtfully and passionately written as anything I’ve read on that site.
Kamiya really is like me: half Japanese and half white of European descent. However, he had always opted out of identifying with one group or the other. In search of clarity about the presidential race, Kamiya read Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. The book convinced him to vote for the candidate, but moreover it drew him to examine his own conclusions on racial identity. Kamiya writes of Obama,
In the end, he succeeded in his goal: To put it crudely, he made himself black. But at the very moment he attained his goal, he also transcended it. Obama had too much integrity to believe that “blackness” in itself meant anything, so he simultaneously became black and something irreducible to color. By so doing, he kept faith both with his fellow American blacks, who have been forced by racism to consider their own color as a constituent part of their identity, and also with people of all races.
The essence of Obama’s politics, his call for reconciliation and unity, is thus deeply grounded in the long and painful creation of his own double identity. It is, almost literally, sealed in blood — the mixed blood, black and white, that flows through his veins. With Obama, the movement is always toward a double affirmative. Not neither black nor white, which is the way I and many mixed-race people identify ourselves, but both black and something larger.
Reading Kamiya’s impassioned essay, I no longer squint at Obama’s fluid accent switcheroo, which until now had struck me as cynical. Like many multiracial Americans, Obama despaired over his racial identity. He earned his right to belong to both worlds. And by sharing his battle, maybe he can wipe out the need for the rest of us to choose.