Thursday, March 13, 2008

Photo of today

The subject of Barak Obama's race comes up so frequently already that if some unforeseeable miracle occurs and he is allowed to run for President as a Democrat, then questions of his "blackness" will dominate the airwaves thirty seven hours a day, eight days a week until early November.

So answer me this: What is the child in the photo above?

Click on it to see a larger image. Then take a moment. Take a breath. Give it a little thought. Try to empathize. We are not talking about a national figure. This is not a blog fight. This is a child.

A little background: both of his parents are college educated professionals. One was born American with a heavy dose of Dutch ancestry. The other is from a somewhat illustrious family in Africa that includes lawyers, professors, high government officials, even an economist. He goes to one of the better schools in the world, not primarily because of affirmative action, but by merit. His friends are a diverse group, their parents have similar bios -- educated, well-traveled professionals, often one parent from a different part of the world. His closest friends are some combination of Chinese, African, Jewish, Italian and other European mixes. In those respects, he is much like Obama. Kinda looks like him too.

So what is he? I have a little experience with this question. On more than one occasion, a small child, much like the one above only younger, has asked me "what am I?"

So what do you say? A child asks you "what am I?" After you've thought about it and decide, or more realistically, speculate, realize that your answer should apply equally to Obama.

I'll tell you how I answer.

Q: What am I?
A: American.

Q: I mean, am I black?
A: No, you are mixed.

That, followed by a little demonstration that everybody's skin is a different shade of earth tone, and that's the end of it. At least through high school. It's really not that difficult.

Or it shouldn't be. But I know it is. At least it used to be.

And that question: what am I? has played a vitally important role in Obama's life. In a fascinating article about his mother in yesterday's NYT, he is quoted as saying:

[I was] “engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America.”

I find it so odd that he has that attitude. As far as I can tell he has absolutely nothing "African-American" in his background. Yet he consciously chose to become one. I always read that many kids who are labeled black but are not from an African-American background suffer identity issues and often feel pressure to "be black." What does "be black," or "be black enough" even mean? In that context those phrases seem like code for "poorly educated criminal," or "nigger."

Although reading a politician's self-serving campaign autobiography goes against my deepest moral beliefs, I guess I'm going to have to read Obama's book and find out more.

Was he a black man wannabe or a black man havetobe as he made his way through one of the better prep schools and became a superstar at Harvard? As many point out, the cop who pulls you over for driving while black doesn't know where you went to school. Society decides who we are and an individual with dark skin is black. Would people do well, as Obama has done, to embrace it rather than fight it? (In general I'd say no, but people will obviously decide for themselves)

The larger question, for the kid in the photo at least, is whether things have changed since Obama's character was formed by whatever experiences he had being labeled black by society.

What is he? Yes, he is American. Yes, he is mixed.

And yes, society categorizes him as black. At some point, will he, like Obama, feel great pressure to become so?

The question will never change but it's meanign will. For a child it's what am I (physically)? Later on it becomes what am I (culturally)?

I'd like to find a better way to put it. I am open to suggestions. Middle class educated? Maybe, but the best way I can think of to phrase it so that everyone understands is to say that culturally he is white. So is his 100 percent African parent. And so is Obama.

For the child's sake. For the world's sake, I hope times have changed and those stupid questions are moot. They haven't of course, but I am actually optimistic that they are changing and that ultimately they will change. Although there is still pre-judgement and prejudice against people perceived as black, I believe that it has become much more of a cultural thing these days. I also have quite a bit of experience being pulled over for driving while black. Although the cop doesn't know anything about the victim's education, my experience has been that once they figure it out they treat you well, even perhaps a little better to make up for their initial suspicions. I know there are still Klan types and Nazis out there, but their numbers are small. The great majority of society judges a person more by how they speak than how they look.

That's what Obama's got going for him. I'm not the first to note that he speaks very well. And I think he would actually have a chance if more people heard him speak, but as the campaign goes along, I think that will happen less and less. It's already happening less and less. Instead of hearing the guy talk, we get people talking about the black guy. Is he black enough? Is he too black? Does it help him? Does it hurt? What are the demographics? Is American ready for a black president?

I think when we phrase it like that, when it's all about blackness, we'll find that no, America is not ready. I think we are ready for an extremely talented, well-traveled and well-educated president with a strong moral center, but unfortunately we'll be stuck with one of the Republicans, Hillary or John.

The kid in the picture? Well, here's hoping things are different when his generation runs for president*.

* This wouldn't be chuckling on-line magazine if I didn't add "if we still have any kind of even barely functioning democracy at that time. More likely by that time President George Bush VII will have succeeded President George Bush VI and we'll all be living in cardboard boxes, if not concrete cells.