2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Obama's rise spotlights the lives of racial 'others'

 

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Andrea Billups,
2/22/08 Wash. Times (D.C.) A01


Mary Cutrufello says she has no confusion about her own racial identity, even if her life experience might suggest otherwise. Adopted by two white parents, and told one of her biological parents was white and the other was black - she's never met them - the Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter says she always identified with white people growing up in Connecticut. There were simply no black children around in her early years, and white was her whole world.

Growing up multiracial was "less about being raised by people with pale skin and having brown skin," says Ms. Cutrufello, 38, a guitarist and singer known for her heartland rock sound. "For me, the adoption is a bigger deal than the genetic makeup."

Asked what racial box she checks on a census questionnaire, Ms. Cutrufello quickly replies: "I just check 'other,' or I didn't check anything at all because I didn't think it was fair to either side."

"Others" has become the preferred term for this emergent population of Americans who don't fit neatly into any of the traditional racial boxes. With its connotations of both difference and indeterminacy, "others" aptly conveys the growing racial complexity of a nation where multiracial marriages are on the rise and more children, born of those unions, join a society where identity, culture and heritage are increasingly self-selected - and just as sensitive as ever.

With the rise of Sen. Barack Obama, the significance of our changing racial mix is receiving renewed attention.

Celebrated as the nation's first viable black presidential candidate and spiritual heir to the leaders of the civil rights movement, it's easy to forget that Mr. Obama is biracial. He has written about his personal struggles but also downplayed racial significance as he tailors a modern political message that we are one.

University of Illinois-Chicago researcher Kerri Ann Rockquemore says for many people, racial identity remains an individual quandary. Yet it continues to drive a broader discussion.

"Part of what is difficult is that we are in this incredibly awkward historical moment," says Mrs. Rockquemore, who is biracial. "We want to be beyond race. We want to believe race doesn't matter. But that is not consistent with reality."

"It's very difficult to talk about these things because part of us wants to believe we shouldn't be talking about this anymore," continues Mrs. Rockquemore, an associate professor of African American studies who has written books about biracial identity. "But look: You have a Barack Obama, who identifies as just black. You have Tiger Woods, who says 'I'm not black, I'm multiracial.' You have people like Derek Jeter who say, 'I'm not black or white but both of these things.' Increasingly, we see people in the media who are making different choices about their identity."

It was not until 2000 that the U.S. Census first allowed citizens to check more than one box for race on its forms. The switch came after much lobbying and a lot of public pressure, says Susan Graham, who founded Project Race in 1990 (www.projectrace.com) as a nationwide advocacy group for a multiracial classification on all school, employment, state, federal, local, census and medical forms requiring racial data.

Mrs. Graham, an editor and writer, said she was motivated to lead a movement when she tried to fill out her own 1990 census questionnaire. "I didn't see a place for my multiracial children," she remembers.

She called the Census Bureau to ask how that should be handled, and they put her on hold. Then, a man got on the phone and suggested that the children take the race of the mother.

"I asked 'Why arbitrarily the race of the mother?' " she recalls. "And he said, 'Because in cases like this, we always know who the mother is and often not who the father is.' Which would make Obama white, by the way."

"I was so insulted," Mrs. Graham continues. "I found out there were all kinds of crazy ways the Census Bureau would recalculate the way races were into one race. It's been fraught with error. We have never had an accurate account of what people identify themselves as in this country."

That began to change in the 2000 census, when survey options for multiracial Americans were offered for the first time and roughly 6.8 million people, or about 2.4 percent of the total U.S. population, checked boxes for two or more races. Those numbers, however, may conceal a more elusive reality because people, like Mr. Obama, for example, self-select their own identity, depending on how they were raised, with whom they were raised and in what community they grew up.

Mr. Obama, born to a white mother and Kenyan father who left his family when he was 2, lived in Hawaii, one of the nation's most diverse states, as well as abroad in Indonesia. He outlined his tangled roots in his best-selling book, "Dreams From My Father." In it, he lamented that "my identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn't, couldn't, end there."

Later, in a second book, "The Audacity of Hope," he addressed the lingering issue of race in today's world: "When I hear commentators interpreting my speech to mean that we have arrived at a 'postracial politics' or that we already live in a color-blind society, I have to offer a word of caution. To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters - that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted."

While Mr. Obama's black self-identification does not appear to have hurt him much thus far in the campaign, golf superstar Woods' more complicated sense of his racial identity stirred feelings of, first, racial pride and, later, betrayal.

When he won the Masters Tournament in 1997 at the age of 21, blacks claimed him as the first black to claim the coveted green jacket.

Later, Woods took to talk-show host Oprah Winfrey's couch to announce his own self-classification as "Cablinasian," a term he coined in his teens to describe his Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian heritage. His father was half-black and a quarter each American Indian and white, while his mother was half-Thai and half-Chinese.

"I'm just who I am, whoever you see in front of you," Woods told Miss Winfrey, later drawing criticism from some as a racial sellout.

Those from the celebrity world who are biracial or multiracial include singers Mariah Carey, Paula Abdul, Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Tina Turner, Lenny Kravitz, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Prince; actors Rosario Dawson, Halle Berry, Vin Diesel, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and "Prison Break" star Wentworth Miller; basketball star Grant Hill, model Naomi Campbell and television news anchor Soledad O'Brien.

Juli Vanderhoop, a baker from Aquinnah, Mass., a small community on Martha's Vineyard, understands those complications, but like Ms. Cutrufello, she is clear on her own background. While her surname is Dutch, she considers herself a Native American who closely identifies with her history as a member of the small Wampanoag tribe on the island.

"I'm half Native American, a bit of Caucasian, and my mom is mulatto," says Mrs. Vanderhoop, 43, who is well-known on the island's culinary scene for running the Orange Peel Bakery.

But, she says, several of her five brothers identify as black - "they are more comfortable in the black community" - and her own son describes himself as "brown."

"I think it's where you stand at the moment, what might make you feel like a minority or not a minority," says Mrs. Vanderhoop, who was for a time married to a man who is Irish. "I think Obama conflicts people. And I think people who are multiracial struggle."

Ironically, at a time when both opinion research and Mr. Obama's evident political appeal suggest that Americans are comfortable with the idea of a black president, an overtly multiracial identity can still be a political liability, stranding a candidate in a racial no man's land.

"It would have caused an outcry if Barack Obama had said 'I'm multiracial, not black,' " says Mrs. Rockquemore. "It would have been, politically speaking, highly problematic. When people say 'I'm not black, I'm biracial,' lots of people feel like that is a negative judgment on blackness - 'I'm something better than black.' People feel like you are distancing yourself from the black community."

For many, that sort of dialogue is often painful, so much so that Mrs. Rockquemore sometimes doesn't want to tell people what she does for a living, for fear of the emotion the issue will inspire.

"Why do people feel so intensely about it? A lot of it is that we are at this place where we wish it wasn't a big deal," she said. "But we're not beyond race. We still struggle to deal with that."

Even the political rock star who personifies the prospect of a post-racial American future still struggles with that. "You can't read [Mr. Obama's] story or hear about his story," says Mrs. Rockquemore, "without hearing this very thoughtful, difficult, intense struggle around 'Who am I?' "

 

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