Mix'ology: noun. The art and science of mixings
In these final days of this presidential campaign, John McCain and his supporters have been trying desperately to raise doubts about Barack Obama's identity. They have called him a terrorist sympathizer, a socialist, an unrepentant liberal. For weeks, their tagline has been "Who is Barack Obama?" The McCain campaign hopes that the question will resonate with the part of the electorate that Obama had putatively most alienated: the white, working class.
For different reasons, this same identity question has also had some traction with people of color, many of whom worry that Obama will usher in what Danzy Senna calls the "mulatto millennium," especially if it implies that, as some of Obama's supporters chanted earlier this year, "race doesn't matter."
Black folks look for signs: Did his homage to his white kin at his nomination acceptance speech constitute an erasure of blackness? Did his no-show at the annual State of the Black Union forum cynically herald some new form of post-black politics? The identity question has transmogrified over the past months with increasing urgency; they have shifted from is-he-too-black or is-he-black-enough early in the campaign to, more recently, does his biracial background translate into de-facto white? Post-racial? De-racial?
Most striking to me is that despite the fact that these concerns have come from both right and left, Obama has not used his mixed-race and cosmopolitan identity in the most obviously expedient ways: That is, he has not yet argued that he is a post-race representative, a biological "bridge" who can—merely by virtue of his biracial heritage—heal racial divides or be an ambassador to a new world order in which race as we know it no longer matters. All of these would be easy seductions. Instead, when Obama has invoked his identity as both white and black, and as someone raised in multiethnic communities like Hawaii or Indonesia, he has done so, without exception, to launch wider discussions about racial inequities and social injustice. His "A More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia in the wake of the Rev. Wright controversy did not parade his biracial loyalties to prove he can reach across the color line and solve racial problems; rather, the speech is a call to think more deeply and analytically at race beyond "spectacle," as he puts it, which is all "we did in the O.J. trial—or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina—or as fodder for the nightly news."
Despite the powerful temptation to go "beyond race," Obama in that speech said it quite forcefully: "Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now."
In the last presidential debate when John McCain cynically began what law professor Richard Ford calls "bluffing about bias," demanding an apology from John Lewis for suggesting that McCain and Sarah Palin were enabling a threatening racial environment at his rallies, Obama cogently redirected the conversation. But instead of ignoring race, Obama honored its importance by insisting that racism was a larger social, structural and economic concern that went well beyond "hurt feelings," as he put it. Racism, he countered, should not be simply personalized and, therefore, miniaturized in the ways McCain was attempting.
Most interesting, then, is not Obama's avoidance of race but his refocusing of race.
Surely, at times, Obama's biracial identity has fed his image as the accommodating, genial "magic Negro," a reassuring figure to whites who can take comfort in the fact that he understands them and that his genetic hard wiring makes him immune to the angry-black-man syndrome sometimes associated with his political fore-bearers.
But his Kenya-Kansas connection has also worked to his disadvantage: The "Who are you?" question that has plagued his campaign has a particular resonance with people of mixed heritage, for whom the constant repetition of that same question defines their daily experience. Mixed-race people know well, too, that such questions cannot be satisfied with explanations of genealogy because they are usually prompted by deep anxieties about racial ambiguity.
So for some, Obama can never be placed; he does not fit within familiar racial or reassuring social paradigms. Thus, despite the fact that Obama has written two memoirs and has repeatedly explained "who he is," his biracial background lurks as something that always represents the unanswerable, the unknowable.
But Obama has rejected post-racialism, certainly to the extent it meant identifying as "mixed" rather than "black." His position was evident as early as 2005, when he told representatives from the MAVIN Foundation, one of the nation's largest mixed-race advocacy organizations, who had clearly hoped he would be both an icon and legislative whip on their behalf: "I am always cautious about…persons of mixed race focusing so narrowly on their own unique experiences that they are detached from larger struggles, and I think it's important to try to avoid that sense of exclusivity, and feeling that you're special in some way."
As his Indonesian-Caucasian sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, noted, Obama identifies as black not because he is conscripted by the one-drop rule, but because he actively chooses it. He belongs to the black community not only because, historically, mixed people have always belonged, and because black has never been pure; he belongs also, his sister suggests, because of personal commitment and responsibility. The issue may appear moot since race is part choice, part social ascription, and Obama could not simply opt out of the race even if he woke up some morning and chose to. But it remains important that he does not bill himself as "mixed" or "other" even when it might appear politically convenient or grant him cultural glam.
It is important, for instance, that in his Denver acceptance speech he made it clear that his parents' interracial union did not represent racial progress. In fact, he uses what he called the broken and "brief union" of his parents as the backdrop for, and implied contrast to, the stable nuclear black family that he has created with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, moving from his parents' divorce to an African-American family romance.
He may come from an interracial union, and he certainly advances a multiracial coalition to continue civil rights struggles, but Obama is clearly most invested in broader black community interests than in checking the Mark All That Apply (MATA) census option. McCain's campaign uses the question of "Who is he?" as proxy for a host of racial and religious anxieties. In this context, it would have been easy for Obama to answer that we need to go beyond race, beyond religion, beyond identity. But he has not taken the bait. To his credit, Obama's mixology has never promised to serve up post-race salvation.
Michele Elam is Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor and Dir. of
African & African American Studies, Stanford University.