Obama's Census = Black, African-American or Negro... and the World Did Not End
"What box did you check on the census?"
It's been six days since the White House shared that President Obama checked the "Black, African-American, or Negro" box on the U.S. Census. In those six days, several nosy people have taken it upon themselves to ask me what I checked on a confidential government form.
I'm the tricky type to throw such a rude question back on these folks with, "What do you think I checked?"
"Black? Or... black and white?"
I can't help but push things a bit by saying stuff like, "Actually, I only checked "white" because I filled the census out on St. Patrick's Day and I was really feeling my Irish heritage."
People don't like that response. They've never liked that response. But that's OK because what I've realized, and what I'm sure Barack Obama knows, is that no matter what box -or combination of boxes- I check, somebody somewhere is gonna have their panties in a bunch over it.
America's right-wingers think they're witty when they say, "Obama couldn't even get his race right. He only checked the black box, not the white one."
Let's step back and put such a critique into context. Can you recall any time in American history when white, right wing folks have been mad that a man with more than one drop of black blood decided to only check the black box? Prior to Obama's presidency, this population had no issue with someone like him checking black and black only... but now it's offensive? This is QUITE a shift in perspective. They're rejecting the one-drop rule to score political points - which makes me ask:
1) Do these folks consider the average half black/white person they know to be biracial and not black? (Have they ever even had a conversation with that person to know their heritage?)
2) Even if the acknowledgement of Obama's heritage is done out of malice, will it lead to the further dismantling of the one-drop rule?
Another fascinating thing is seeing biracial communities echo right wing talk radio and blogs. A half-black/half-white friend shared her disappointment over Obama’s choice, saying, "That whole black thing's been put on us. Why do we have to be black when we're not?” She went on to suggest that Obama checked black to “appease” people who are comfortable with the one-drop rule. Now he’s not progressive because he didn’t acknowledge his mom.
Yes, some of my biracial brothers and sisters are angry and disappointed. However, this group should know better than to demand that Obama identify as a certain way. Perhaps these angry people need a refresher course on Dr. Maria P. P. Root's "Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage." They forgot the part about mixed people having the right, "To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify."
Dear Biracial People: Just because you're part black and part white, that doesn't mean you have the right to tell Obama (or anybody else) how they should fill out their census form.
What’s really bugged me about some of these comments from critics of Obama’s choice is the vibe that it’s a curse to live or identify as a black person. I see it as an honor to be able to claim African ancestry. I consider it a gift and I'm proud of it, even if genetically, I'm more white than black.
Yes, if we want to get technical, my mom got her genes tested last year and she's only 89% black. The other 11% is Native American. Pair that with my Irish American father and... I'm only 44.5% black.
No, I'm not full Irish and no I'm not full African. I'm both, and like President Obama, I have no problem talking about all facets of who I am. Everyone who knows me knows that my dad is a white man. They've heard me wax poetic about the ancient Irish kings of Tara, my family crest and our clan motto. But they've also heard me talk about plenty of African nations and about the history of my mom's family here in the States - at least the part that I know of. I'm proud to come from a long tradition of two peoples who've endured and persevered, despite whatever violence or hate they encountered.
Even though race is a social construct, even though we all originated from Mother Africa eons ago, let's face it, we are not post-racial in this country. Driving while black still exists. Working while black still exists. Being President of the United States while black still exists too.
Will checking black and white on his census form make people stop sending Obama death threats? Will they stop making racist cartoons of him eating watermelon and fried chicken? I seriously doubt it. Checking boxes does not result in people changing the racist attitudes and actions that Americans who are recognizably of African descent experience.
You want to know what I checked, don’t you? I’m not going to say. I don’t owe anyone an explanation of my identity. But, if there's no one drop rule anymore, LOTS of black people need to check both the white and black boxes... and a whole lot of white folks need to as well.