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:

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?)

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.


Unknown said…
This was excellent. I loved your last sentence - it really brings home our shared genetics. We are a global family now, a continuous spectrum that cannot be compartmentalized.
Ariel said…
I just love and respect everybody and it makes me sad that there are people who don't. I hate mean cartoons and it didn't matter to me what box our president checked. I understand why we have those little boxes and I understand why it matters... I just wish the only thing that mattered was that we were all human:( It's what I'm trying to teach my daughter...
nick said…
Let's face it, for a lot of people out there, whatever Barack Obama does is wrong, whether it's the way he fills in a census form or the way he knots his tie. They just enjoy a witch-hunt. What he's actually achieving for American citizens is of no interest to them.
BlackLiterature said…
You're Black, you're Black, you're Black. LOL

Seriously, I don't care what you checked. When I read your posts, I identify with you as a Black women. I think you self identify as Black, but if you identified with both it would not bother me in the least.

Why? I don't get the impression that you see being "Black" as a curse or something to be ashamed of or something to be diminished. I absolutely feel everyone has the right to identify as they choose. But there are some, and I think they are in a minority, that feel more comfortable identifying with any and everything except Black. That pains/bothers me. It symbolizes that some folks have internalized the worst parts of bigotry and prejudice.

Frankly, most Black people I know are "mixed" with a few other groups in the not so distant past. What does that mean? Not much.. only that we're really all more alike than different.
Nina said…
First off, I was kind of surprised that the fact that his census answer was publicized.

That said, I believe strongly in that part of that Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage you mentioned. Also the part that says we can change how we refer to ourselves. Because nobody should say that Obama is trying to DENY his white mother or white heritage by choosing to identify as black. Surely he's allowed to choose how he wants to self-identify. I happen to identify as hapa, mixed-race, Korean American...it all depends on the situation I'm in, really.

As a side note, I think some people really love to point out that OH! Obama is HALF-WHITE! because it makes them feel more comfortable with a black man in power. If he is, somehow, less black and they can claim, somehow, that a white (even partially white) man is in power, it makes them feel more comfortable. I've seen this vividly even amongst my own family members and it really grates at me.
Mocha said…
Wouldn't it be interesting if he had chosen White to hear what the complaints would have been.

"Nu uhhhh. You're Black! You know the one drop rule! FOUL. We cry FOUL."

I identify with you, too, but it's got nothing to do with the Black/Irish thing. It's much deeper, my love.
Yes indeed lots of white people need to check the black box - especially if they live in the West.

The standard used to be 'one drop of negro' blood. I wonder where they found all those super white people?? Not in the Western United States, that's for sure.

Another excellent discourse on color. I love how you take this issue head on. It's refreshing and very well done.

Maybe I should get my genes done... where do you do that?
Liz Dwyer said…
I'll reply to your comments shortly... traveling w/ spotty net access and replying by Blackberry is not the best!
Lisa Blah Blah said…
Slightly off-topic: I have to say that given the Bill of Rights for Folks of Mixed Heritage, I often feel uncomfortable when I have to check forms off for my kids! Who am I to plug them into a box?! LOL!
kenda said…
I'm actually kind of surprised that people are getting upset over the way the President chooses to racially identity himself considering this isn't the first time he's addressed it.

And someone seriously just straight up asked you about your census? Where do you meet these people? That's so different from my world. I'm surrounded by people who are afraid to ask if it's okay to call me black.
Lotus Flower said…
Right on.

Liz, as soon as I heard this story, I was waiting for the first round of card-carrying "biracial/multiracial" nazis to start whining. Particularly in newspapers, forums and other blogs. Yes, Obama identifies as a Black man. Get.Over.It.

It's funny how some mixed folks are the first ones to chim in with the whole "Why can't they just let me identify as how I choose, blah, blah" diatribe, then turn around and pick on Obama for doing the same thing! Gotta love the hypocrisy. Sorry folks, you can't have it both ways.

If you choose to ID as mixed, fine. If you choose to ID as multiracial, biracial, heck heinz-57, and not black, do your thing, we all have the right to choose what we call ourselves. But those same mixed folks hating on Obama for choosing the Black category are just as wrong as the black folks who ridiculed Tiger Woods for choosing to be seen as multiracial.
Liz Dwyer said…
Electric Orchid,
Totally agree. We are a family with a shared destiny - so we HAVE to figure out how we leave this crap in the past and build something new.

I get why we need the boxes too, and I can understand the confusion people feel when we're working with an old system and way of being/thinking that's crumbling.

Exactly. He can sneeze and they'll say it's a communist/socialist sneeze that's denying his mom.

Black Lit,
Hehehe! You're so right, I don't see being black as being something bad at all. I think in the future people will look back on us and think we're insane for the way we act over all this. Yes, we sure are mixed. My husband's grandma could pass, but he's darker - funny thing is, when people come to our house and see her picture, they think it's my relative. Nope, it's his!

Crap, my cab is here. I have to go to the train station. Back in a few!
Jack Steiner said…
I am continually surprised that we pay so much attention to race and not enough to how people act.
michelle said…
OK. So there's the way you grow up and what you see when you look out your eyes. And what you see in the faces of those who tuck you in at night. And then there's the way you are treated when you walk into a store, or a restaurant, or an interview after speaking with someone on the phone. And you see the *you don't sound Black* look on their face.

I checked a lot of boxes. I always do. And I get to check even more boxes for my kids.

hmmm... I really wonder what was behind that White House announcement. Great post
Liz Dwyer said…
I wonder why the answer was publicized as well. Maybe trying to maintain the reputation of transparency?

I agree with you about the issue of comfortability. I think it does make him seem less "threatening" to some.

Oh yes, if he'd said white, that would've REALLY been the apocalypse. And when do I get to give you a hug again?

LOL at "super white people"! They imported them all from Scandinavia?

I asked my mom where she got hers done and she said she'll give me the name of the company. I'll let you know when she does.

I feel that way, too. I asked my boys what they wanted me to check for them and I think it was the first time I've ever asked them.

Good point! I mean, how many years has the man's book been out? He makes no secret of how he sees himself.

Yes, I was asked several times. I don't know what it is but I'm a magnet for this kind of stuff. Maybe because I seem like I won't snap?

There's definitely a double standard within the biracial/multiracial community about this. Folks can't say people have the right to self-identify and then take that back as they see fit.

I think that's because the way we act is often motivated by race, as unfortunate and sad as that may be.

YES, there sure all those different experiences and none of them seem to "make sense", especially when you're young. I wonder what was behind the announcement, too. BTW, I love your blog! :)
Unknown said…
I'll never forget the day the City of LA called me to let me know the paperwork for my new job was incomplete because I hadn't checked the nationality box. I'm biracial and was told by the clerk that I could only choose one. One box. Huh? I argued and persuaded and in the end the clerk said, "Well, you can still only check one box." Made me almost want to quit the job before I had it.
Anonymous said…
It was published so they wouldn't have to answer 200 press inquiries asking what he checked.
CiCi said…
Your writing is knowledgeable and forthright. Good post. We have a president who inherited so many wrongs disguised as right and people are disrespectful to him and his family. Thank God the majority of people who voted for him are not being led by the right or silly tea drinkers.
Momma said…
Quite a good post! I'm taking a class on racial identity right now, and a lot of the points that you brought up are relevant to what we've been learning/discussing.

I take a little bit of issue with the whole idea of gene mapping, and that a person can be 89% this race and 11% that race, etc, because it only reinforces the idea of race as something intrinsic on the genetic level, when it really has no biological basis.

What does it mean for someone to be 89% one race? Absolutely nothing--at least that's my understanding based on what I've studied related to race, ethnicity, and biology.

Anyway, great post and great blog.
Amen Liz. People need to stop tripping.
Karina said…
I would actually hope that the President would pick both Black and White...Why? Because I think (and this is coming from my own bi-racial mind) that being bi-racial means you're the BEST of both worlds. Sometimes I very much identify with my own Polish roots...other days more with my Cuban heritage..... but alas, I have such a respect and adoration for Obama he is to me Mr. President. Period. Whatever he identifies himself with more is what I shall support. As one of the other posters mentioned....we are a global family now. If he identifies more with his black heritage, more power to him.

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