Thursday, October 30, 2008

Letter to Nicholas Kristof

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof asks the question,

Should we call Obama ‘black’ or ‘biracial’?

I joined the large crowd of those who took this as an invitation to provide their two cents.

Here's my response (No. 104).

Mr. K:

Delighted to see you have brought up this ridiculous and racist folly we Americans practice of thinking if you’re not “pure” white you’re black, and that black implies polluted. But then why add more folly? If race is a retrograde social construct, “mixed race” is no less so, even though on the surface it suggests greater scientific accuracy. You don’t make things better by calling somebody mixed. You don’t know whether they are smart or dumb or kind or vicious or honest or deceitful when they are labeled black or white, and you don’t know that about them when you see them as mixed, either.

Nor do you really know much about their cultural identity. To say Barack Obama knows more about white culture because of his white grandparents is not fair to the “non-mixed-race-blacks” – and, for that matter, the allegedly non-mixed-race white people of America – whose life experiences and educational opportunities well used have brought them to pretty much the same attitudes, values and beliefs Obama holds. Some people learn what is hot without actually sticking their hands in the fire.

I know social constructs are just as real as biological ones, and the categories we invent then come to determine our thinking to a large extent. That is what is driving the excitement of finally seeing a “black” man and his family take on the role of governing our country from the White House, and representing us all in the world.

But the fact Barack Obama has the support that he has suggests a whole lot of us are quite capable of jumping from “black or white” to “human” without having to go through “mixed” first. “Mixed” is a category for those who want to move more slowly. I know that’s a lot of people, and they need to be given time. But I hope we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that “mixed” is a real correction to racist category-making. It’s only an intermediate step. And a paltry one, at that.

— Alan McCornick

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