Barack Obama: The Postracial Candidate?
In yesterday's blog entry, I mentioned that I had thought of Barack Obama as signifying a "postracial America," but I did acknowledge:
Race is doubtless an issue, just as ethnic identity is an issue everywhere in the world, but Obama the candidate -- like Obama the person -- is more complex than that, as are his supporters.There's a personal aspect in this for me, and not just because my kids are half Korean. I suppose that I pass for white, but my maternal grandmother was recognizably American Indian, so much so that when she and my grandfather were traveling through the Smokey Mountains way back in the 1930s, some Cherokee men standing around a potbellied woodstove in a local hotel (where my grandparents were looking to lodge for the night) came up to her while my grandfather was off inspecting the hotel room and asked:
"How does an Indian like you get along with an Englishman like him?"But she was curious about how the man had known that she was Indian since she wasn't very dark. He told her that she simply looked Indian, that this was obvious and that any Indian would instantly recognize the fact.
"Oh," she replied, "we get along fine."
I grew up knowing the story and that I was part Cherokee, but I didn't really see the Indian in my grandmother until I moved to San Francisco and saw her face in the faces of old Chinese women, just as I now sometimes see her here in the old women of Korea.
Maybe that's partly why I feel comfortable in this distant place even though the Koreans probably think of me as just another waygukin -- an "outside-country person," as Robert Ouwehand translated it in his "Letter to the Editor" for yesterday's Expat Life section of the Korea Herald.
But to get back to Barack...
This morning, I read a short article, "Honolulu Diarist" by Allegra Goodman in The New Republic that reaches back to Honolulu of the 1970s to help explain Obama's fluid identity, the 'postracialness' that I mentioned. Goodman describes the complex identity dynamics that she saw taking place in her fifth-grade class, taught by an old "veteran teacher, old-fashioned, Christian, strict, Mabel Hefty," and she implies that Obama would have experienced much the same thing:
Six years before she taught my class, Mabel Hefty had taught a boy named Barack Obama who grew up to name her as his favorite teacher for her ability to make "every single child feel special." To Mrs. Hefty, special did not simply mean loved -- special meant singular. This was a particularly strong message to her diverse students. Mrs. Hefty's students were Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Korean, Tongan, white, and, more often than that, hapa, a combination of many races and traditions. On the surface, our classroom looked like a melting pot. A girl with honey blond hair, cafe-au-lait skin, and green eyes might say proudly, "I'm part Hawaiian, part Portuguese, part Chinese, and part Irish." And, yet, despite this melding of cultures -- indeed, because of it -- we were all struggling to define ourselves and find a place in the world.I think that this gets at part of Obama's appeal, especially to the young. Whether postracial or not, racially, ethnically, Obama is hard to pin down, much as America and Americans are becoming harder to pin down as we all struggle to find our place in the world.
Which is why Obama's not "The Black Candidate" that the Clintons would like for him to be...