Obama election stokes debate over what is biracial

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Heather Curry believes President Barack Obama is denying his white heritage by identifying himself as African-American.

"It's great that he's biracial," says Ms. Curry, 19, a Point Park University advertising major who identifies herself as biracial. "I wish he would accept it a little bit more."

The election of Mr. Obama -- the son of a white woman from Kansas and a man from Kenya -- has jump-started a national dialogue on race and racial identity as America's view of multiracial people changes.

Mr. Obama always has acknowledged his biracial background but identifies himself as African-American. With Mr. Obama, people see who and what they want to see, says Joy M. Zarembka, the Washington, D.C.-based author of "The Pigment of Your Imagination: Mixed Race in a Global Society." "And most everyone can relate to him -- whether [they're] white, black, rich, poor, foreign, American, etc."

People often look at multiracial people and highlight whatever aspect of their background makes them feel most comfortable.

"I've never received so much attention merely for being a similar racial combination as someone else," says Ms. Zarembka, a Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill native who has a Kenyan mother and European-American father. "People now automatically apply some of his attributes to me -- fairness, calm under pressure, etc."

However, she wonders: "If he were to fall from grace, would I automatically as well?"

Some mixed-race people feel they can relate to Mr. Obama, but so can an Iowa farm boy, says Ms. Zarembka, executive director of the Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington.

Ms. Curry thinks the media have helped define him as only black and fears that history will forget that America's "first black president" actually is a biracial man.

"I feel like there are not enough [biracial] role models out there," says Ms. Curry, whose father was white and mother is black. "We need to say we're proud of our heritage."

Her roommate, Erica Stewart, has a different view. Ms. Stewart has a white mother and a black father. Because her mother raised her, she identifies more with white culture than black culture, but she embraces aspects of both and often is mistaken for Hispanic.

"If [Obama] feels more African-American, I don't have issues with that," said Ms. Stewart, 19, an art major at the Community College of Allegheny County. "If I had grown up with [my father] instead of my mom, I would have identified more as an African American."

Friends since middle school in Erie, the two young women recall how they struggled to figure out their own racial identity, routinely seeming too black to some whites and too white to some blacks.

"I feel like growing up, different people would interact with me differently," Ms. Stewart said.

They both felt a bit squeezed between two cultures. Ms. Stewart's maternal grandparents dressed for dinners out and enjoyed classical music. Her mother was into classic rock. Her dad's side of the family expected her to be into R&B and rap music and know certain things about black culture.

When she'd come home from a weekend visit with her dad, with new R&B and rap music in tow, she couldn't play it too loudly at her mom's house.

"I felt I couldn't mix the different sides of the family," Ms. Stewart says.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, when Americans first were allowed to check more than one box for race, about 6.8 million people out of 281.4 million reported being of two or more races. In a 2007 American Community Survey, when the U.S. population was 301.6 million, about 6.3 million people reported being of two or more races. However, given the survey's margin of error -- plus or minus .3 percent -- that figure could be as high as 7.2 million.

Ms. Curry thinks Mr. Obama identifying as African-American could be confusing to mixed-race children, making them feel they have to choose or making them think, "If Obama says he's black, does this mean I'm black?" She thinks biracial people shouldn't choose one race over the other because they are both.

"I'm biracial," she says. "I will fight somebody who calls me black."

Mr. Obama has a special resonance with African-American people, people of African descent, people of color in general and multiracial people.

"Because he identifies as African-American rather than multiracial ... there's a certain tension there," says G. Reginald Daniel, a University of California, Santa Barbara, sociology professor and author of "More Than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order."

Elliott Lewis, a mixed-race man, journalist and author of "Fade: My Journeys in Multiracial America," finds the ongoing debate about whether Mr. Obama is black or biracial frustrating.

"We assume that these terms are mutually exclusive, and they're not," he said. "The biggest mistake people make in this discussion is to assume there's only one correct way to be biracial."

The formation of a person's racial identity is a psychological process, not a mathematical equation, he says. Ancestry doesn't necessarily equal identity.

"You can't just look at somebody's ancestry and say, 'They're half and half, so therefore, their identity is biracial,' " Mr. Lewis says. "This is a process that has to do with ancestry and culture and the racial climate you grow up in and how you see yourself in society."

Mr. Lewis' parents are mixed-race people who identify themselves as African-American while he is a mixed race man who identifies himself as multiracial. He doesn't feel a special kinship with Mr. Obama because he's biracial, but he has been impressed with how Mr. Obama has handled questions of race.

"He's embraced his black identity while firmly acknowledging his biracial background at the same time," Mr. Lewis said. "I think that's important because it demonstrates to young people, even though you may identify as one way, it doesn't mean you're dissing other parts of your heritage."

There's a generational difference in how mixed-race people racially identify, Mr. Lewis said. Biracial or mixed-race baby boomers, like Mr. Obama, are more likely to identify as black, and black alone, than are biracial Americans of Generation Y.

"Younger biracial Americans have grown up at a time when diversity has been seen as positive, as something to be celebrated," he says. "Biracial baby boomers did not grow up in that kind of racial climate."

Multiracial and biracial people born within the past two decades haven't felt as much pressure as earlier generations of multiracial people to choose one racial identity over another, Dr. Daniel says. Much of identity comes down to color, and people with darker skin, regardless of ancestry, will be treated as people of color in society. Mixed-race people with lighter skin have more options.

A decade ago, people who identified themselves as biracial had to explain or defend their identity. Today, biracial people who don't call themselves biracial have to explain themselves.

"It's almost like we're trading one arbitrary rule for another," Mr. Lewis said. "It's almost like we're trading the one-drop-and-you-must-call-yourself-black rule for the one-drop-of-any-two-races-and-you-must-call-yourself-multiracial rule."

Multiracial people have to decide their racial identity for themselves, he says.

"Most of the people I have heard who want to insist that [Mr. Obama] call himself biracial are either mixed-race people themselves, who want him to identify as they do, or they are the parents of biracial children who want him to identify as biracial to serve as a role model for their kid, or they are white voters who are trying to convince other whites it's OK to vote for him," Mr. Lewis says.

About 75 percent to 95 percent of Americans have combinations of heritages.

"There are a lot of 'white' people who are actually the product of racial mixture, and the word 'Latino' fails miserably in its attempt to define a race," says Ms. Zarembka, who has been mistaken for Filipino, Italian, Pakistani, Puerto Rican and Ethiopian.

Mr. Obama's election doesn't mean there's now a post-racial America or that institutional and individual racism don't still exist. However, society's ideas about race are evolving.

"We have a mixed-race president," Ms. Stewart said. "Maybe it will open some eyes up and end some racism."

Mr. Obama is the right person for the job because of his talents, education, experience and skills, the young roommates say. His background is a bonus. Ms. Curry watched the inauguration live in a Point Park University auditorium with other students.

"It wasn't just one race, it was everyone," she says. "So, hopefully from my generation on, you'll see different attitudes toward politics and race and culture. It was really encouraging to see."

L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.


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