Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Race Identity & Ancestry

Race is notoriously one of those topics on which Americans (and we are certainly not alone in this) get a bit squirrely.

One of the things that's been striking me as very odd as I read more of Obama's speeches (since we're going through this campaign season without a TV, this is a campaign strictly of the written word for me -- which is an interesting experience) and selections of his autobiography is his tendency to talk about his mother and grandmother as being of another race, and thus not fully understanding him.

Now clearly, he's half Kenyan, and they're not, but I still can't help finding it rather odd that he in some ways seems to place more of a premium on his skin tone than his ancestry -- especially given that his father abandoned the family when Obama was two. To the extent that race is a matter of biology -- his father is as much "of another race" from him as his mother. And to the extent that race is a matter of experience and culture, you would think that his mother's would predominate, since she raised him. Yet he seems to identify entirely with the "minority" half of his ancestry, while considering his mother and maternal ancestors as somehow alien.

Clearly, he's not at all alone in this. One of the very odd experiences I had growing up was in dealing with a family among our set of close long term friends who had adopted a son from Korea. He was adopted as an infant, and they already had one biological daughter. Now the family was "liberal" in their leanings in a general sort of way and felt very strongly about ethnic identity. So as their adopted son grew up, they were always at pains to make sure he got enough Korean culture. He was always enrolled in Asian-American activities in school. As a teenager, they enrolled him in a separate Korean youth group (they were Methodists, I think). Eventually, he joined a separate Korean church.

Now clearly, they saw this as making sure that he wasn't cut off from the culture he was born in (though I can't imagine he soaked much up in the six months before he came to the US), but to me, as another kid, it always seemed like he was being treated as the outsider in the family. They were WASPs; he was Korean. To me, as the admixture of an Irish-ancesty father and a Mexican-ancestry mother (though admitedly, those are two cultures that may not be seen as very distinct in modern American society) the whole idea of identifying with one ancestry or the other seemed silly. So why treat an adopted child of another national origin as if he were somehow "other" than the biological child?

African ancestry has traditionally been cause for incredible amounts of discrimination and oppression in the US -- though I think one is justified in saying these have got much better over the last 40 years. So I can certainly see how Obama might well feel that he's faced challenges due to his skin color that his mother and grandmother did not face.

But at the same time, consistently referring to your parent and grandparent -- who were the ones who actually raised you -- as "someone of another race" seems very odd to me...


Foxfier said...

Y'know...I admit that I tend to identify myself as "Irish" if folks ask, but that's mostly because it's the largest chunk that we know of--my mom's family is "basically" Irish. (most of it was in the country for so long, and got into enough various trouble, that we're not REALLY sure)

But I don't dislike my American Indian ancestors (although you can't tell by looking) and I'm quite quick to point out I'm an English Hicks, not a German one...and I'm quick to make jokes about my wallet screaming for my Scot grandmother.

I am a whole--why can't Obama live that way? It's not like he grew up being treated that differently....

Anonymous said...

I have a son adopted from Korea, and before this experience I thought the way you do. What I have learned, though, from talking to people in the international adoption community and from reading the thoughts of adult Korean adoptees, is that these children feel like outsiders in both cultures. They don't like kimchee and can't speak more than twelve words of Korean, but they are reminded every day that they look different from white kids.

One thing our social worker taught us is that our son's Korean heritage is his -- it's our duty to offer him some background into his history, but his choice how far to take it.

"Heritage" is a good word here to understand these issues. Nothing will ever change the fact that he was born in Korea to Korean parents, nor that he is an immigrant (though also an American citizen from the moment the adoption was finalized). He'll never be just one or just the other, but both, and that can't be changed.

As for Obama, I have very little to say about him that is nice. I find him disingenuous at best. Well, he's better than Edwards, who was downright creepy; I guess that's something nice.

rose said...

See, this is the problem that I wish more people would talk about: the fact that our entire *system* of racial classification is basically racist. Why is Obama black? Because our ancestors were obsessed with racial purity, so they decided that any non-white ancestry polluted you and made you not white. It's STUPID.

Anonymous said...

I remember a friend of mine in college who was a little bit of everything: Negro, Caucasian, American Indian and Asian. He had a great sense of humor and when asked his race used to say "All!".

Rick Lugari said...

Yeah, I'm a mutt. I have Italian, English, French, Irish and American Indian in me. I regret that I don't have any African, Polish, and Jewish blood in me because it limits the jokes I'm "allowed" to use. I shouldn't complain though, there's still plenty of material available to me due to the French and Italian...and Catholic!

CMinor said...

I think Rhinemouse has a point, but I think that history is less of a determiner today than it is a stick used by some persons claiming some sort of minority status to beat society into accepting their personal agendas.

I thought Obama's recent comments in reference to his grandmother betrayed a certain ingratitude and lack of empathy, as well as a willingness to exploit even those who have done him a kindness if it advances him politically. I think that these characteristics indicate a fundamental lack of character inappropriate to a head of state.

Say what you like about his difficulties because of his skin color; his grandmother was raising a biracial teenager during the '70's and I doubt the bigots in their community made her life any easier just because she happened to be white. Moreover, I'd bet she shielded him from unpleasantness on more than one occasion.

Regarding your Korean-born acquaintance, Darwin, it does seem to me that those parents went overboard in their attempt to preserve his ethnic identity. It's one thing to encourage your kid to join, say, a Korean class or Asian Culture club, but the church change makes it seem like they were enabling the kid to insulate himself to extremes from the culture in which he was being raised. I think that would have been a good time to give him the "Brothers in Christ" sermon and put the foot down.

Louise said...

I think you really hit the nail on the head. I have been troubled by the same thing as I've listened to and read Obama's speeches.
As far as your story of the adopted Korean boy -- it seems today that it's so popular and politically correct to emphasize "diversity" that people will go out of their way to embrace ethnicity even when it really has no meaning for them (or for the person that they're forcing to embrace it). When I was in grade school, the US was a "melting pot"; by the time I reached high school it was rechristened a "salad," emphasizing that each person retained his or her ethnic/racial "identity" in the mix. I'm not saying people shouldn't appreciate their heritage and learn about the culture of their ancestors, but I think such attitudes sometimes become too strong, and can be very divisive.