Rachel Dolezal, the former Spokane leader of the NAACP who was born white but pretends to be (or “identifies as”) black, is widely assumed to be a lying con artist, suffering from psychological problems, or both. Many Americans, especially blacks who suffer at the hands of systemic racial discrimination, were furious at what they saw as Dolezal’s lack of — forgive me — skin in the game.
Unlike dark-skinned African-Americans pulled over by racist policemen for a broken taillight, she could opt out any time. Indeed, she did exactly that when she sued her alma mater, the historically black Howard University, for race discrimination — because she was white.
Dolezel has stepped down from her unpaid post where, by all accounts, she did a magnificent job. But what about another case of racial slumming that is not dissimilar from Dolezal’s, but far more prominent?
I speak here — though few others dare — of President Obama.
Obama, as everyone knows, had a black Kenyan father and a white American mother. Growing up in Hawaii, where so many people have multiple racial identities that they call themselves “chop suey” or “poi dog,” meaning “mixed” or “mutt,” Obama chose to sublimate his white ancestry and identify as fully black because he didn’t want to be, as friends remember, a “tragic mulatto” who had to suck up to whites.
Choosing which half of your family you prefer to identify with isn’t unusual. My mother is French and my father is American of German ancestry. I feel very French — I speak and read the language, listen to French music, follow French news, have dual French-American citizenship. I always assumed that was because my father wasn’t around while I was growing up, so he lost his chance to influence me. (But I’ve never denied his paternity, or the parts of my personality I believe came from him.)
Anyway, Obama’s situation was the reverse of mine. Like me, he was raised by his mom. The time he spent with his father could be measured in hours. If he’d followed the path of least resistance in terms of cultural influence, he would have identified as white. Instead, he took on the race of the father who left him.
Granted: race is a largely a cultural and political construction. Still, within the racial construct in which Obama and I (we’re almost the same age, and went to Columbia at the same time) grew up, he was and is biracial.
Why’d he ditch the biracial moniker?
The Census Bureau began identifying multiracial Americans in 2000. (You check off two or more boxes for race, as applicable.) In 2000, 6.8 million Americans declared themselves as having mixed-race ancestry. Not Obama — in 2010, as President, he declared himself solely African-American.
How is this different than Rachel Dolezal? Both of them identify themselves as blacker than they are genetically: Dolezel 100% more, Obama, 50% more. Why is Dolezal, an obscure woman who worked hard to fight for blacks, catching more shit than Obama, arguably the world’s most powerful man, who has been roundly criticized for sitting on his hands when black Americans come under attack, as they did in a Charleston church this week?
If Dolezeal is “transracial,” as she told an interview, so is Obama.
“I think his choice [to declare himself African-American and not biracial] will have political, social and cultural ramifications,” Michele Hughes, president of the Chicago Biracial Families Network, said after stories about Obama’s census declaration appeared. Certainly, it sent a message to biracial children: the president of the United States is ashamed of his biracial heritage, and maybe you should be too.
“Aren’t people supposed to fill out their census forms accurately? Why else are we doing it? If everyone put down on the form how they “identified,” I don’t know what kind of count we’d wind up with, but clearly it would not reflect the racial makeup of the United States. As many have argued, race is an almost useless construct, so that might not matter, except in one very important area: If every biracial person chose one race, as Obama did, or as people had to do before the forms were changed in 2000, the census would portray a society more divided than it actually is,” Elizabeth Chang, who identifies as biracial (and actually is biracial) wrote in The Washington Post in 2010. “If the most powerful person in this country says that because society thinks he looks black, he is black, it sends a message that biracial children have to identify with the side they most resemble.”
It also endorses the hoary “single drop of blood” rule, which dates to slavery and dictates that if you’re 0.1% black, the law, and American culture, considers you 100% black.
As I said, I’m not personally vested in this discussion. But I dislike hypocrisy, particularly in the context of media pile-ons against average citizens while objectively much bigger targets stand around watching, untouched by the flinging mud. If Dolezal is scum for lying about her race, so is Obama.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the upcoming book “Snowden,” the first biography of NSA whistleblower Edward J. Snowden. It is in graphic novel form. You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
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