I admire Adam Serwer–I follow him on Twitter and read his work on The American Prospect website. I really like what he had to say here on Barack Obama’s choice to identify as black on the US Census.
Obama could have chosen to identify with both sides of his family, as Serwer and others have. As you know, and I know some of you know better than I do, when you come from two backgrounds, people often ask you to choose one, even though you come from two families and at least two cultures (if not more!) The US Census doesn’t ask you to do that–if you come from two or more of the racial categories the Census happens to measure, you can identify with both or all of them.
The question really becomes what “legacies” of the painful elements of our past do we voluntarily embrace and which ones we reject. To the extent that biracial black people identify as black, they are choosing to embrace a once-painful element of their history. It is not being forced on us. I happened to check both white and black on my census form, but that was my choice. Every mixed person has a right to tell their own story on their terms. You might as well tell Jews to stop celebrating Passover because it is part of the enduring legacy of Jewish slavery in Egypt. That’s exactly what it is, but that doesn’t tell you anything about its value to the culture or why it continues to endure.
I have been thinking about this question–whether we’re entirely shaped by the biases against us, or whether we have identity that’s independent of oppression–since I read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew in 1987. (You know how there are some books that just shape your whole life? That was one for me.) The book made me think about my role as a person with white privilege in US society. I thought the dynamic Sartre describes between the biased person, the target of bias, and the “liberal”–a bystander who allows the targeting to happen and blames the victim–described how my society dealt with race. But at the same time, the book is about whether any cultural minority has a culture aside from what it creates in the negative space of a racist dynamic. Do Jews exist without anti-Semitism? I would say yes, we do, we have an identity and culture that is greater than simply resistance.
What do you think about how to fill out the census? I mean the literal one that will count our country this year so that we can apportion resources, but there is also a metaphorical census. When you stand up to be counted, how do you select from your various identities? Does context matter? Tell me about it.
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