Elizabeth Chang wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, “Why Obama should not have checked ‘black’ on his census form,”
Although I knew Obama self-identifies as African American, I was disappointed when I read that that’s what he checked on his census form. The federal government, finally heeding the desires of multiracial people to be able to accurately define themselves, had changed the rules in 2000, so he could have also checked white. Or he could have checked “some other race.” Instead, Obama went with black alone.
I understand why Chang wrote this, and even though I’m mostly on the same page with her about a lot of this, I think she’s wrong.
Chang identifies as the mother of biracial children in an interfaith family, and as someone raising biracial Jewish children. The whole Jewish community is behind her in wanting her children to be able identify as more than one thing. Jewish and Chinese and Hawaiian? Beautiful, we are so on board with that.
But on the other hand, I think there is something to Chang’s phrase, “when it counts, he is black.” When it counts, stand up for the people who need you. Based on his experiences, Obama judged this was the time to count as an African American. I read the piece in Newsweek last September on the work ahead of parents who want to raise anti-racist children. Parenting “colorblind”–pretending that racism doesn’t exist and that people aren’t different– doesn’t make racism go away or make your children accept difference. In fact it demonstrably does the opposite.
In that Newsweek story, the authors present an anecdote about a class of first graders reacting to a classroom event featuring a black Santa Claus. For my Jewish child, a black Santa Claus in public school wouldn’t be a great thing. (Promoting inclusion and acceptance of difference through Santa Claus? Really?) But a black President of the United States? That’s a symbol that makes a difference!
I’m not biracial and this isn’t my personal struggle, but I definitely have a lot invested, as a Jewish woman and a mom, in a society in which people of mixed heritage can identify 100% with all parts of their heritage. When it counts, I want Elizabeth Chang’s daughters to have bat mitzvah ceremonies. When it counts, I want them to be part of the Jewish world where my son will live when he grows up.
You can’t list yourself as a Jew on the US Census–for many good reasons–and there might be reasons, in the future, for the Chang girls to list themselves as Asian-American on some document. They will still be Jewish. It’s not a rejection of the culture of the non-Jewish parent for a child of an interfaith marriage to call himself or herself a Jew, full stop, any more than President Obama has rejected his mother and grandparents in any way. The time to identify is when it counts–and I believe in the next generation enough to think they’ll figure out when that is.
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