Obama’s Mixed Heritage: A Mother’s Perspective

Obama’s Mixed Heritage: A Mother’s Perspective

Beacon Broadside

Barbara Katz Rothman, Professor of Sociology
City University of New York

It’s an interesting historical moment to be a white mother of a Black child, as another white mother’s Black child is running for president of the United States. Who’d have thought?

I too am a white mother of a Black child. When my Black child, Victoria, was in kindergarten or maybe first grade, sitting around the morning meeting at her politically progressive Quaker school, they were talking about how there’d never been a woman president, or a Black president, or a Jewish president. Victoria   piped up: “I could do it; I could be the first of all of them!” Now that she’s older, I think a presidential career is pretty well out for Victoria—the first multi-pierced, Mohawk-wearing, tattooed, electric-bass player president? Probably not. But back when she was in kindergarten, I’d have thought the chances of someone with Obama’s family background becoming president were unimaginably slim.

In case you’ve not seen a news report this year: Obama had an African father and a white American mother—from Kansas, no less, though ultimately her son was raised mostly in Hawaii. Too bad that his mother isn’t here to see this; she died, too young, of ovarian cancer. She did live long enough to see him in the Senate, miracle enough that was! If she was here now, I wonder how she’d be responding to the inevitable media attention: people are blogging about why we’re calling him “Black” rather than “mixed race,”about his “white heritage,”wondering if he is “Black enough,” thinking about his thoroughly unusual and so thoroughly American story…

…The “mixed race” community—powered to a significant (embarrassing?) extent by white mothers of kids who are not white—seeks a unique “mixed” identity, and Obama could be a poster child. But I don’t think we need poster children for mixed identity: we need a world in which a Black man can be president, no matter who his mother is. In such a world, “mixed” wouldn’t matter politically—we could still have our cultural identities, as many as we want, actually, us Americans with our occasional Cherokee grandmother, French great grandfather, Italian immigrant great, great grandmother, and maybe a couple of Jews and the occasional Black ancestor. Celebrating ethnicity can be fun. But race in America is not about fun or celebration: it’s about power. In the world we’ve got, it’s the Black ancestor that sets the identity, because that’s still the racial fault line in America…

Read the entire article here.

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