Jane Ahlin, Published January 25 2009
A weave of cultural threads comes together in presidentAn article in the New York Times by Jodi Kantor describes “the family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama” as “black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish,” speaking “English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry.” She could have added other societal designations, such as single mother and absent father, stay-at-home mom and blue-collar dad, half-siblings, stepgrandparents, parent-like grandparents, traditional parents and grandparents, and a family in which all parents and grandparents were convinced that education was the best means of access – maybe the only means – to the American Dream.
Could it be that the weaving of all those cultural threads is what fascinates us – textured lives that in part seem exotic and yet, in truth, are all-American? Could it be that we, as a nation, look at our new president and first lady and – somewhat stunned – realize who we have become?
We’ve been hearing about the demographic changes for years, and intellectually, we’ve absorbed them: Yes, as early as 2040, the United States will become a majority minority country, and, yes, some of the nation’s largest cities, along with the states of California and Hawaii, already are. To be racially “white” is not an ascendant position. But there was something different about seeing the Obamas and Robinsons on the inaugural dais – not only the first family, but one of Barack Obama’s half sisters (an Indonesian-American married to a Chinese-Canadian) along with Michelle Obama’s brother (whose wife is white) – that animated the statistics. Suddenly, what we knew in our heads broke through gut-level.
Our new president, half black, half white, “half Kenyan, half Kansan”: Why not?
The majority of commentary about the historic nature of the Obama presidency puts it in the context of black experience from slavery to Jim Crow laws to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement to the subtle and not so subtle persistence of racial discrimination. And that is as it should be. The history of stereotyping people by skin color is long and disgraceful. However, if we are not yet a post-racial society, this election significantly propels the process forward, and the emotional impact of that on all Americans – black Americans particularly – is worth celebrating.
After watching the inaugural ceremony, I couldn’t help but think of Obama’s remarks a few days after the election concerning the promise he and his wife made to their girls to get a dog. Then President-elect Obama told news folks that because of daughter Malia’s allergies, the dog would have to be a breed that was “hypoallergenic.” Then he added with a smile “Our preference would be to get a shelter dog, but, obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me.”
Some people took offense at the “mutt” remark, but I liked it, because America is the land of mutts. It’s our strength. For instance, my husband and I both had grandparents who immigrated, giving him a father who was 100 percent Slovenian while his mother was 100 percent Norwegian. Take it from me, that combination makes for mutts who know their own minds. My mixed pedigree is Welsh and German. We’re the mutts who aren’t very tall but are blessed with terrific appetites.
The point is, skin color is only one in a wide range of differences in heritage and international background. To our detriment we have given it relevance and meaning it does not deserve. National reporting of demographics still reflects that disconnect. By race, we will become a majority minority country mid-century; by international heritage, we’ve never been anything else.
A friend of mine who votes both sides of the aisle, said that for the first time in her adult life, she believes she voted for someone who has both the character and the competency to serve as president. That his family reflects the face of America in the 21st century didn’t determine her vote but somehow seems entirely appropriate.
Ahlin is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org