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Obama's Mixed Heritage: A Mother's Perspective

by Barbara Katz Rothman

Weavingafamily 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.

From the little one can learn about her from Obama's autobiography, from the news stories that include interviews with her friends and family, she sounds like someone I'd have liked a lot. My motherhood of a Black child came by adoption and hers by birth, but the far bigger differences in our parenting experiences are probably about geography: Brooklyn ain't Hawaii. They're both very very racially mixed communities, but what "mixed" means is quite different on those very different islands. Race and racism are always local, and while both Brooklyn and Hawaii have their issues with race, they're very differently organized. Chicago's a lot more like Brooklyn: and it's the Chicago version of race that Obama now brings us, the version for Blacks, in which a Black man with a white mother is suspect, and for whites in which a Black man is a Black man, no matter who is parents are. Just watch him try to catch a cab, you know.

And that's a hard thing for some Americans to swallow: They want to talk about Obama as mixed, want to claim him in that Tiger Woods "Cablinasian" kinda way. As with Tiger, it's all a matter of perspective: for some whites, he can be seen to "transcend" race, while for others their support of him is proof of their progressive politics. Unlike with Tiger, the Black community can be less ambivalent - the South Side credentials, the clear Black identity that Obama's family is presenting, offer a far more positive message than Tiger Woods ever did. But then, much as our media plays it that way, a presidential race is not a sporting event.

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.

But maybe that's changing? Maybe soon we'll have a Black president,and when we face a room full of kindergardeners we'll have a different story to tell. Or maybe, as I fear is more likely, the politics of race in America are only good enough to get us to this point this time; just enough to make it seem possible, to be almost, nearly open. Maybe the voices that are pridefully, gleefully announcing we can have a Black president are celebrating a bit too soon. The American line of talk has long been better than the follow-up action, and it appears, in many elections, people are far more likely to say they will vote for a Black candidate than to actually go ahead and do it. But still, even here, even just up to here, feels really good, doesn't it? Because maybe my pessimism will be wrong and maybe we can -- yes we can -- have a Black president.

For now, for this moment, I'd like to feel celebratory.

Barbara Katz Rothman is the author of Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption, and is a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. Her books include The Book of Life, Recreating Motherhood, The Tentative Pregnancy, and most recently, with Wendy Simonds, Laboring On.