Okay. So Barack Obama. First Black President, Worldwide Icon, and all-around cool guy. This discussion is not about his politics. It’s not even necessarily about him in particular. Bear with me and you’ll see where I’m going.
If Barack Obama went up to a person and said “I am black,” they would probably be like “yeah, sure, no argument here.” If he were to say to the same person “I am mixed-race,” they would probably be “Okay, I can see that, and it’s really not my place to question how he identifies.” However, if he were to say “I am white,” people would probably think “You mean one of your parents is white, right?”
Okay, keep bearing with me. Barack Obama saying “I am white” is as valid a statement as him saying “I am black.” The fact that people require no explanation when he identifies as black or mixed but are taken aback when he identifies as white is a continuation of the disturbing trend of people believing white is the default or “normal” race.
It’s the same problem that arose with the Hunger Games casting a few months ago, where people were angry that Lenny Kravitz (who, for those of you who don’t know, is black) was cast as Cinna because the character wasn’t explicitly described as black. Of course, he wasn’t explicitly described as white either (which was done on purpose for precisely this reason), but there would have been no fuss if a white actor had been cast as Cinna.
So that’s a problem. The comedian Steve Byrne (who is half-Korean and half-Irish) observed that people told him that he couldn’t celebrate his Irish heritage (or even identify as Irish) on St. Patrick’s Day because he doesn’t look Irish. He said people even questioned him when he simply identified as “American” (which is a good way to identify, because if you go anywhere else in the world and you give your ancestral heritage when people ask you for your nationality, they will assume you grew up in that place). Again, I highly doubt a white person would face this situation.
I’ve also heard of a reversal of the situation, where people will insist that Obama (and other mixed-race people) identify as mixed rather than either of his racial backgrounds, saying that because his mother was white, he is not “black enough” to be considered the first black president (and whatever the hell that means could be the subject of its own series of books).
So the question here is “Can we stop policing people’s identities?” Assuming two racial backgrounds, a mixed-race person should be able to identify as either, both, or neither, and it’s really not the business of anyone else to tell them what they’re supposed to call themselves.
Now, keep in mind that I am coming from a place of privilege here. I am not mixed-race or even a POC, so all my information is coming from a place of observations and anecdotes that have been shared with me. If any of this strikes a chord with you, please let me know so we can keep this discussion going! (Do the same if I’ve said anything horribly wrong and I’ll be happy to correct it!)