A few weeks ago, while stuck at the Chicago airport with my 4-year-old daughter, I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting in the gate area. After a time, she looked at my girl — who resembles my Japanese-American husband — commented on her height and asked, “Do you know if her birth parents were tall?”
Most Americans watching Barack Obama’s campaign, even those who don’t support him, appreciate the historic significance of an African-American president. But for parents like me, Obama, as the first biracial candidate, symbolizes something else too: the future of race in this country, the paradigm and paradox of its simultaneous intransigence and disappearance.
It’s true that, over the past months, Obama has increasingly positioned himself as a black man. That’s understandable: insisting on being seen as biracial might alienate African-American leaders and voters who have questioned his authenticity. White America, too, has a vested interest in seeing him as black it’s certainly a more exciting, more romantic and more concrete prospect than the “first biracial president.” Yet, even as he proves his black cred, it may be the senator’s dual identity, and his struggles to come to terms with it, that explain his crossover appeal and that have helped him to both embrace and transcend race, winning over voters in Birmingham, Iowa, as well as Birmingham, Ala.
Mixed-race marriages were illegal in at least 16 states when Obama was born, though the taboo was historically inconsistent — white men could marry Asian women in some places, for instance, while marriages like mine, which go the other way, were forbidden. Since 1967, when those laws were declared unconstitutional, the rate of interracial marriage among all groups has skyrocketed. And those couples have children. Of the seven million Americans who identified themselves as mixed-race in the 2000 census (the first in which it was possible to do so), nearly half were under the age of 18. Almost 5 percent of Californians now identify themselves as mixed-race; by comparison, fewer than 7 percent are African-American. Hawaii, Obama’s childhood home, is the most diverse state in the Union: 21 percent of residents identified as “Hapa,” a Hawaiian word meaning “half” that has gone from being a slur against mixed-race Asians to a point of pride — and has increasingly been adopted by multiracials of all kinds on the Mainland.
But the rise of multiracialism is not all Kumbaya choruses and “postracial” identity. The N.A.A.C.P. criticized the census change, fearing that since so few in the black community are of fully African descent, mass attrition to a mixed-race option could threaten political clout and Federal financing. Mexican-Americans, a largely mixed-race group, fought to be classified as white during the first half of the 20th century; during the second half, they fought against it.
Among Asians, Japanese-Americans in Northern California have argued over “how Japanese” the contestants for the Cherry Blossom Queen must be (the answer so far: 50 percent, which is less rigid than San Francisco’s Miss Chinatown U.S.A., whose father must be Chinese, but more strict than the 25 percent Chinese required to be Miss Los Angeles Chinatown).
Hapas muddy discussions of affirmative action and the gathering of health-care statistics. When a Centers for Disease Control researcher who called to survey me about my daughter’s vaccinations asked about her race, I answered, Caucasian and Asian. There was a pause, then she asked, “Which would you mainly identify her as?”
More than anything, though, Hapas remind us that, while racism is real, “race” is a shifting construct. Consider: Would Obama still be seen as “black enough” if the wife by his side were white? And don’t get my husband started on why Tiger Woods — whose mother is three-quarters Asian and whose father was one-quarter Chinese and half African-American — is rarely hailed as the first Asian-American golf superstar.
Race is thrust on Hapas based on the shades of their skin, the shapes of their eyes, their last names. (Quick: What race is Apolo Ohno? How about Meg Tilly? Both are half-Asian.) But ethnicity, an internal sense of culture, place and heritage — that’s more of a choice. Cultivating it in our children could be the difference between a Hapa Nation that’s a rich, variegated brown and one that fades to beige. I know that challenge firsthand. Because we are trying to raise our daughter as bicultural, much in our family is up for grabs, from the food we eat — and what we say before and after eating it — to the holidays we celebrate to whether we call her rear end a tushie or an oshiri.
For the moment, she attends a Jewish preschool (where, as it happens, a quarter of her class, not to mention an assistant rabbi, is Hapa) and identifies so strongly with my heritage that my husband has begun to feel uneasy. He recently suggested that, for balance, we enroll her in Dharma school at the Japanese Buddhist church. Let me be clear: he is an atheist who grew up Methodist; I hew to a kind of social-relativist concept of “oneness.” And our daughter is going to spend her days shuttling between two temples?
I sometimes wonder what will happen in another 50 years. Will my grandchildren “feel” Jewish? Japanese? Latino? African-American? Will they be pluralists? “Pass” as Anglo? Refuse categorization? Will Hapa Nation eventually make tracking “race” impossible? Will it unite us? Or will it, as some suggest, further segregate African-Americans from everyone else? The answer to all these questions may be yes. Regardless, watching Senator Obama campaigning with his black wife, his Indonesian-Caucasian half-sister, his Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law and all of their multiculti kids, it seems clear that the binary, black-and-white — not to mention black-or-white — days are already behind us.