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Identity check

What the Obama speech taught me, the mother of two biracial children, about myself, my kids - and America.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Francie Latour
March 23, 2008

ONE NIGHT SOME years ago, I tried to explain to my husband why it was that our future kids would be black kids. No matter how light or dark their skin turned out, no matter how coarse or cooperative their hair, chances were they would be black in the eyes of this racialized world, and I needed him to be prepared for that. So that they could be prepared for it.

He looked at me like I was crazy. Then he shot back, "They're going to be half-white too, you know." And as occasionally happens in our mixed-race marriage, I saw the canyon of America's race divide open up between us, right there on the sofa. "There is no such thing as half-white," I said, and I suddenly felt exhausted.

I am black; my husband is white. We live in a small town where llamas easily outnumber black people. It is only 45 minutes from Boston. But in our daily lives, it can feel much, much farther away than that. We now have a 3-year-old and a 4-month-old, and in the short time since they've come along, I've been mistaken for their nanny several times. Once, my husband was out with my son and was told, "He's adorable! Where did he come from, Guatemala?"

We like to joke that we are building our own little biracial colony, chipping away at the race problem one baby at a time. But in reality, we spend more time debating - worrying, actually - about how the wounds and markers of race will define them.

So it shook me to watch Senator Barack Obama navigate these very same minefields in his speech last week on race in America. Obama had come under increasing pressure after harsh anti-American remarks by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., looped continuously over the Internet. Obama was careful not to shun his minister, only his message. And he pointedly traced the roots of Wright's anger to a well of collective, cultural pain that defines the African-American experience, a well that runs far deeper than most whites ever know, and that blacks have passed on from generation to generation. He also talked of the deep well of resentment among some whites.

The cleaving of our black and white worlds, Obama argued, severely narrowed Wright's ability to see how the country has changed - and could change. Obama was talking about his pastor, but he could have been talking about any number of Americans, white and black. He could have been talking about me.

What I have doubted could be possible for my own children is what many say Obama managed to do at the most critical juncture of his presidential campaign: Free himself from all the trappings of race while completely inhabiting his black self, and his white self. Watching him stand there and contain the multitudes of America's race story without sinking his campaign or sounding fake - or just bursting out of his own skin - I began to wonder if my husband was right, and I was very, very wrong: Here was a visibly black man, a decade older than me, no less, showing me something I had not yet seen when it came to race. And he could do it because, like my own kids, he was born with a foot in both worlds.

I do not claim to know the struggle or the scars Obama described as being at the root of Wright's fiery sermon. In fact, I have moved comfortably in a white world all my life. If Obama's life is testament to anything, it's that labels can hide as much as they reveal. For instance, I am black. But I am also the black daughter of two doctors, raised in a tony suburb. My husband works with his hands for a living, paid much of his own way through college, and comes from a line of tough New Englanders. Between us, it's a tossup as to which of us identifies more with the experience of struggle. In my world, prejudice is something that can smack me in the face and ruin my day, but it has not ruined my life or crippled my sense of self. It does not fill me with rage.

But even if my biography may not have much in common with Wright's, there is something important that we share. My own personal race wounds still hold tremendous power over me at times, not only to define who I am but to limit my worldview. At times, watching my children can send me reeling back to my earliest childhood memories, memories that involve others defining me by my race. At the age of 5, before I ever knew what race was, before anyone ever told me my skin could have meaning, I knew that I hated Duck Duck Goose, because none of my white classmates would lay their hands on my wooly hair. To this day, when I walk into a room full of white people, there is a part of me that goes back to that preschool moment. At my white prep school, my date to the senior prom was preordained; I went with a boy I hardly knew, and with whom I had almost nothing in common, except that we were both black. Now, as a parent, I can't help but feel the impulse to want to brace my kids for such rude awakenings. And far worse ones still.

But bracing them also means reinforcing the worldview of black and white that was passed unspoken to me, a worldview rooted in slavery and a view, Obama argues rightly, that we have not gotten past and that we need to get past. It means reinforcing the notion in my kids that one day, they might have to choose - and that if they do not choose their black identity, something important will be lost.

For now, thankfully, our son and daughter are too young to be touched by this. My son's strongest sense of identity is with his Irish name, and a number of secondary names behind that ("sweet love," "buddy," "buballoo"). I was more than a little skeptical when I first heard the word Cablinasian, Tiger Woods's term for his mash of ethnic identities (Caucasian, Black, Asian, American Indian). As it started to become more accepted, I thought, OK, it is now possible to straddle racial and ethnic boundaries in this country, if you're famous, rich, and really good at something.

Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that color labels are fast losing their usefulness. Our kids have Haitian, French, German, and Irish blood running through their veins. In any given season, our 3-year-old can look Mayan or Polynesian or Native-American or Alaskan. Or he could look like a white kid with Mediterranean parents who tans well. If the early years are any indication, our kids are going to grow up eating Haitian plantain and meat pies and singing the French songs that have been passed down in my family, and building the punishing work ethic and thick skin that are legendary in my husband's family.

And more than that, they are going to have something neither my husband nor I had growing up: They are going to see people with different colors and accents in intimate family relationships, starting with their own parents. While I sit and fret about some future day when they will reject their black mother or their white father, they are already absorbing a sense of identity that is far more expansive than my own. What I know as hyphenated, improvised, multiracial identities, they will likely know simply as identity.

But there's still this: Just because our family unit has carved out its own little Benetton bubble does not mean we can ignore the real world outside. As much as race is myth, in this country it is also rock-bottom reality. It is America's gravitational pull. It continues to drive where we live, pray, play, and eat. It shapes how far we get in school, how high we rise at work, how often and how seriously we fall ill, and even how long we will live. And that is why, until I see what a biracial president can do, or what any one individual can do when it comes to race, I remain as circumspect as I am hopeful. I am counting on my son and my daughter to get me the rest of the way there.

I get a kick out of showing my son objects he has never seen before. When he sees something he has never assigned meaning to, his mind runs wild. You show him a picture of a vase, and he sees an empty fish tank. You tell him about a man named Obama who is trying to win a race, and he pouts: "No! I want Manny to win!" His mind makes unexpected connections, the kinds that are difficult, or impossible, for minds over-conditioned by meaning.

Was Obama showing us a version of this, how unencumbered minds make new meaning? He is running for president, after all. He can take daring risks, but not completely uncalculated ones. Still, I can't shake the feeling that this was more than just another campaign moment. This was a touchstone moment. I was watching someone a decade older than me, but I was seeing the world as my children will years from now.

In that moment, Obama stood at a podium and he unpacked our race baggage. And then he did something else. He turned to us and said, OK, these are some ugly, heavy bags. What else could they be? Could they be pillows? Hot-air balloons? Life jackets? Who in the world tricked us into believing we have to carry these bags forever? And when did we agree to go along?

Francie Latour is an associate editor at Wellesley magazine. She worked as a Globe reporter from 1996 to 2007.

The author, age 6, in her parents’ kitchen in suburban Philadelphia. Below, Barack Obama delivers his speech on race in America.
The author, age 6, in her parents’ kitchen in suburban Philadelphia. Below, Barack Obama delivers his speech on race in America.

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