There has been much ado, and rightly so, about the fact that Barack Obama is the first African-American president.
Little has been made of the fact that he is also the first half-black, half white president. This is significant because Barack Obama looks like the future. We are fast becoming a nation of "mutts," as the president once referred to himself.
It's hard to overstate what a change this is in American society. When I was growing up in the 1950s, I didn't know anyone -- in my immediate family, in my neighborhood, my school or my church -- who was either married to a person of a different race or was of mixed race. In those days, it was a huge deal if a Catholic married a Jew, both Caucasians. It was in fact, illegal in many states for people of different races to marry. It was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such laws as unconstitutional.
Today, that insular world has vanished, if not everywhere, at least to a degree that would have astonished people in the 50s. Two of my grandchildren are half Filipino, my nephew is half-Hispanic, several friends have adopted black, Chinese or Hispanic children and my children have friends who are of mixed race and think little of it. My students often carry the mixed genes of their parents, whether white, black or Asian.
Not all that long ago, people of mixed race were called "half-breeds," an out-and- out slur. Anyone with "one drop of blood" from even a distant African ancestor was labeled black -- or, as it was said then, Negro. I read a short story when I was a seventh-grader about a man whose daughter marries the perfect husband -- incredibly bright, sensitive, tolerant and industrious. A friendship forms between the two men, and the younger man admits to his father-in-law that he in fact comes from the future. The older man asks about race in the future, and the young man says it's not an issue anymore, because the races are all mingled. The older man goes into his house, takes out his shotgun and kills his son-in-law. His daughter had married a "nigger," he explains.
The story didn't surprise me, as a white girl growing up on the edge of the South. My parents weren't prejudiced, but many people I knew were very much so. And some would have in fact applauded the man's action.
The racial stereotypes of our society were constructed mainly to keep Caucasian women away from men of other races. It is no wonder that black males were often presented as dumb, comic and ineffectual. Asian males were strange little yellow men, often cunning, while Hispanics were servile and lazy. Stepin Fetchit delivered lines such as "Feet, do your stuff" while cravenly fleeing from any hint of danger. Mexicans snoozed under their sombreros and delivered laugh lines, while Asians were cunning or traitorous. (Minority women were allowed to be sexy, but they lacked the virtue and honesty of white women, being either morally loose or evil and manipulative -- i.e. the Dragon lady.
In recent years, we've seen the erosion of these images, as well as the wall between the races where sexuality is concerned. Denzel Washington is paired with Julia Roberts, Pierce Brosnan romances Halle Berry, Daniel Dae Kim is a sex symbol on Lost and Antonio Banderas is a leading man.
Now, for the first time, a man who has much more than a drop of African blood is not only the coolest, most attractive man on the planet, but the most powerful one as well. This is truly something new. And his wife Michelle is a black woman who is not only beautiful, but strong, smart and elegant. She's got Jackie O's sense of style and a Harvard law degree. Movie houses used to cut Lena Horne out of films in the south; she often complained of feeling powerless in a white world. Nobody's going to mess with Michelle. If you try, she's either going to sue your butt or kick it -- have you seen those toned arms?
Young African-American boys today don't have to look up to bling-wearing gangbangers -- they have a role model with real power and real smarts. And maybe little girls won't want to grow up to be blonde and anorexic -- how much better to be Michelle. Maybe that guy from the future had it right. We will get rid of racism and tribalism only when we're all mutts, like Barack. When we all have everybody's genes floating around inside us, the whole world will be family, and we won't have to hate anybody anymore.
Can we get used to that?
Caryl Rivers is a professor of Journalism at Boston University and the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England.