There are a lot of negative words and harsh economic realities being tossed around during this presidential election season. But one powerful message from the last one in 2008 seems to be lost into the ether. It has to do with the forces that bring us together as a country of many groups, and a leader (or would-be leader) to represent that iconic vision of America. I'm talking specifically about the multicultural heritage of President Obama, and how much it personally means to me and other mixed-race Americans who I've grown to find community with in the last four years. While your background is something you can't change, the grace and perspective that comes from being many-cultured is worthy of embrace as we continue to progress as a country.
Four years ago, a small group of mixed-race young people including myself were asked to participate in a dinner and discussion on multiracialism today, on the eve of Obama's inauguration. Fascinated by the opportunity, my chef-collaborators and I set forth on creating a menu that incorporated references to places where the newly elected president has lived, or has ties to: a Kenya-Kansas beef ugali with collards, a Hawaii-Harlem sushi roll, a Jakarta-Chicago duo of deep-dished pizzas, to name a few of the courses. Talking throughout the meal, we realized how much in common members of the "bi-racial American community" as we newly thought of ourselves, actually had, and how much there was to celebrate from it all.
As a bi-racial, it's easy to get cornered into claiming the "identity" of just one side of your heritage. Just look at Tiger Woods, who was chastised by some of the black community for not subscribing to being 100 percent African-American, due to his Asian-American maternal half. I'm not blaming anyone for taking sides when it comes to race, however. To be sure, a one-drop blood rule has been historically practiced in this country's social and political history, and many important figures have faced it and at times foiled it before Obama's time. In American popular literature, mixed-race people have often been characterized as confused and irresponsible individuals, outcasts of their community, and horribly ill-fated, if ever were mentioned. Novels such as Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird and William Faulkner's A Light in August feature memorable such characters and have collectively carved out a literary cliché of the "tragic mulatto" (or mulatta), not exactly encouraging of mixed-race procreation at the time. And indeed, until 1967, interracial marriage was actually illegal in 22 states, until the Supreme Court decision in Loving vs. Virginia declared it lawful. (The court decision date would later be instituted a holiday by the nonprofit organization, Loving Day, which celebrates multicultural awareness and equal rights.)
Today there are more multi- and biracial babies being born in this country than ever, a growing statistic that has shown in recent census reports. My prediction is that future generations will find positive example in the President, and will probably laugh at the squabbles of strict racial divides going on today. Growing up, I would often face confusion from strangers when I was with one parent or another alone. "Are you adopted?" was a common question that I would receive, and rebut, even still to this day. Unlike Obama's parents, who were both driven brainiacs who met in the middle of the ocean (in Hawaii) before studying at more far-fledged institutions of the world, my father was simply a scholar of Asian studies from New York, who met my mother (then a businesswoman) while working in Taipei. They decided to build their life in America, like many other families, and here we are today. But rather than eschew these part-foreigner, part-something roots, I cherish the contributions it's made to our society, and makes me who I am.
Being mixed can be a weird, terrifying, and unorthodox spotlight to stand behind, but quite frankly, I wouldn't feel comfortable standing on any other stage. And that's a feeling that I believe our president shares. When attacks on his middle name are made or his allegiances to religions or principals are questioned, the president doesn't entertain the thought of anything but being uniquely American, just like all of us. Yet with today's current election dramas and political strategies, the message of diversity and multiculturalism is getting more muddled or simply ignored than ever. Here's a man of self-made backgrounds on both his Kansas-bred American and immigrant African parental sides, and a woman descended of slaves from the American South, who rose to become the country's First Family. You have got to be kidding me by calling them "elitist" and somehow "Northern" in orientation when it comes to American geography. There is no North or South, or East or West, to people who can call many parts of the world their ancestral homeland. But this is how we come together, not fall apart into camps, as Americans, I'd always thought. Besides, knowledge is power, and having a deep understanding of other countries' customs and religions will benefit conducting foreign relations. No doubt, Mormons will be celebrating this election period as a milestone for their community, given Mitt Romney's nomination, and it should remain one for bi-racials and blacks both given the current president's. This is the American way; it has always been a land of many peoples. When I look at the president, I feel proud of his heritage, and his vast knowledge of many cultures in light of it. I feel proud to be a fellow American, that is.
So whether or not you're multicultural, just look at the person sitting across from you in the office, or in the public playground, and be thankful for that, as well as those institutions you're sharing. This is what every American family came here, and fought for. And let's not forget where they came from.