THE BLOG
01/20/2017 07:31 am ET

Obama And The Future Of Mixed-Race And Multiracial America

It is fitting that President Obama would bookend his official press conferences with an unscripted comment and nod to his mixed-race heritage.

Obama had originally campaigned for the presidency, in part, on the complexity of his racial background. As the brown-skinned son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, he offered his candidacy as the symbol of hope and harmony for our country.

I was elated by his message as a woman who is also mixed-race and who grew up lonely in my silence about my own racially and culturally complicated background.

We live in a country that subscribes to the one drop rule which insists that one drop of "black" blood defines you as black.

So, there wasn't room in America's imagination in the 1980s for a young woman with brown skin and blue eyes to be both black and Danish, fully Afro-Viking. I was black. I was light-skinned-ed, yes. But that was simply another variety of being black.

When Obama ran for the presidency, the word biracial lost its scientific ring and became part of the country's lexicon. I felt like suddenly people could see me for all of my complexity: I wasn't excited that people could now recognize that I had "white" blood, but that people could recognize I had an experience of growing up betwixt and between two cultures and two languages and that those experiences mattered.

I laughed with delight listening to Obama speak at his first press conference after he won the 2008 election. When a reporter asked what kind of dog the family planned to get for the White House (an election promise to his daughters) Obama said: "There are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic. On the other hand, our preference would be to get a shelter dog, but, obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me."

Many people expressed outrage about his remark. I thought it was funny: an insider's joke. It was a wink and a nod to mixed folks of our generation who had grown up having to prove our racial authenticity and wrestle with what term we should use to describe our multiracial identities.

But that was just about the last time we heard Obama publicly embrace his "mixed-ness." Two years later, even though as a mixed-race person Obama could have checked more than one racial box on Question Number 9 of the 2010 Census, he checked only the box that said: "Black, African American, or Negro." It was official--some news outlets proclaimed--Obama was definitely America's first black president.

In the years since, I kept hoping that President Obama would take the chance to publicly talk about his mixed-race background and continue a much-needed national conversation. America, afterall, is a deeply connected community in which racial lines continue to become more blurry.

A 2015 Pew Research survey determined that the multiracial population is close to 6.9 percent of the U.S. population. Moreover, the multiracial population is growing three times faster than the rest of the nation's population.

And even those statistics can't account for how blended American families have become if you also consider the white grandfather who is deeply connected to his half-black grandchildren or the Asian niece who counts her Latina aunt by marriage as her favorite.

We can't see--nor can the Census numbers fully show--the many ways that people are connected beyond established racial categories because of who they consider family, or because of who they love.

Still, I understood that as president--with a myriad of pressing issues and the reality of sound bite journalism--Obama could not be the leading voice in shaping the discussion about the mixed-race experience. But then yesterday, as I listened to President Obama's last White House press conference, I suddenly felt hopeful that now--out of office--he might tackle the task.

It was a throwaway line near the press conference's end that made my ears perk up.

When asked whether he thought there would be another black president, Obama said that America should expect that "people of merit [would] rise up from every race, faith, [and] corner of this country" and that in the future, we would see that there would be not only a female president, but presidents who are Jewish, Latino and Hindu. And then he added:

"I suspect we'll have a whole bunch of mixed up presidents at some point [and] that nobody really knows what to call them," he said. "And that's fine."

I suspect that our first black President is right.

And it may also be true that one day Obama will be included in the long list of "mixed up presidents" as well. But we will still certainly know what to call Obama because the term that fits him best is great.

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