Biracial, but not like me

In search of his identity, Barack Obama took the opposite path that I did. But we arrived at the same place -- and I'm voting for him.

Published February 5, 2008 12:40PM (EST)

I've been leaning toward Barack Obama ever since the presidential race began. But until recently, I haven't been ready to make a final decision. I admit that I was initially drawn to him primarily because of his race: As a black man offering racial peace, he promised a kind of national healing, a chance to both symbolically and literally affirm that America can overcome its greatest divide.

But I wasn't going to vote for Obama just because he was black, or because he had the gift of appealing to people across the spectrum. I agreed with his staunchly liberal positions on the issues (if I hadn't, I never would have considered voting for him), but there was a fuzziness about some of them that was a little troubling to me. He seemed stronger on the high intellectual and spiritual themes than on the nuts and bolts of governance. And I had some ambivalent feelings about his political leitmotif, his call for national reconciliation. God knows we need it. But after the devastation wrought by the Bush presidency, it would take a truly extraordinary politician, and person, to bring the country together. Was he that person?

To try to find out, I went out and got Obama's autobiography, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance." And after reading it, I've made up my mind: I'm voting for him.

Part of the reason, I admit, is that he's a superb writer. Most books written by politicians have titles like "Reclaiming America's Future" or "Return to Greatness" or "Tales of Ordinary Heroism" or "We Are the People" (actually, that one was the campaign slogan in "Taxi Driver"). They are books full of inspiring anecdotes about decent, unassuming Americans, paeans to the core values that make our country a shining experiment in democracy, stories of the author's lifelong commitment to making this great nation even greater, etc., etc. Books composed of 100 percent recycled plastic bromides. Books you'd rather go blind than be forced to read.

"Dreams From My Father" isn't one of these. It may be one of the best books ever written by a politician. It is a real book by a real writer. Its theme is at once intimate and profound. Its sentences move with grace and power, its chapters have an architectural logic, and it builds toward an inspiring conclusion.

Obama's prose alone was almost enough to make me vote for him. But what tipped the scales was the portrait that emerged -- of a man who has been tested and found true, who has proved he's ready to assume the most important job in the world. For the question he answered was the hardest one of all: Who am I?

Of all the qualities a president needs, self-knowledge may be the most important: It's the foundation of everything else. And Obama's self-knowledge is all the more impressive because he had to work so hard to gain it. "Dreams From My Father" is the story of Obama's personal evolution from parochialism to a universal humanism. It's also the story of how a man blessed with a powerful analytical mind developed emotional intelligence along the way. Obama's tortured interior quest forced him to stare down all the demons in his, and America's, racial closet.

It isn't the racial quest that I expected, or one that I can easily relate to. But for me, that makes his achievement even more impressive.

Like Obama, I am biracial. My father is Japanese-American, my mother of Scottish and English descent. I'm nine years older than Obama. Like him, I grew up in a racially relaxed environment (Berkeley, Calif., in my case, Hawaii in his), where as a child I didn't consider my racial identity noteworthy, let alone a problem. And also like him, I am wary of labels, and believe that what unites human beings is much greater than what divides them.

But that's where our similarities end. For we took completely different paths to get to the same post-racial destination. I took the easy road to colorblindness. I regarded all attempts to label me as meaningless, refused to regard myself as either exclusively "white" or "Asian," and never gave my mixed-race identity a second thought. And before reading his book, I foolishly assumed that Obama had done more or less the same thing.

In fact, he did just the reverse. He took the hard road. For whatever reasons -- his absent African father, his relation to his mother, the identity traps and distortions thrown up by America's racist history, his own unique DNA -- he chose to self-consciously affirm his identity as a black man. He agonized over what it meant to be a black American. He feared being seen as a sellout. In an attempt to find out what blackness was, and by extension what he was, he threw himself into the black community, working as a community organizer in Chicago. He was driven by a primordial quest: to find out who he was, and to become that person.

In the end, he succeeded in his goal: To put it crudely, he made himself black. But at the very moment he attained his goal, he also transcended it. Obama had too much integrity to believe that "blackness" in itself meant anything, so he simultaneously became black and something irreducible to color. By so doing, he kept faith both with his fellow American blacks, who have been forced by racism to consider their own color as a constituent part of their identity, and also with people of all races.

The essence of Obama's politics, his call for reconciliation and unity, is thus deeply grounded in the long and painful creation of his own double identity. It is, almost literally, sealed in blood -- the mixed blood, black and white, that flows through his veins. With Obama, the movement is always toward a double affirmative. Not neither black nor white, which is the way I and many mixed-race people identify ourselves, but both black and something larger.

For someone like me, who completely opted out of racial categories, it isn't easy to understand someone who chose to embrace them. When it comes to something as intimate as the construction of our identities, we all reflexively feel that our way is the "right" way -- any other way is profoundly threatening to our sense of ourselves. As someone who has never belonged to any racial or ethnic "community" and has always been averse to identity politics and its accompanying assertions of racial guilt and victimhood, it isn't easy for me to understand or appreciate Obama's choices or his life. And maybe I'll never understand it fully, not least because being half-Japanese is nothing like being half-black.

In fact, there's a scene in "Dreams From My Father" that crystallized the differences between Obama and me. Obama asks a mixed-race student named Joyce if she's going to the Black Students' Association meeting. Joyce replies, "I'm not black, I'm multiracial," and asks why she should have to choose between her two parents. Obama writes, "It sounded real good, until you noticed that [those who said this] avoided black people. It wasn't a matter of conscious choice, necessarily, just a matter of gravitational pull, the way integration always worked, a one-way street ... Only white culture could be nonracial ... And we, the half-breeds and the college degrees, take a survey of the situation and think to ourselves, Why should we get lumped in with the losers if we don't have to?"

As someone who identifies with Joyce, I was troubled by Obama's take on her. His cutting line about "multiracials" not wanting to "get lumped in with the losers" hints that those who reject the label "black" are somehow race traitors (something I've been accused of myself, although the issue with mixed-race Asians is much less fraught than it is with mixed-race blacks, since Asians don't have to contend with the one-drop rule). But who made the rule that people of whatever race or tribe, or fractional portion thereof, are morally required to demonstrate racial or tribal solidarity? That's a dangerous road to go down.

But Obama himself is honest enough to grapple with this same criticism, and ultimately arrives at a much more nuanced and sympathetic take on the different choices mixed-race people make. "I knew I was being too hard on poor Joyce. The truth was I understood her, her and all the other black kids who felt the way she did," he writes. "In their mannerisms, in their speech, in their mixed-up hearts, I kept recognizing pieces of myself. And that's exactly what scared me. Their confusion made me question my racial credentials all over again."

In the end, Obama is able to get beyond his obsession with racial credentials. But the commentator Shelby Steele, who like Obama is the child of a white mother and black father, doesn't think he got far enough beyond them. In his short book "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win," he argues that Obama's attempt to have it both ways -- to be at once black and not-black -- is not an act of transcendence, but a double bind. For Steele, Obama hasn't completely moved beyond an orthodox racial essentialism: He's trapped by his need to simultaneously assert black solidarity and a universal identity. This double pose, Steele argues, prevents Obama from realizing who he really is.

Steele's critique raises a central philosophical issue concerning identity -- what the French philospher Jean-Paul Sartre called "bad faith." Sartre defines bad faith as the denial of one's (unknowable) human freedom in order to playact as a known object -- in this case a "black man."

I am mostly an admirer of Steele's writings about race. But his criticism of Obama seems excessively abstract, trapped by theoretical constructs. For black-white relations simply are messy. If consciously adopting a black racial mask is an act of bad faith, it is a bad faith forced upon blacks by the white majority. W.E.B. Du Bois anatomized this in his famous description of the "double consciousness" of black Americans. "This American world ... yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world," he wrote in "The Souls of Black Folk." "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Not everyone can easily get out of this trap. But it can be overcome -- by "dogged strength," by a simple refusal to measure oneself by the "tape of the world." (Colin Powell's parents taught him a wonderful mantra on this: "My race is someone else's problem -- it's not my problem.") And my way, Joyce's way, is not the only way to deal with race. Tribalism need not be completely jettisoned. Tribalism and universalism can jostle together; other-derived and self-derived identities are not mutually exclusive.

Steele's critique misses the forest for the trees. The larger truth is that Obama is carving out a new racial terrain in America. The overall movement of the book is toward colorblindness. He is a living demonstration of how a universalist ethics can coexist with, and be larger than, a particularist one. Obama may not be the absolutely flawless post-racial prophet Steele wants, but he's close enough. Maybe they don't exist anyway.

"Dreams From My Father" made me rethink my own racial-identity choices -- or non-choices. Not in any simple, I-was-wrong or I-was-right way, but in a more complex fashion. It made sense for me to reject the group identity that he embraced -- it wasn't who I was. But Obama's choice made sense for him. His quest allowed him to both discover and create a sense of community as he made his way, first as a half-stranger, then as someone coming home, through the black world. And perhaps it gave him something bigger: empathy. Not just for blacks, but for everyone.

The most moving parts of Obama's book are its transformative scenes -- moments when, at the edge of despair, he manages to humble himself and move forward, into a life larger, more inclusive, more compassionate.

One of those transformative moments comes during Obama's undergraduate days, after he had given a well-received speech urging the university to divest from South Africa. A black friend, Regina, praised his talk, but Obama cynically denied that it had any meaning, saying he just did it for the applause and that it wouldn't change anything. Regina retorted that he was selfish and shallow -- "It's not just about you" -- and angrily left. Left alone, Obama suddenly realized she was right. His mother had told him the same thing, but he had rejected it, putting it down as "white" truths. "Who told you that being honest was a white thing? ... You've lost your way, brother. Your ideas about yourself -- about who you are and who you might become -- have grown stunted and narrow and small.

"How had that happened? I started to ask myself, but before the question had even formed in my mind, I already knew the answer. Fear ... The constant, crippling fear that I didn't belong somehow ... that I would always remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment."

Then Obama modulates into something like a vision, at once real and transcendent. He imagines the face of Regina's grandmother, "her back bent, the flesh of her arms shaking as she scrubs an endless floor. Slowly, the old woman lifted her head to look straight at me, and in her sagging face I saw that what bound us together went beyond anger or despair or pity. What was she asking of me, then? Determination, mostly. The determination to push ahead against whatever power kept her stooped instead of standing straight."

And then, an even larger vision. "The old woman's face dissolved from my mind, only to be replaced by a series of others. The copper-skinned face of the Mexican maid, straining as she carries out the garbage. The face of Lolo's mother [Lolo was Obama's Indonesian stepfather] drawn with grief as she watches the Dutch burn down her house. The tight-lipped, chalk-colored face of Toots [Obama's white grandmother] as she boards the six-thirty bus that will take her to work. Only a lack of imagination, a failure of nerve, had made me think that I had to choose between them. They all asked the same thing of me, all these grandmothers of mine."

Finally, the lesson, to be carried forward: "My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn't, couldn't, end there. At least that's what I would choose to believe." Through a long and arduous search for blackness, Obama arrived at humanity.

In a certain way, Obama's odyssey in "Dreams From My Father" mirrors that of the boy hero of the greatest novel America has produced -- a book that is also about race, and the terrible wound that slavery left on this country and all its people. Huck Finn has been abandoned by his father, a bitter, drunken racist, and has to make his way through the world alone. But actually, he is not alone: a fugitive, he drifts down the Mississippi River, the river that runs through America's heart, with Jim, a runaway slave. And in the course of their journey, the wise and kindly Jim becomes Huck's father -- and, by implication, the father of every American. The pathos of Twain's masterpiece is it redeems our nation's dark history by allowing the despised slave to raise, and ultimately teach the meaning of life to, the lost and innocent boy.

Obama's quest is identical, except the colors are reversed. In search of an absent black father, he tries to become authentically black. And it is only when he learns that his father is all too human that he finally comes to understand that he is the child of both black and white, and ultimately of everyone, of all colors. "All these grandmothers of mine."

The man who emerges from this book has the integrity, the wisdom, the "dogged strength," to fight for a reborn America. And he also represents something larger than himself: He embodies hope. But that hope will only become real if the American people make it real. For hope is just a vessel. You have to fill it.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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