Outlook: First Multiracial President

Marie Arana
Washington Post Book World Editor and Outlook Contributor
Monday, December 1, 2008; 1:00 PM

"Unless the one-drop rule still applies, our president-elect is not black. We call him that -- he calls himself that -- because we use dated language and logic. After more than 300 years and much difficult history, we hew to the old racist rule: Part-black is all black. Fifty percent equals a hundred. There's no in-between... To me, as to increasing numbers of mixed-race people, Barack Obama is not our first black president. He is our first biracial, bicultural president. He is more than the personification of African American achievement. He is a bridge between races, a living symbol of tolerance, a signal that strict racial categories must go."

Journalist Marie Arana was online Monday, December 1 to discuss her Outlook article on Obama's multiracial identity -- and her own.

Marie Arana, the editor of The Washington Post's Book World section, is the author of "American Chica," a memoir, and the novel "Cellophane." Her second novel, "Lima Nights," will be published in January.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Marie Arana: Welcome. This is Marie Arana. Thank you for taking the time to join me in this discussion. I've had hundreds of e-mail responses to the article, all of them thoughtful considerations of my piece. It may just be that this is the moment -- here and now in America -- to talk honestly and openly about race. And to put a lot of baggage behind us. Barack Obama's election has given us that opportunity. Now let's get to some of these comments.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, Marie. First off, fantastic article! As a multi-racial person myself I was able to identify with what was said in the article. It's important to me Obama is seen as both Black and White and identified as such. It's great he's become a sort of a "pioneer" in crossing our racial gaps. I was so pleased with Obama's " A More Perfect Union" speech in March that I wrote about it on my blog. No one has commented on it and it is by far my best post. Racial discussions were so prevalent in my house growing up and again in my sociology classes in college, but now - out in the "real world" - they've disappeared and you rarely see articles like "He's Not Just Black" and "I'm Not Post-Racial." How do we keep the racial discussions going so we can fully cross over the self-imposed racial lines?

Marie Arana: We keep the discussion going by doing just what you did. Acknowledge that we are a multi-racial country and that that is a very good thing.


Raleigh, N.C.: My wife is Kenyan. And she really doesn't like the term "African-American" when used to describe black Americans whose ancestors for several generations were all Americans. She uses the term "black Americans." Do you think Obama, who is truly African-American, will change the perception of that term?

Marie Arana: Obama seems to be comfortable with all terms. That is his greatness. In his first memoir, he calls himself black, but lately, an important editor in this paper just reminded me, he has come to call himself biracial.


Groton, Mass.: Thank you for mentioning that Obama is bi-racial and bi-cultural instead of only African-American. Using the correct terminology may help other bi-racial people, especially children, feel more comfortable with their heritage. Every article about Obama should be corrected to mention "bi-racial."

Marie Arana: Thanks for this.


Washington, D.C.: My mother, a white woman from Kansas, married my Haitian father in 1950. My mother's family disowned her and never accepted my father or her five children and I had no contact with my mother's family as I grew up. I grew up in a Black neighborhood, attended segregated schools and Black churches -- chiefly because the Black community accepted my family (including my mother) as part of their community. I have a French surname, but I have never been to Haiti, I don't speak French and I have never met my Haitian family. My skin is very fair, my eyes are green and my hair is light brown. Even though I have no Black roots in this country, I have always considered myself Black American. Because, as is true in my case, each individual's identity is determined by several factors, it matters very little how one is defined by others. What matters is that each of us has the right to define ourselves as we choose.

Marie Arana: What is it about Kansan women! My mother is a white Kansan, too.

In any case, tolerance is the goal we should all be shooting for, and it sounds like the community you were raised in was exactly that.

Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: I agree with you that President-elect Obama's heritage is much more complex than has generally been depicted. But I still consider him black, for the simple reason that to a casual observer, he IS black. We are far from a society in which we judge by the content of character, not skin color; and I can only assume that pre-celebrity Obama had just as much trouble hailing a cab as a man with no known Caucasian heritage and dark skin.

Marie Arana: And, of course this is the crux of the matter.

One's race, many correspondents have reminded me today, is determined by the culture around us.

We seem to have become comfortable becoming what other people say we are.


Houston, Texas: While I agree that Obama is a multiracial candidate on the DNA level, I do not agree that as a political and cultural concern he is multiracial (or postracial). He is a (culturally and politically) black person who appeals to a wide crossover political electorate. In other words, he is "transracial."

If he would have approached this campaign as a "Tiger Woods" candidate with a casual disregard for the racial history of the country, he would have turned off black voters who became instrumental in his nomination victory. (Ironically he might not have been quite as appealing to those Iowa caucus voters either.)

I certainly hope that this notion of his "blackness" does not diminish his presidency in merely racial terms. Hopefully some of the nasty edges of identity politics will be smoothed down (at least for the left. With Sarah Palin, the right is now reveling in pure identity politics.)

Interesting, thought provoking article. Thank you for writing it.

Marie Arana: Transracial is a good term. It almost negates race in a word!

I'm hoping for the same thing you are.



Dartmouth, Massachusetts: Provocative article, Ms. Arana! Let me share with you my own experience. I am a member of the Wampanoag Indian tribe of Mass., and I also have European and African ancestry. My Nationality is therefore "Wampanoag-American". My Cultural Identity is "AmerIndian" (I spend time with, and relate most strongly to, the Indigenous people of the Americas). My Racial identity is "Multi-racial." The first two are most salient to me, but the third is also important. I personally know many people who feel as I do, here in New England, but I'd love to know how this multi-layered construct plays out on a national (or international) scale.

Marie Arana: You are a citizen of the world.

Someone just told me that there was a poll of Germans taken recently and 70% of all respondents said that they would have voted for Obama.


San Francisco, Calif.: Everyone chooses a cultural identity. You have used that right when you identified yourself as "biracial." Why cannot Obama and others like him choose the culture of African American?

Marie Arana: Of course they can.

What I'm hoping for is that we all become a little more tolerant of one another and that the language ceases to be as rigid as it is.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Hello Marie, First, I would like to thank you for addressing this issue and hopefully it helps at least a little to eliminate such stereotypes that are placed on multi-racial people. My question is, just how difficult has it been for you to stick to being multi-racial and not accepting what others choose to label you? Thank You

Marie Arana: I have two children. One is fair-skinned, fair-haired. The other is black-haired, dark-skinned. The first doesn't describe herself as a Hispanic. The second one, a male, does.

Of course, they are responding to the way others see them. But they also live in a much younger generation, in which racial categories seem to be less important.


Washington, D.C.: I've got some issues with this article: 1. It seems to take the position that "black" and "biracial" are mutually exclusive terms, that Obama is "not black" because he is biracial. Rather, he is both black and white, and therefore biracial. I myself am biracial and I usually identify as such, but like Obama, there are times when I identify as black. 2. The article does not take into account the difference between ancestry and identity. Most "black" people have a multiracial ancestry, but certain social realities shape our identity. Obama identifying as black is simply a reflection of that and is quite common among biracial baby boomers. Publicly identifying as multiracial is largely a post-civil rights era Gen X, Gen Y thing.

-- Elliott Lewis Author, "Fade: My Journeys in Multiracial America"

Marie Arana: Thank you for this.


Annapolis, Md.: Your article was excellent. It will take many years, possibly generations, before the average American will simply not notice a person's skin color. But as you suggest, the way we get there is to continue to talk about it. It will be OK to stop talking about it when it becomes boring rather than taboo.

Thanks. (white male, 46, not that it matters.)

Marie Arana: Thank you.


Matawan, N.J.: Being a 60 Year Old African American, I was finally able to take pride in electing a President, and what do you do: you seem to be in denial that Barack Obama is Black. We knew that the first African American President would come from the ranks of W.E.B. DuBois' "Talented Tenth," because the remainder would never be considered educated, skilled, and assimilated just enough to satisfy both Blacks and Whites. We knew that he would come from the ranks of the Mulattos, because a full blooded African American would never be acceptable to full blooded Whites, while a Mulatto would apeal to just enough of both groups to give him a chance to win. With all that political baggage out there for him to bear, don't you think that you are showing the way for Racists in both groups to keep the racial pot stirred? I would suggest that your point will achieve currency after we get accustomed to electing Presidents with no regard to race. That time has yet to arrive.

Marie Arana: I'm not in denial that Barack Obama is what he is. I just want to be honest about the totality of the man.

But thank you for this. Much of what you say does ring true.


Falls Church, Va.: As I asked in a letter to the Post Editor three months ago (which was not printed), why does the Post -- except for you -- persist in calling Obama black instead of biracial?

Marie Arana: My point exactly. Thank you.


Downtown D.C.: Ms. Arana, I know you will get a lot of disagreement with the piece you wrote. I wanted to let you know that I agree with you 100%. I am bi-racial and have always identified myself that way. My parents (a white mother from Boston and a black father from Texas who met in DC while my mother was here teaching in the first headstart program and my dad was in the military stationed in DC) were married before the "Loving v. Va." case and I grew up hearing the stories of how difficult life was because of their relationship, from getting housing, to traveling together, etc. I also had trouble growing up from both blacks and whites and others who disagreed with my parents choice to marry. However, my parents during my childhood were strong in their love for their family and each other.

I view President-Elect Obama as a bi-racial man. I understand that he doesn't view himself that way -- that is his view but I am teaching my multicultural children that he is bi-racial. I think the US has a long way to go in overcoming the years of racial strife and that there are those who would like to cling to the old ways of identification. I do see progress though, the US Census is finally allowing people to identify themselves as multiracial, Public schools are also allowing for multiracial identification. I think it will be my children's generation that finally lets go of this old way of thinking.

Thanks for raising what many multicultural multiracial people were thinking.

Marie Arana: Thanks for this.

Actually, many of the comments that I've received personally have been very, very smart. And deeply thoughtful.


New York, N.Y. : The way we talk about race has never made any sense at all. I'm third generation Italo American; Is someone going to point to another citizen of the US whose grandparents hail from Germany and Scotland and say, "look, there's your fellow European-American?" But we effectively do the same thing with everyone who has dark skin, lumping together the descendants of Southern slaveholders and slaves from areas as disparate as the modern South Africa region or Dahomey, and blurring them together with people born of African parents who have just recently become US citizens, all under the category of "Black person." It lacks both precision and logic. I am glad someone is raising these questions, which given the increased frequency of mixed race marriages, becomes even more timely.

Marie Arana: Someone questioned why we don't call Obama a Kenyan-American, rather than an African American, since we would never call an Italian American a European American.

So you have a point.

The Indo-European category, by the way, is a huge stew of geography. According to the DNA labs, an Indian from the subcontinent and a Dane would be the same ethnicity and register as 100% "white."


Clinton, N.C.: Identifying people by race is the American way. No matter what, we are identified by race in this country. In the case of our President-elect, he had no choice but to identify himself as a BLACK man because society would not let him identify otherwise. As a black man in this country,I am certainly proud to be identified as black. I was before the election of Senator Obama, and I certainly will continue to be so. He just adds one more rung to the ladder of equality in this country. We will always be identified in this country by race. White people are getting "antsy" because soon they will be the "minority population" in the U. S. Isn't fate wonderful? The Bible teaches that the bottom will rise to the top; we're on our way!

Marie Arana: Thank you for this. I, like you, think we're definitely on our way. What a country!


Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Marie and thank you for having this discussion today. It is one that bothered me time and time again during the campaign. Actually, in a Washington Post discussion many, many months ago I asked why reporters and the American people refuse to acknoledge Obama for what he really is: bi-racial. My question was not answered.

I must say that it's a shame we're just now having this discussion vs. a year ago when people began mentioning the possibility that we may vote in the "first black president". Why were we not corrected then?

Marie Arana: An echo of an earlier question. . .


Washington, D.C.: Your arguments were sound, but missed the mark. The virtue, I think, of identity is its power of belonging. Mr. Obama, like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and more recently, Alicia Keyes, are in a long tradition of biracial Americans who have come to embrace their African-American heritage because of that sense of commonality. Yeah, the one drop rule was racist, but its consequences have been empowering for our community. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Marie Arana: Good point. And I suppose you could say that if the victims of prejudice bond, they will grow stronger. But that doesn't make the prejudice right in the first place.


Fairfax, Va.: Ms. Arana, if Mr. Obama has chosen to identify with black Americans, why do you feel he has to do otherwise? He is in the same category that many black Americans have been in for many generations so why bring this up now? You speak as if you feel there is something wrong with being an African (Black) American. Explain, please.

Marie Arana: I'm not against anyone choosing to see themselves any way they want to. And I certainly applaud people who are proud of their ethnicity. I'm proud of my African blood, too. I just think that we diminish people when we don't see them as the full cultural creatures that they are.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Marie!

I attend a Society of Friends Quaker Meeting and when one absolutely agrees with another and there are no words to express that kind of agreement, they say "This Friend speaks my mind." Marie, you truly speak my mind on this and I will make copies to share with others as I have tried to express this many times. You put the words to my exact sentiments.

Many times I have tried to explain this to blacks and whites. My son has attended a school where they consider the bi-racial kids black and I am constantly trying to make the case of your article.

I felt the same way when I read the front page of the Washington Post and other headlines the day after the election. I shook my head saying, they just don't get it and how antiquated is their thinking and writing.

My favorite front page says, "The 44th President: In Historic Run, Obama Wins White House. At the top of the page they have all former 44 presidents in black and white and his picture is in color. And get this, front page of The Times-Picayune! This is what I call progression. Now this front page I may consider framing.

Marie Arana: Many thanks for this.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Marie, I am 61 years old. My mother was half-black, my father was white, and on top of that I'm gay. So what does that make me in the so-called "real world"?

BLACK of course!

America is still stuck in the first act of "Showboat" and some of us are STILL getting thrown off the Cotton Blossom because of the one-drop rule.

Live with it!

Marie Arana: Yes, indeed. We are stuck.


Arlington, Va.: Thanks for a fascinating and thought-provoking article.

For many reasons, some historical and cultural, some superficially biological, whites tend to think of themselves as largely "unmixed" in the sense that your article discusses. Yet that's largely mistaken: there was far more mixing between Europeans and Native Americans, for example, than many people realize.

A DNA test such as you took can therefore be an important reality check -- as well as an eye- and mind-opener. Would you be willing, without implying any endorsement, to identify the company you used for your own test? Thanks.

Marie Arana: Thank you for this.

I had suspected my family was part African, part Asian for a long time before I had the DNA tests. But the labwork confirmed it. I can't tell you how relieved and happy I was to put the question to rest.

I used Ancestry by DNA and GeneTree.


Northville, N.Y.: Here's an example of bigotry which is actually a type of racism. My late paternal grandfather, who, sorry to say, was a thoroughly bigoted man, used to insult my mother, who was of Sicilian ancestry, by calling her a "mongrel," because Sicilians are a polyglot of disparate groups, including Greeks, Italians, North Africans, Arabs and many, many others. I thought of this the other day when Pres. Obama referred to himself as a "Mutt." I've always been proud to be a mutt.

Marie Arana: I'm proud to be a mutt, too. My memoir "American Chica" was precisely about living on a bridge, never quite belonging to any one side.



Washington, D.C.: So then, the question begs to be asked. Why didn't we scrutinize the ancestral mix of other past presidents? It appears that it didn't matter until a president was labeled "Black". The phrase "he's half white too" drives me a little batty because almost every American, like it or not, is a mutt! Sorry, mixed breed. Quite frankly, it doesn't matter if he's Black or White. What matter are his policies. Obama would never have been elected to office had people of the Black and White race not believed that he would treat everyone with equality. We have trusted White presidents to be concerned about the affairs of all. Surely, we can trust that Obama is concerned about all people without having to remind Whites that he is half white.

Sorry, about my "soap box" attitude but the importance of exactly what race Obama is is a personal pet peeve of mine.

Marie Arana: Thanks for this.

I, for one, think that Obama has negotiated the race questions beautifully. He speaks about it candidly and openly. He is a model teacher for us all.


Arlington, Va.: Would you be in favor of removing affirmative action and replacing it with a system based on need and/or poverty? If there truly are no pure races, than it would follow that it is silly to grant people preference based on race.

Marie Arana: I would be in favor of taking those census boxes off the forms entirely, and dealing with questions of poverty seriously, regardless of race.

But I do believe that affirmative action (especially as concerns education) has been very useful in this country. We have to give it that.


Bethesda, Md.: How interesting to see your children self-identify their race according to the reactions of the world around them. My mother is Chinese and my father is white, and I always had more white friends and my brother always hung with the Asian crowd. I'm pretty sure it was because his appearance is more Chinese. I married a white man and he mostly dates Asian women.

Now that I have my own children, who are only 1/4 Asian, everyone responds to them as white, because they do look Caucasian. We teach them about Chinese culture and language, but that seems to make them think that we're all Chinese (including my white husband).

My question is: how do you talk to children about their own multi-racial heritage? I don't want to introduce the concept of race since I truly believe it's a social construct, but I worry that if I don't address it their peers will do it for them.

Marie Arana: Thanks for this.

I believe that the only way to talk about racial issues with children is honestly. There is much history that confirms great achievements for all races of the world.


Washington, D.C.: As an Asian adoptee, I too struggle with people's perceptions of me. Obviously when someone looks at me, they think I'm Asian and nothing else. But my Asian features are merely an accident of birth and don't define me solely. I share way more of my white parents' heritage and almost nothing of my Korean homeland. On forms, I will identify as Asian for race and Italian/Polish for ethnicity.

Marie Arana: Thanks.


Atlanta: Back when my parents were married, it was considered 'mixed' by many. My parents are both Jewish, but one is Sephardic (Mediterranean heritage) and one is Ashkenazie (Eastern European heritage) -- both first generation Americans.

Today, many Jews are just happy when the kids of Jews even just know they're Jewish and it's not even an issue.

Hopefully, one day, we won't even discuss this topic as it shouldn't matter where your parents are from, or anything like that, who you are should matter.

Marie Arana: Thank you. I do believe we are getting there.


Washington, D.C.: With the 2010 Census just around the corner, how do you think President-elect Obama's racial identity might affect the results? Will people begin to identify themselves differently? What does this mean on a national scale?

Marie Arana: Yes, I do think Obama's leadership will profoundly affect how we think about race.

I've heard that in Europe the census doesn't ask for identification by race. Does anyone know the answer to this? It seems an enlightened approach.


Rochester, N.Y.: Obama is black because 1. He identifies himself as black, 2. The history of race relations in this country. Hispanics are the last people to be giving people advice on racial dynamics.

The one-drop rule has worked well for Blacks in this country. We were able to form a cohesive community without the sharp divisions along color lines that you see in Latin America. Why don't you answer this, why is Latin America so anti-black?

Marie Arana: Good question.

Latin Americans have a lot of African blood in them. Venezuela and Brazil have large populations of African ancestry citizens. You'd think the continent would be a lot more tolerant than it is.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I think one reason at least some bi-racial people insist on identifying as their non-white race is because they don't want to appear that they are ashamed of the non-white race. A lot of biracial gen-Xers just got sick of hearing older people saying "I'm not black, I'm Creole," or "I'm not Mexican, I'm Spanish." An older generation of Americans made these claims not because they were true, but because the older generation had identity crisis and thought it was better to claim to not be a "minority." Now I think it's swinging the other way, younger biracial folks are able to accept both sides of their heritage without feeling they're rejecting their "minority" race.

Marie Arana: I think you're right. The younger generation is smarter about this than their parents.


22314: Great article! As has been echoed, I think most biracial/multi-racial people are nodding our heads (me: product of black American father and white British mother). We want to claim our place as well. I struggled with the same things Obama writes about in his autobiographies about trying to raise himself within this racially charged environment. What I finally realized is that I can call myself whatever and identify however, but what society sees and how they chose to categorize me is not something I can control. So, I know that I will always be seen as a black female no matter what and I accept that. BTW, I don't like referring to myself or using the term African-American but again, I recognize that others do and can't make a federal case every time they do. Keep writing about this topic.

Marie Arana: Thanks very much.


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Arana,

You wrote in an earlier response: "What I'm hoping for is that we all become a little more tolerant of one another and that the language ceases to be as rigid as it is." What specific suggestions do you have for moving our language from its current rigid state? It seems that you don't accept President-elect Obama's own characterization of himself but don't really say why. Shouldn't accepting a self-idenifying word without argument be the least that all of us do to become more tolerant?

Marie Arana: I think we are bound by language.

I think we are bound by old perceptions.

I also believe (having studied linguistics for more years than I'd like to admit) that language can change. But it will need speakers like you and me to do it.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks so much for this article! It has been interesting to me that Obama decided to "raise himself as a black man" since other than the DNA, there is very little in his background that would connect him with the experience of most black Americans. Elite prep school, Ivy League undergrad, Harvard Law, United States Senate. Really, he has much more in common culturally with the white elites.

Marie Arana: Thanks for this.


Fairfax. Va.: So Ms. Arana, how would YOU classify President Elect Obama's daughters?

Marie Arana: I would classify them as Americans.


Port-of-Spain; Trinidad, Caribbean: Ms. Arana,

Thank you for your article!! I am Afro-Trinidadian (so-called) married to a second generation Indian from India. My daughter, who is now at University in the US, is perceived of as Afro-American and she hates it!!!! She is really the product of multiple heritages and has been influenced by so many different cultures. There is no box in any Application Form that fits her background. We, as parents, are proud of that fact. But we continue to see her struggling to resist present-day designations in her own search for a 21st century identity that applies. I will recommend her article to you. It will soothe her internal discourse. By the way, you write to be read with enjoyment!!

Marie Arana: Thanks for the kind words.


Washington, D.C.: I recognize and accept your argument and the logic behind it. But I wonder, how do you think regular citizens should go about changing how we identify ourselves? Sure, we can stop using titles, but as you stated it seems like we lose some of our cultural heritage. Secondly, even if we (the majority of the public) did stop using titles, what about institutions that still label us such as the upcoming census or the police?

Marie Arana: There's a lot of work to be done. Obviously.


New York, N.Y. : Great Article, Marie, President-elect Obama is the first "Global President" in that his race and upbringing is globally connected (Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Kansas). As a student of Genetics and Public Health, I can't help but think there is a need in this country to define people in these neat little boxes (convenient enough for the next census bureau count). Racial make-up is complex and not just black and white. Just who decides who is black and who is white?

Marie Arana: Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: Sometimes color is defined by our environment, upbringing or how we perceive ourselves; it can be a state of mind. President-elect Obama is multi-racial, but he definitely is a Black Man. On the other hand, take Tiger Woods, he is multi-racial but he does not identify himself as a Black man, although in color he is more black than P.E. Obama. Society will label you based on your looks, but so often it's the color of your spirit that determines your race, and both sides need to accept that, without judgment.

Marie Arana: Of course.

It's the culture that can be so confining.


DNA tests: How do you get a DNA analysis of your geneology?

Marie Arana: Go on the internet. Google DNA and ancestry. You'll get a lot of companies that do this. But check them out carefully. Make sure it's a reputable lab.


Jacksonville, Fla.: What about the black community's embrace of the multiracial children of interracial relationships? Once shunned by many whites, it appears that multiracial people are attempting to shed a stigma they associate with being black or having black in their heritage. Sort of like a modern-day version of "Imitation of Life."

Marie Arana: Putting this up there. Not sure it's a question I can answer.


Baltimore: God (in Whom I believe personally) created human beings in different colors and with different cultures for a reason: differences are okay. There is no reason to dissolve all racial or cultural or religious groups for human beings to co-exist peacefully. Differences make life exciting. A "post-racial" world where we are all belong to a "multi" group would be boring. Racism (which maintains that one race is superior to another) is what makes respecting one another differences so hard. I intend to retain and celebrate my own racial and cultural identity. Others embrace a "post" or "multi" racial identity are free to do the same.

Marie Arana: Nothing wrong with races. What's wrong is the prejudice inherent in the culture and the language.

We can all be proud of what we are.


Arlington, Va.: While I really enjoyed the point of your article when it comes to race in the United States, I have to comment on your opinion and portrayal of race in Latin America. Having lived in and studied Latin America for a number of years, I have to say I disagree that there is a higher level of "post" or "trans" racial thinking. I found that EVERYTHING was about race in Latin America - and a given "group", whether white/brown/black, was not remotely shy about stating their own prejudices and ideas about others. Also, although I know the Portuguese officially encouraged intermarriage in Brazil, I have never heard that the Spanish did the same; they, um, took a less formal track in "claiming" a woman, to put it delicately. Garcilaso de la Vega was the exception, not the norm.

Anyway, as I said, I liked the commentary on race in the U.S., but I think we need to leave behind the idea of Latin America somehow having a more evolved idea of race - it simply has never been my experience to witness this, and in fact, the opposite was true.

Marie Arana: I never meant to imply that Hispanics have a more evolved NOTION of race. We're just more racially mixed. And we're aware of it.

Latin America can be a very racist place. Let's not underestimate that.


Silver Spring, Md.: I wanted to respond to Bethesda, Md. I agree with Marie that you should be open and honest with your children about race. I am a 23-year old multiracial female (black, white, Native American, and who knows what else). From an early age I was spoken to about race and my own identity. My parents gave me the opportunity to define who I was for myself, but made me very aware of my two different cultures. Although race is a social construct, it's the first thing we notice about someone since we are born into and live in a racialized society. To ignore it completely is only ignoring the huge issue and not helping the racial gaps to close.

I've never let my peers decide who I was. I noticed early on I never really fit into either the "White box" or the "Black box" so I checked the "Other box." I never experienced identity issues, suffered from the "tragic mulatto syndrome," or tried to fit into either category. I was just me - best of both worlds. I definitely owe this self-identity and courage to my parents for being open and honest with me from a young age.

Marie Arana: Thank you for contributing this. Well done.


Long Island, N.Y.: How could you call the European attitude to race enlightened?! A cousin of my aunt's in a not-to-be-named country on the Continent is half black, and she was the victim of "unofficial" social discrimination to the point that her family thought about sending her over here where she could live a more normal life. I personally have witnessed children pointing and giggling at black American friends of mine in European cafes. And I won't even begin to describe the horrible things I've heard from Europeans of all social classes about Roma. If they do not ask about race on their census forms, it's because ethnic minorities are not even deemed worthy of the consideration. I wouldn't suggest imitating such "enlightedness".

Marie Arana: Thanks for this.

I just meant that if they don't expect you to choose a race on a census that's probably a good thing.


Washington, D.C.: As an African immigrant who spent some time in South America, had an interesting conversation with some of my Latino friends. Talking about race in America, we started to argue about the definition of Hispanic or Latino as a racial category (which it is not!). A friend provided an interesting analogy in a cafe. "In the Americas (North and South), everyone is "mestizo". Its as if you took espresso and mixed it with milk. everyone has varying amounts of milk, some have a lot, others have less milk more espresso. But it's all coffee, just different types". I think that here in the US we just have not grasped that concept of the "mestizo nation," we are either white, black, Asian, Hispanic or "Other".

Marie Arana: Mestizo is a beautiful word.

And yes, in Latin America, if families have been there a while, we are all mestizos.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Ms. Arana,

You identify yourself as "multiracial," and that is a benefit of being from mixed heritage: it is one's personal decision how they identify/classify him or herself. President-elect Obama identifies himself as a Black man. Period. But he has never failed to honor his white mother and grandparents. The headlines from November 5 read that America elected "the first Black president" because this is how Obama defines himself. Just because you differ, you think he and the voters are wrong? And now history is wrong, too? I found your article horribly insensitive to personal freedom and choice.

Marie Arana: No. I don't think the voters are wrong.


But I'll put this up there for others to read in any case.


Washington, D.C.: It seems unfortunate that " blackness" (whatever that is) seems to be defined as a condition or a status that one transitions through (transracial) or even grows out of. But no one seems to devote much attention to describing a mature black identity compared to an immature one.

Obama's apparent comfort in his own skin, his "no drama" persona, his obvious intellect are NOT at odds with his mature "blackness". These qualities may really just be a manifestation of MATURE black or racial identity -- instead of a negation. Grown up identity promotes a rejection of a unitary, cliched, stereotypcial primitive idea of "blackness" or "whiteness" as yesterday's straightjacket.

What we are seeing is a mature man of African descent who is -- in some respects -- attractive because he has achieved through embracing his blackness not in spite of it (or worse, trying to ignore it)... To be honest, Obama would be a political phenomenon even if he were white. White people with mature racial identities are a little less obvious, because YT people are not constantly quizzing them about their racial views... that gets reserved for black people. But times are changing.

Marie Arana: Times are indeed changing. . .


Washington: I am Caucasian (Italian/Scotch/Irish if it makes any difference). This chat is making me feel like I have to apologize for my ethnicity. It's not a sin to be white.

Marie Arana: Of course not.

Thanks for joining in.


Fairfax County, Virginia: What did you think of Obama jokingly referring to himself as "a mutt" (as in, most shelter dogs are "mutts like me") in his first post-election press conference? Most of my biracial friends liked it, as a passing reference that showed he is not only biracial, but comfortable about it. I liked it, too. I also enjoyed watching the faces of his appointees behind him as they processed this new perspective. Your thoughts?

Marie Arana: Yes, I sympathized immediately when Obama referred to himself as a mutt.

There is a grace about his attitude we would all do well to emulate.


Marie Arana: Our hour is through!

Thank you all for joining me in this very bracing and open conversation about race.

I'm thrilled to be an American right now, at this precise juncture of history.

All best wishes to all of you.


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