Stop the finger-wagging about Obama’s Census form

It’s tough being president. In the last year, pretty much every constituency has expressed disappointment in some facet of Barack Obama’s work or play.

Now, apparently, the president is even letting down biracial children with his choice of Census categories. Elizabeth Chang writes in a Post op-ed that the president shouldn’t have identified as “black” on the Census given that he is mixed race. She even goes so far as to say that it is “disingenuous” and that “there is an important consequence when our president does not acknowledge half of his heritage, or, more basically, the mother and grandparents who raised him, or even his commonality with his sister, who is also biracial, though with a different mix.”

Let me start by suggesting this may slightly over-value the deep personal meaning of the Census form. I viewed the form as a seven-minute exercise in ensuring that the District of Columbia gets to count my whole family as residents. Maybe we can even get enough funding to fix the Metro escalators. I hadn’t realized the need to express solidarity with my relatives and ancestors, living and dead.

Anyway, like Chang, my kids are half Asian and half white, which led me to identify them on the Census as… Asian. My brother is half black and half white. He went with biracial. Somehow neither of these decisions has resulted in meaningfully different personal connections for my family.
The question of race as biological or sociological construct is complex. While Chang may wish Obama took a more literalist perspective and identified as biracial, I’m quite sure she doesn’t have the right to judge.

Growing up with my biracial brother and now raising biracial kids has given me a couple of insights. First, the world today is very different than the world was 30 to 40 years ago. Second, there is a difference in this country (still) between being biracial/half black and biracial/half Asian.

I remember back in the fifth grade when a kid called my brother the N-word, right there on the Montrose Elementary School playground. I can assure you that my brother’s response was not, “That young man is mistaken. Biologically, I’m half part of the dominant racial hegemony in this small town.” No, the N-word was a marker, a line in the sand about what race meant in the starkest and most subjective of terms. (The other kid left with a busted nose and his own lesson in social etiquette).

My oldest daughter, on the other hand, has made it through elementary school in two different regions of the country without enduring a single disparaging remark about her race. Do I think this is because the country is in a better place on issues of race today? Yes. Do I think it’s because she is half Asian rather than half black? Yep.

So what does all this say about racial identification and the Census? Not much. My brother went with biracial but feels — strongly — that it’s out of line to question how the president, or anyone else, self-identifies. My kids say they are “Asian,” so I went with that. I’m not interested in hearing anyone else’s opinion on how they should think of themselves.

Chang is right, of course, that old racial categories don’t capture the shifting tapestry of the country. But it’s a bit much to say that the president should follow a biologically literal approach to self-definition. All you have to do is troll the comments section of this website to see that for a loud, ugly minority of the populace, the president’s blackness still defines him.

So let’s park the judgmental finger-wagging and let him decide.


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