Racial Identity: “Hapa” Obama

A comment on my recent post (Rule Book Racism: Can a Black Athlete Celebrate?) deserves a full response.

Lanny writes:

“A young, black, athletic man will soon be our president.” Why don’t you call him white? He’s just as much white as black. Is my wife, Karina, yellow or white, Japanese or American? Her mother is 100% Japanese, and her father from Georgia is white with a touch of Native American.

Lanny has an excellent point, and one that I have often shouted at the screen when cable news pundolts do as I did.

Mea culpa.  I reflexively adopted the bigoted and long-established Jim Crow “one-drop rule” which states that to be white is to be pure; even one drop of Negro blood makes one black.

But Langston Hughes wrote, “I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word ‘Negro’ is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown.”

In Richard Rodriguez’s excellent video essay on multiracial identity broadcast December 11 on PBS, he notes:

On the mainland at his post-election press conference, Barack Obama, the son of white Kansas and black Kenya, used a colloquial canine analogy to describe himself, “A lot of shelter dogs are mutts, like me.”

We Americans have never had a graceful vocabulary to describe our racial mixture. In generations past, when white or black married an American Indian, their children became “half-breeds,” as though less than whole.

Television and print journalists…relied on the old black-white vocabulary. The media proclaimed Barack Obama “America’s first black president,” their formulation suggesting that Jim Crow still trailed the nation, even at the moment when racism’s curse seemed to be broken.

Rodriguez includes this striking photograph in his video essay. It is part of Kip Fulbeck’s exhibition entitled “The Hapa Project,”which showed at Santa Clara University’s Saisset Museum. The multiracial subject writes: “What am I? I am exactly the same as every other person in 2500.”

May it be so.

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From Wikipedia:

Used without qualification, hapa is often taken to mean “part white”, and is shorthand for hapa haole. The term can be used in conjunction with other Hawaiian racial and ethnic descriptors to specify a particular racial or ethnic mixture.


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