WORDS: BRIANNA SUSLOVIC
I remember turning on the morning news in eighth grade, shoveling cereal into my mouth as my mother poured herself the second cup of coffee that morning. A man who looked like me was on-screen, announcing his candidacy for the presidency, answering questions from the nice white lady interviewer in the Rockefeller Center studio. When I got home from school that day, I googled that man, someone I’d never seen or heard of before. His name was Barack Obama.
Like Obama, I’m a half-black, half-white kid who was raised by a single white mother. Reading through his Wikipedia page that afternoon had me sold—I was ready to see myself represented in the Oval Office, ready to watch a man like me take the presidential oath of office. My fourteen-year-old hopes were suddenly bound up in this man’s trajectory toward the presidency. That fall, as a high school freshman, I campaigned my heart out for this man, holding Obama signs at the busiest intersection in my small upstate New York hometown on weekends leading up to the election.
After winning the election, Obama became America’s first black president, which left me in a strange sort of predicament. As a mixed race student in a majority -white school district, I had always let my racial identity go unspoken. Instead of proclaiming myself as a black person—owning the way that outsiders viewed me—I preferred to dodge the conversation completely, associating my blackness with my absent father and pretending that it, like his disruptive and harmful presence in my family before my parents’ divorce, could be ignored. At the time, I had no relationship with my father and no relationship to my blackness. I had taken my mother’s white last name after the divorce, and I had decided that I didn’t want any contact with the man who had thrown my toys against the living room wall, shouting at my brother and me in a particularly bad fight.
Nearly a decade later, I remain steadfast in my desire to avoid contact with my father. However, I’ve spent lots of time and energy cultivating a healthy relationship with my blackness. On standardized tests, I now check “black” instead of “other.” I identify as a queer woman of color. Racial justice has become a large part of my ethos. Perhaps now, I have a better understanding of what it is to be mixed like Obama—or black like him, too. It’s confusing to straddle the color line, to be too black in some circles and not black enough in others, functioning as the object of fear in some spaces, an object of resentment and rejection in others.
Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “My President Was Black” puts me in a similar state of confusion. In this profile of Obama, Coates builds a theory of Obama’s racial identity and its fluidity in the eyes of the American populace. Using Obama’s biraciality and his close ties with his white grandparents, Coates argues that Obama possesses a particular lens with which he views white America, a lens of familiarity and trust built upon his literal relationship to white people. While acknowledging the ways that the Obamas have been the target of racism, Coates is still willing to posit that Obama has a relationship to whiteness that both protects him from racism and gives him access to the approval of white America. Coates quotes Obama to drive home this point: “I walk in [to a room of white Americans], I think, with a set of assumptions: like, these people look just like my grandparents. And I see the same Jell‑O mold that my grandmother served, and they’ve got the same, you know, little stuff on their mantelpieces. And so I am maybe disarming them by just assuming that we’re okay.”
Coates argues that this trusting view of white America “allowed Obama to imagine that he could be the country’s first black president.” The question of what is imaginable resonates with me. As an example, the feminism that I grew to love as an adolescent was a whitewashed one, one that did not take into account racism and the experiences of women of color, and yet I was able to trust in the ways that this white feminism might serve me, too. In those moments, I was able to ignore the color of my skin and imagine my own potential achievements as on-par with those of my white peers. I was able to rely on white feminism as a kind of unmarked belief system that promised me a nonexistent version of color-blind gender equality. “What Obama was able to offer white America is something very few African- Americans could—trust,” writes Coates.
Of course, Coates builds his analysis upon the words of Obama himself, describing how the president himself doesn’t hold “the kind of working assumption” that white people will mistreat him, the one presumably held by more black Americans. What worries me, though, is the way that readers will interpret Coates’s argument. At first glance, this claim makes it seem as though mixed-race Americans don’t experience racism in the same way that black Americans do. Perhaps we don’t. And yet, I can recite verbatim the comments from classmates about the “advantages” I would have in college admissions due to my race, comments that emphasized my racial difference rather than my hard work or academic achievement. I can remember hearing the n-word tossed around by white classmates of mine in my presence. I can recall the racist stereotypes played out in the back of the school bus by kids on their way home to suburban mansions, mimicking black characters from movies, memes, and Youtube videos. I was told that I “wasn’t like other black people” as a compliment, numerous times. This was anti-blackness directed at the black parts of me—and unfortunately, I internalized a lot of it. The unlearning process has taken years.
I am a mixed-race person who remembers stumbling across the word “mulatto” in my history textbook, clinging to the first historical representation of myself despite the fact that it was rooted in the rape of slave women by their masters. Throughout the Obama presidency, I wondered about his first encounter with that word. I wondered how he might have coped with that feeling of being an unnamed outsider among white folks. I wondered how he might have negotiated his simultaneous proximity to whiteness and blackness as someone who did experience racism.
Watching the movie “Barry,” I was struck by the very outsider-ness embodied by Obama, the feeling of otherness that Coates’s piece glosses over for the sake of emphasizing his convenient or strategic proximity to whiteness. In the film, which chronicles Obama’s years at Columbia University as an undergraduate transfer student, Obama is an awkward 20-year-old trying to negotiate his own identity against the backdrop of New York City in the early 1980s. For a college-aged Barack Obama, identity negotiation means splitting time between his predominantly white campus—where his college ID protects him from racist campus security guards—and the rich blackness of Harlem.
Most salient to me were the moments when Barry is forced to confront his racial identity interpersonally, as he does frequently when dating his white girlfriend, Charlotte. As he tries to determine whether he can be both black and white, Barry’s relationship with Charlotte brings him into white liberal spaces where he is forced to confront his difference and his alignment with the credentialed, moneyed whiteness that her family embodies. At the same time, when he brings Charlotte to Harlem, it is clear that she has had access to black culture before, nearly whitesplaining the best black authors and the best Harlem fried chicken joints to him. At the same time, Barry tries to hang out with black classmates and realizes that there are stark differences in their experiences and his—he has never been to a housing project before. I recall similar experiences of my own, living in the resonant moments where I was told about my own identity in words I didn’t yet have, contrasting with moments where I felt the salience of my privileged and white-influenced upbringing. I, too, had experienced racism, but in a different way than my black classmates with two black parents. I’m interested in examining my experience, not as one in which I developed any sort of “trust” of whiteness, but instead, as one in which I developed a black consciousness.
As I read the words of Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael in college, I began to own my blackness. I began to recognize how being mixed wasn’t something that forced me to choose black or white. I could be both, and I could live in a white supremacist world as a survivor of racism with an understanding of my own light-skinned, white-raised privileges. I’m able to belong to communities of color, as I, too, have experienced racism. I’m able to infiltrate white spaces to challenge my peers, to codeswitch into their language and challenge them in anti-racist ways. I’d like to think that Obama does the same.