Panel says challenges remain for those of multiracial identity

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Barack Obama has been heralded as the first black man to reach the threshold of the presidency.

But Obama is not black – or at least not only black, professors and community organizers said last night at a Multiracial Identity Week panel.

“In France, he’s understood as a mixed-race candidate,” said Kimberly McClain DaCosta, a professor of social studies at Harvard.

However, Obama’s identity is not as simple in the United States, said the panel’s moderator, Evelyn Hu-Dehart, a professor of history at Brown and director of the University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

Panel members agreed.

“On the one hand, blacks (do) not see him as one amongst them, and on the other hand, the whites (do) not see him as one amongst them,” said Oscar Brookins, an associate professor of economics at Northeastern University.

Obama’s racial identity is problematic as a political issue, said Pete Shungu, a community organizer in Boston, because his opponents characterize any mention he makes of his race as “playing the race card.”

The problem for Obama is exacerbated, Shungu said, by the risk of alienating a particular demographic in identifying himself.

“For him to identify as multiracial, people look at that immediately as identifying as not black,” Shungu said.

Despite the difficulties of discussing his own race directly in his campaign, panel members agreed that Obama’s campaign has furthered the national discourse on race and multiracial identities.

The panelists cited as seminal a speech in which the Democrat explained the racial composition of his family.

“He has done more to normalize interracial kinship than anyone or any public event ever has,” McClain Dacosta agreed.

“The speech that Obama made on race got a lot of people thinking,” Shungu said.

“If he is elected, that conversation will continue and progress.”

Panelists also addressed more general questions of multiracial identity in the United States, prompted by Hu-Dehart’s mention of the national census.

In 2000, citizens were for the first time given the choice of selecting more than one race on census paperwork, according to Hu-Dehart.

The 2010 census, she said, will be the first time people are allowed identify themselves as outside of the constraints of categories offered in the past.

Shungu, at mention of the census, removed his dress shirt to reveal a T-shirt reading “Not Other” after a checked box.

Some panelists were less enthusiastic about the changes made to the national census, saying the issue of multiracial identity could not simply be solved by changes to government forms.

“I was recently asked to draw where I came from and I was stuck,” said Kohei Ishihara, a multiracial activist from Providence.

Hu-Dehart asked the panelists if progress made toward acceptance of mixed-race identity on the census and through Obama’s campaign might serve to obscure the traditional racial categories, or at least alleviate tension between them.

The categories are continually being remade, McClain DaCosta concluded.