Bring back my body to me

by Guest Contributor Thea Lim

In order to show that I am an interesting person with diverse interests and a multi-track mind, I was going to stay away from the topics of Barack Obama, feminism and personal experiences for my second Racialicious post.

But sometimes good intentions get derailed by the nonsense we receive in our inboxes. In early June, via a feminist listserv (sigh), I received a link to this article from UK paper The Independent: “Calling Obama black is an insult to his mother” by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

Call me close-minded, but just from its title, this article would appear to be too offensive to even comment on – its problems are pretty self-evident and don’t need an outraged commenter (ie me) to point them out.

But here’s an exhausting (discouraging, nightmare-inducing, etc…) thought: if Obama wins in November, we may just have four years of ludicrous op-eds spewing nonsensical assumptions about race – and mixed race people – as if it is the business of journalists to tell mixed people how they should identify. So here we go: round one of defensive blogging.

Says Alibhai-Brown:

Barack Obama is not black…the adjective has become an identity and racial marker for the Democratic nominee, and used that way, “black” is disingenuous, and in my view, iniquitous. Successful mixed-race Americans are pushed to call themselves “black” as a badge of honour, evidence that they are not ashamed of that background. And that too is wrong.

The first thing that rubbed me the wrong way about Alibhai-Brown is her belief that mixed race people just wake up in the morning and declare “I’m Black!”, or in my case, “I’m Chinese!” In my experience, a mixed race* person’s racial identity is based on:

a) the racial identity they identify with most, based on their complicated life experience,

but moreover on:

b) how they are seen by the society around them, based on their physical appearance.

My mother is English and Irish and was born in England, and my father is Chinese and was born in Singapore. In Toronto where I live, I’m usually read as some kind of East Asian. In Singapore where I grew up, I’m usually read as white. My race shifts depending on the racial politics of where I am.

In a CNN video that Carmen posted a few weeks back, Obama discusses how he is read as black, and other mixed race commenters discuss how, due to the colour of their skin, identifying as anything other than a mixed person of colour is not an option. In America Barack Obama is a black man, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about that.

Consider the flip of this: I have friends who are mixed (black/white, Japanese/white…) who are read as white, and so tend to identify as white. To call this identification internalised racism – or anything other than a response to their lived experience – is to devalue and insult what they have learned to be true.

The process of coming to a racial identity is an intensely personal (if not angst-filled) process. Alibhai-Brown’s title alone displays a massive amount of ignorance towards the fact that, if nothing else, it’s freakin’ rude – NOT progressive – to make helpful hints as to how others should identify. So back off already.

But more than this, Alibhai-Brown’s article seems completely oblivious to the power that race has, insinuating that we can control how we’re read. This is about as silly and profoundly aggravating as insinuating that people of colour can simply overcome the barriers that race creates if they put their minds to it.

So why is this kind of tripe being published in the Independent, an allegedly left-wing newspaper? The only reason I can scrounge up is that in some (ridiculous) circles “post-racial” points of view – i.e. Can’t we all just get along? Aren’t we all just people at the end of the day? I don’t even see colour! – are considered liberated.

I can guess that this article is making the rounds on the feminist listserv circuit because a super speedy skim of it might lead a reader to think Alibhai-Brown is criticising the devaluing of mother work:

And an honest history would have to acknowledge the white men and women who are rubbed out by the label “black”, erased ruthlessly. Obama would be nobody – he wouldn’t exist – without his mum…many white parents feel when they are systematically demeaned, diminished and sometimes removed altogether from the biographies of mixed-race children, even when they have been the ones doing the parenting.

Well okay, fine. But here’s where the article really takes a turn for the ugly:

My daughter has my colouring, and could pass as Asian, but I would never, ever want her to. Her wonderful English father made her past and will her future.

What?

So after going on about how mixed race people MUST acknowledge the race of both their parents, she wants people to ignore her own (non-white) contribution to her daughter’s existence? I see, so identifying mixed race people by their parent of colour is a racist throwback to the one-drop rule, but saying mixed race people should identify either as biracial, or white, isn’t. Mmmhmm. I guess it shouldn’t come as a suprise that Alibhai-Brown drops the word “miscegenation” before the article is up.

In my experience (and I’d like to note that this is my experience, and if I’ve learned anything about being mixed race, it’s almost impossible to generalise the mixed race experience) if you’re a middle-class mixed-race person there’s pressure to identify as white, not non-white. Because we live in a racist society where the dominant culture is white, and all sorts of people of colour are asked to deny their backgrounds – except for when it comes to giving tips on the best “ethnic” restaurants and posing for sexy, exotic photos.

I’m proud of who I am. I’m glad that my parents made the choices they did. But stating ownership over my own freakin’ body is tricky in a climate where it seems like everyone, from parents, to journalists, to anthropologists, to constituents, to lovers, to creepy American Apparel CEOs, sees the bodies of mixed people as blank canvases on which to project sickening, racial fantasies.

It may just be time to unsubscribe from that feminist listserv.

*Alibhai-Brown uses mixed race to refer to people who are part white and part of colour, so that’s how I’m using it here. But yes! I do agree that mixed race really refers to people of any mix. Which includes at least half of North America.

(Picture Credit: WHO International)