Barack Obama: Face Of New Multiracial Movement? During his first press conference as the nation's President-elect, Barack Obama made a reference to shelter dogs being "mutts" like him. That light-hearted nod to his multiracial background, along with an open attitude toward race, has reinvigorated the multiracial movement.
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Barack Obama: Face Of New Multiracial Movement?

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Barack Obama: Face Of New Multiracial Movement?

Barack Obama: Face Of New Multiracial Movement?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And from black, white and other to check all boxes that apply, how the American government tracks race has changed. Add that to the cultural debates and you've got a constant re-evaluation of identity.

Joining us to continue the conversation we've got Ralina Joseph, adjunct assistant professor in the department of American ethnic studies and women's studies at the University of Washington, and Jungmiwha Bullock, the president of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, she's also a PhD candidate in American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Hi guys.

Professor RALINA JOSEPH (Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of American Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies, University of Washington): Hi, thanks for having us.

Ms. JONGMIWA BULLOCK (President, Association of MultiEthnic Americans; PhD Candidate, American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So Jongmiwha, let me start with you. You heard Lise Funderburg talk about this moment in history. Your organization is very much one where - I don't think, maybe tell me if you disagree - it couldn't have existed half a century ago. It is something where identity has changed, or concepts of identity have changed. Do you think that the election of President Obama, the fact that you've got folks like Tiger Woods means that we're in a better place racially with identity, or is it still difficult to try to discuss these intersections of personal identity?

Ms. BULLOCK: Those are all great questions. I actually want to answer the first part of your question first, which was about, could an organization like AMEA, which is one of the oldest leading umbrella associations for multi-racial families, individuals, and organizations. Actually today marks the 20th anniversary of AMEA's founding. But one thing that I wanted to mention is that actually in 1892, there was actually a group called the Manassah(ph), or the Manasse(ph) Society that started in Wisconsin and Chicago actually, which was an elite group of multi-racial people that lasted for 40 years.

If you notice in the 1890 census and the 1937 census there actually was a strong - you'll see a shift in the census where black was differentiated from multi-racial - from, I'm sorry, like you know, differentiated with mixed-race sort of groupings.

So you'll notice that there is a change. So I wanted to add that into the discussion. And that kind of gets to this question here, is now that we have President-elect Obama, you know, has the discussion changed? I do think that there was a missed opportunity during the elections to talk about, you know, multi-racial identity in a different way than we have before. And by that I mean that, you know, he was - I guess he was from the media's perspective, you know, he had been cloaked as a single race category, the first black president.

I think there was a missed opportunity while he was talking about his mixed-race identity, but in a kind of, I guess a color blind sort of way. But I would say that there are what I call in my research the politics of being multi-racial and that are still at play. One thing that the previous guest was saying is that, you know, we're talking about black and white, but we do understand that people who are bi-racial or multi-racial - a person like myself, I'm black and Asian. Now what does it mean when white is not part of my binary, and how do I engage in that discussion?

There are many people listening who might call themselves, you know, like Tiger Woods Cablinasian, or people who are Mexican and black. I mean, what does it mean to be two so called minority populations that engage in this discussion where white is not part of the binary? And I think that should be brought into the conversation as well, because AMEA we represent all these diversities. And I think that was what I mean by a missed opportunity, but it doesn't mean we can't engage in this conversation from here forward.

CHIDEYA: Ralina, do you think that there was a deliberate attempt to avoid this conversation? Because there've been so many conversations going on about race, and it's not as if the senator didn't deal with it at all. I also actually - let me go to a clip and have you respond to it. There was a moment in his first press conference as president-elect we he answered a question about the kind of dog the Obamas might adopt for their daughters.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): There are a number of breeds that are hypo-allergenic. On the other hand, our preference would be to get a shelter dog, but obviously a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me.

CHIDEYA: So Ralina first of all, what did you think of his comment? And secondly, did people avoid the topic of bi-racial identity on purpose?

Prof. JOSEPH: Well, on a personal level I just kind of smiled when I heard that comment. It was actually a little bit of a relief for me to hear Obama speak in a light-hearted way on the one hand, because we don't see that side of him too often. And also, for us to have this little peek into his own racialization. I think that, as Jongmiwha was alluding to, that many of us can read multi-racial politics into the way in which he racializes himself.

So for example, we all know that he talks about his mother from Kansas and his father from Kenya and so, and then leaves it at that. He doesn't make an I am statement. But this kind of racialization by parental proxy lets so many different constituencies then read themselves into him. And I think it's part of the formula that made him such a viable candidate.

CHIDEYA: Jongmiwha, you mentioned that there are a lot of people who were also say, two identities of color in their family. And tell us about your impressions of how things have panned out on this whole idea of how you change racial classifications in the census. You mentioned something from a long time ago when racial classifications have changed, but there was this significant change for the last decennial census that really changed from a, you know, kind of a pick one to a, you know, pick all that apply. What kind of ramifications have we seen since then of that change?

Ms. BULLOCK: Well there was a lot of mobilization in the '80s, and actually the people who proceeded me - the late Ramona Douglas(ph) the former president of AMEA, as well. And what was happening was that there was a whole discussion happening all over the country that, you know, actually there are families that want to mark all that apply for their children. Because what does that mean? although race is a social construction - right, that's why we see it changing on the census - at the same time it becomes real on the ground level for people. right? How you identify.

And so we notice that there are many things happening. We thought if we helped to move and immobilize people to change that and to mark all that applied, first of all, we would engage in a discussion about race that hadn't happened. Second of all, we could actually speak to parents out there that are still, you know, having to deal with their own cultural competency when it comes to racially identifying their children. Which has a profound effect. I think Ralina probably could speak to this as well, that in the academy it seems that a lot of times multi-racial children by the time they get to college, it's the first time they've actually feel like they can talk about their multi-racial identity in a kind of more engaging and sophisticated way. That sometimes, unfortunately, isn't happening in the household, and we thought that change in the census would initiate that. And it really has, but I think there's so much more work to do.

CHIDEYA: Well Ralina, what about downside? Some people look at the approach that the census took and say, well, it actually is something that could undermine efforts at affirmative action. What do you think, Ralina? I see Jongmiwha shaking her head, but I'll come back to you. But what do you think?

Prof. JOSEPH: Well that was the big debate, right? And the lead up to the 2000 census was that all different types of ethnic advocacy groups, the NAAPC, La Raza and a number of other groups were really opposed to the development of this check all category, because there was this fear that this multi-racial group would actually usurp the resources. And I think that the interesting is that that did not happen, because although on the census one is allowed to check all - the way that those numbers are tabulated is in all different types of ways. And so there are ways to figure out how many people are multi-racial African-American and still be able to maintain the integrity of African-American numbers.

I think that at the same time, I'm cautious of the exulting of a multi-racial identity above all others, as opposed to having a type of fluid identity that Lise Funderburg spoke about. So for example, to be black and to be mixed-race, or to be black and to have a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, because that doesn't necessarily mean that you're claiming a mixed-race identity. So that's my one hesitation about I think some of the directions of the multi-racial movement has gone, is to really kind of uphold the multi-racial identity above all others and to the exclusion of the type of multiplicity that's so important when we have communities that are still struggling. And also...

CHIDEYA: OK. I have to jump in because we're just about out of time. Jongmiwha, what should we look for ahead, either in terms of legal issues or cultural issues?

Ms. BULLOCK: OK. Actually to say this really quick. And this might go back to the mutt comment. I would say that if President-elect Obama is listening, I would say that terms of the mutt comment, it was wonderful. I think that you made a public announcement in a. you know, kind of I guess covert way of talking about it. But at the same time, I will say that you have a challenge here in the country, that mutt is a derogatory term and there are people who are looking up to you. And we would hope that we can engage in that discussion and be able to talk about it in a more sophisticated way from this point forward.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well we're - it looks like we're going to have a lot to talk about. Thanks, guys.

Ms. BULLOCK: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking with Jongmiwha Bullock, president of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, she joined us here at NPR West, and Ralina Joseph, adjunct assistant professor in the department of American ethnic studies and women's studies at the University of Washington from KUOW in Seattle.

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