Day 1: Post-Obama Victory

November 5, 2008

Like many people I encountered today, I walked around with a near-constant lump in my throat. The slightest mention of Obama or the election brought back a flood of emotion that I had felt the night before—the feeling that anything was possible, that something truly monumental had taken place and that I, through some karmic gift, was alive to witness this moment. I have cried with strangers, strangers have cried with me, and through it all, I’ve thought: this is what it means to be American.

This victory has meant so much to so many. He has been hailed as the first African-American president, a scant 50 years after the crescendo of the civil rights movement. The Black community has been moved beyond words, and is now beginning to realize the full promise of their personal and political futures. This is no small feat, and I genuinely believe that we will look back on this time as a new chapter in the American journey, one that finally includes people of color.

But this brings me to the one problem that I have with the continued coverage of Barack Hussein Obama. You see, Obama was born to a White woman from Kansas and an African man from Kenya in Hawaii, where he lived until he moved to Indonesia with his mother and her new husband. So already, by the age of 10, Obama’s life was touched by the people, culture, and governments of three continents. You would never know this, though, if you listened to the crowds today. He is a Black president, they say, a hero to the African-American community of which he is indelibly a part, they contend. But the truth is this: Obama is no more African-American than he is White-American, no more shaped by Hawaii or Kansas than he was shaped by his childhood in Indonesia. What troubles me here is that in our rush to label, categorize, or otherwise understand this new, powerful man in front of us, we are collectively painting brushstrokes over his twisting and diverse background. We seem afraid to acknowledge that which he is: a biracial, multicultural individual.

As an American woman born to South Asian parents, I understand what it means to be bi-something (in my case, bicultural). My life has been one long journey of understanding my identity, starting from the embarrassing lunchroom incidents in my small town elementary school cafeteria where my peers would try to decide which of my Indian lunches smelled or looked worse than the others, and continuing through college where my Indian-American friends would tease me for being too friendly with the ‘Americans’ or my White friends would tell me that they barely even noticed that I was Indian (meant to be complimentary. It was not.). These experiences were at best amusing, and at worst devastating, but through them all I learned a skill that I only recently have been able to articulate: the gift of abstraction. Any bi-something person (whether it be bi-sexual, bi-racial, bi-cultural, etc.) understands that identity and perspective are wholly subjective and can change based on context, situation, or environment. I can be in India, for instance, and learn to live as a member of a collective- bound to others by my lineage and ancestry, but also from a palpable sense of duty. But then I can return to America and enjoy a coffee in JFK International airport, craving the solitary confinement of a table and a newspaper, basking in my individual self-determination. I have learned, over the years, that no aspect of my identity is any less real or more important than any other. I have also learned that identities that I finally think I understand will change and surprise me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. This has made me a flexible person, and for that I couldn’t be more grateful.

I believe that Obama understands this. It well may be his multiracial identity that inspired his brand of even-handed diplomacy that we have so come to admire throughout his campaign. We bi-something individuals are, out of force of habit, attuned to the sensitivity of our audience, and it may be this quality that enabled Obama to deliver an unexpected and powerful speech on race following the reverend Wright incident, allowed him to pick Joe Biden as a running mate when so many others were gunning for Hillary Clinton, and in the last days of his campaign, led him to decide not to run anti-McCain ads in Arizona when it looked like there may be a chance to steal victory. In his words, “I don’t want to put my foot on his neck.”
We have also seen that bi-something individuals can be greeted with scorn, confusion, and outright contempt from others who are uncomfortable with our ambiguity. We can, as Obama was, be called terrorists, socialists, elite, intellectual, snobs, and that final vindictive pronouncement: anti-American. But as last night showed, we can use our vast resources inspired by our multicultural backgrounds to win over people who don’t understand us and convince them that yes, we are more than ready to lead this country to greatness.

Thank you, Barack, for all that you’ve done. Now it’s up to us to fully appreciate where you came from.

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Are you going to write

Are you going to write something up on your blog? There is one piece written on Sonal Shah's ties to Hindu racism (like raising money for VHPA) but it would be good to get the word out.

Here's Vijay Prashad's take

I don't have a blog anymore,

I don't have a blog anymore, so nope, not writing anything up :)

Sorry that this doesn't have

Sorry that this doesn't have much to do with your post, but important bit of news: Obama's transition team includes Sonal Shah.

US President-elect Barack Obama may have cultivated a left-of-center image for himself, but Sonal Shah, the Indian-American advisor in his transition team, has well established rightwing leanings.

The 40-year-old economist has been associated with the overseas activities of the Sangh Parivar. She was a national coordinator of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America campaign to raise funds for Gujarat earthquake victims in 2001.

Her father Ramesh Shah, a vice-president of the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP), had campaigned for LK Advani in Gandhinagar during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. He had also briefly traveled with Advani during his Bharat Udaya Yatra, countrywide election tour.

Very well-written piece. I

Very well-written piece. I agree that I don't think enough time and print has been given to looking at Obama not as just the first African-American president, but really as the first multi-cultural president. I believe that we will definitely see that influence in his presidency though.

I was not born here but came

I was not born here but came here and I have had my moments as well.. but obviously as a grown up guy. I think that ultimately it is upto us to make our mark. I disagree with people who say that Whites can't just "stop at electing" a black as President etc. No body did a favor to Obama.. he beat the hell out of his combatants. And that is the challenge with us all. It won't be easy but that is the challenge after all.


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