Claiming Race and Victory
With the inauguration of president elect Barack Obama approaching, I think about the meaning this election has had for me. I can say without a doubt that November 4, 2008 was the most victorious day of my life. Washington Post’s columnist Eugene Robinson described this profound sense of triumph and pride as one that transcended color lines. “For African Americans, though, this is personal,” he wrote. As a biracial woman who looks more White than Black, I find myself wondering: Is this victory personal for me too?
In the days following the election, I told my friend that I felt Obama’s win had an added significance for my family, because my mother is African American. To this she responded, “You know, I met your mom and I just don’t think she looks Black.” However benign, my friend was implicitly questioning the legitimacy of my racial assertions. To her, my mother, and even less so I, do not seem Black enough to lay claim to this identity, or perhaps to the unique sense of victory African Americans share in this election.
My mother was born in 1938 in a rural African American community in Southern New Jersey. Her mother was of African American and Filipino descent and her father came from an African American Virginia family. My mother is what some people used to call “high yellow.” She is reserved. She doesn’t talk much about race or racial identity. But she has told me that it was hurtful when the school kids called her “yellow.” And she has told me that she most definitely considers herself Black. My mother was a child of segregation. Is she really not Black enough?
My father is Hungarian and a quarter Italian. He was born and raised in Turkey. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 27. When he came to America and people called him “White,” my father says he thought: Who me? My claim of biraciality is often met with surprise, even skepticism. I remember well the few occasions when my racial identity was met with sweet validation, when a biracial or African American person exclaimed “I knew it!” At one time, the one-drop rule would have deemed me Black. Today, I’m judged White by appearance alone.
The pride that I feel in Barack Obama may not be the same as that of African Americans, as that of my own African American family. His victory, for me, is not personal in the same way. But it is personal. I can’t help but think of an era when my grandparents, even my mother, aunts and uncles were prohibited from the same basic services enjoyed by White people. I can’t help but think of my own children who will never know a time when they, or anybody else, believed an African American person could not be elected president. This, I believe, is the victory beyond all others.