As Racist as We Wish to Be: Project RACE, “The Talk”, Obama and the Fear of Blackness
Steven F. Riley
Late last year, I opined about the inability of some activists in the multiracial identity movement to combat racism. It is difficult to combat racism if you are not anti-racist and quite impossible if you—or at least your rhetoric—is actually racist. Such is the case in a March 29, 2012 blog post by Susan Graham at Project RACE titled “Walking While Black,” that epitomizes racist anti-black ideology.
Graham, a white woman who purports to represent the interests of multiracial Americans, has written the most inane commentary on multiracialism you will find anywhere. Her pseudo-scientific commentary reads as if it were written in the early part of the previous century, deploying ideologies long since abandoned by anthropologists and biologists alike. For instance, in “The Obama Racial Identity Factor and Saving Multiracial Lives” (June 7, 2008) she opens with, “Barack Obama can call himself black, white, magenta, green, or whatever he wants, it really does not matter socially. However, genes are genes and his genes are multiracial.” Seven months later, when millions of Americans have moved from doubting that a black man can become president and actually electing one, Graham continues with her mindless foray into genetics in “January 2009 – Is this President Obama’s Post-Racial America?” (January 20, 2009) where she says, “We have our first multiracial president, Barack Obama, and even if he does self-identify as black, he cannot deny DNA.”
Three years later and not a day wiser, in a still pre-post-racial America, Graham uses the tragic and racially motivated shooting death of Trayvon Martin as an entree into her racist “Walking While Black” about the travails of the lives of African American males. She partially describes the concept of “Driving While Black” and the so-called “Black Male Code” of conduct when one is confronted by the police. She neglects to mention that “Driving While Black” also involves being targeted to be pulled over in the first place. Graham goes on to describe her then-husband’s habit of always carrying identification no matter where he went just in case he was confronted by police. Finally, she describes how when her son reached driving age, she and her then-husband had “the talk” with him about what to do when confronted by police. Graham says, “she gets it.” She does not.
Despite the death of Trayvon Martin, the indignities and civil rights violations of “Driving While Black,” and the “Black Male Code,” Graham is neither, angry, concerned or even bothered about the daily aggressions directed at black men in American as they try to live as decent citizens. She is unwilling to speak out against even the most explicit forms of racism that still exist in America. So what does bother her? What “bothers” her is the fact that President Obama, chooses to proudly identify as “black.”
While many view the multiracial identity movement in America as a way to transcend race and to remove the proverbial millstone of racialized identities off of all our necks, scholars like Jared Ball, Minkah Makalani, Lewis R. Gordon, Ralina L. Joseph, Jared Sexton, Rainier Spencer and others, see a movement with a primary goal of transcending blackness. As blogger Summer McDonald eloquently states in her essay “Canon Fodder: ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ and the Problem of Mixed-Race Identity” (August 18, 2011),
Accepting and embracing a mixed-race identity hardly reveals racial progress. As it is currently constructed, mixed-race identity does not dismantle racial hierarchies. Rather, it reiterates white supremacy by attempting to etch a space for itself somewhere under whiteness–which it knows it can never access–and definitely above blackness.
Susan Graham and Project RACE, without a doubt, prove these writers correct. When her son asks “what does ‘driving while black’ mean to me?” She explains, “self-identification is one thing, but how he appears to someone can be completely different and yes, someone could assume he was black, so he had to act accordingly. Be on the safe side, son.” Again, what bothers Graham is not that black men are “perceived as a threat,” but rather, that her son will be perceived as a black man. Thus in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin tragedy when multitudes of commentators of all racialized identities proclaim “We are Trayvon,” Graham and Project RACE, proclaim “We are not black.”
While Graham does seem to accept the fact that one’s self-identification can be different from how one appears to someone else, she refuses to grasp how one’s appearance to others can and does influence one’s self-identification. Scholar Nikki Khanna’s excellent article, “‘If You’re Half Black, You’re Just Black’: Reflected Appraisals and the Persistence of the One-Drop Rule” describes the role of self-reflected appraisals—how we think we are seen by others—on the identity of those of mixed-ancestry and shows how these identity choices, like one made by President Obama, are honest, common—and despite Ms. Graham’s continual protestations—valid. Phil Wilkes Fixico said it best when he stated on Mixed Chicks Chat (September 14, 2011), “Racially, I’m an African-Native American. Culturally, I’m an aspiring Seminole Maroon descendant. But to the people of America who see me on the street, I’m just another flavor of Black.”
As countless commentators continue to appropriately condemn the prevalence of white supremacy that demonizes people of color (like Trayvon Martin) and white privilege that provides license to the demonizers, Graham says nothing whatsover about these evils, but rather chooses to take offense exclusively President Obama when he suggested that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon.” Though she is correct in stating that the President “doesn’t know that his son would look like Trayvon or anybody else,” it is clear that her anger at Obama is magnified, not just by his identifying as a black American, but now, identifying with black Americans. Furthermore, the resemblance of Obama’s imaginary son to Trayvon Martin is irrelevant because more importantly, it is Obama himself who would “look like Trayvon” if he were seventeen. As Leila McDowell put it so aptly in Associated Press columnist Jesse Washington’s “Black or biracial? Census forces a choice for some,” “Put a hoodie on him and have him walk down an alley, and see how biracial he is then.”
Susan Graham fails to see that the things we ultimately pass down to our children are more important than genes; they are our values and attitudes, hopes and fears, our love and our hate. In short, these are the things that define us. Hopefully, one of those things won’t be race. Until then, Graham may discover that in passing down the “Black Male Code” to her son, he may one day choose to identify, like President Obama and Phil Fixico, as “just a another flavor of Black.” In the meanwhile, perhaps it’s time someone had “the talk” with Ms. Graham and suggest she move on to a new project.
©2012, Steven F. Riley