When It Counts–More On Obama and the Census


Elizabeth Chang wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, “Why Obama should not have checked ‘black’ on his census form,”

Although I knew Obama self-identifies as African American, I was disappointed when I read that that’s what he checked on his census form. The federal government, finally heeding the desires of multiracial people to be able to accurately define themselves, had changed the rules in 2000, so he could have also checked white. Or he could have checked “some other race.” Instead, Obama went with black alone.

I understand why Chang wrote this, and even though I’m mostly on the same page with her about a lot of this, I think she’s wrong.

Chang identifies as the mother of biracial children in an interfaith family, and as someone raising biracial Jewish children. The whole Jewish community is behind her in wanting her children to be able identify as more than one thing. Jewish and Chinese and Hawaiian? Beautiful, we are so on board with that.

But on the other hand, I think there is something to Chang’s phrase, “when it counts, he is black.”  When it counts, stand up for the people who need you. Based on his experiences, Obama judged this was the time to count as an African American. I read the piece in Newsweek last September on the work ahead of parents who want to raise anti-racist children. Parenting “colorblind”–pretending that racism doesn’t exist and that people aren’t different– doesn’t make racism go away or make your children accept difference. In fact it demonstrably does the opposite.

In that Newsweek story, the authors present an anecdote about a class of first graders reacting to a classroom event featuring a black Santa Claus.  For my Jewish child, a black Santa Claus in public school wouldn’t be a great thing. (Promoting inclusion and acceptance of difference through Santa Claus? Really?) But a black President of the United States? That’s a symbol that makes a difference!

I’m not biracial and this isn’t my personal struggle, but I definitely have a lot invested, as a Jewish woman and a mom, in a society in which people of mixed heritage can identify 100% with all parts of their heritage. When it counts, I want Elizabeth Chang’s daughters to have bat mitzvah ceremonies. When it counts, I want them to be part of the Jewish world where my son will live when he grows up.

You can’t list yourself as a Jew on the US Census–for many good reasons–and there might be reasons, in the future, for the Chang girls to list themselves as Asian-American on some document. They will still be Jewish. It’s not a rejection of the culture of the non-Jewish parent for a child of an interfaith marriage to call himself or herself a Jew, full stop, any more than President Obama has rejected his mother and grandparents in any way. The time to identify is when it counts–and I believe in the next generation enough to think they’ll figure out when that is.

5 thoughts on “When It Counts–More On Obama and the Census”

  • “The time to identify is when it counts.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    However, it is a very recent phenomenon, which I’ll hazard to say occurs only in educated, liberal communities, that one has the option of “self identifying” one’s race. I’m black and grew up in a small town where I became very used to all kinds of ugly racial epithets. At age 5 this struck me as illogical, since my mother was white, but I remember very distinctly accepting by the end of kindergarden that I was black. I also decided that as a black person, I had something to prove to all those white people who thought that something was wrong with people with brown skin.

    It was my husband’s sister (who is Jewish), who first asked me, some twenty years later, how I self-identified. The question took me aback. The idea that choice somehow entered into it seemed, I don’t know, maybe naive. (Of course, it was a matter of my being, as usual, completely behind the times. All the cool kids had long been self identifying before I had any notion of such a thing.)

    I think I  understand better now why she was curious: she and her siblings are Jewish, but this comes at least in part from self-identification. That is to say, that even though they attended temple and Hebrew school growing up and were bar- and bat- mitvahed (those are verbs, right?), and there is no doubt in their minds that they are Jewish, I’ve been told by other Jews that they in fact are not, and cannot be Jewish, because only their father is Jewish. Their mother never converted. So it makes sense to me that she’d have been an  early adopter of the idea that this self-identification was an option for black people who had parents of different races.

    But for many black people in our generation (I’ll say around 40 years old, or older),  it’s likely to be difficult to relinquish an identity that most of us earned by very hard trial at a very young age. Every thing I ever accomplish will have been accomplished by a black woman. Full stop. I have no way of knowing what Mr. Obama’s thinking may have been when he filled out his census form, but from what I’ve gleaned from his autobiographies, I suspect that he may have a thing or two to prove, as well.

    I am so gratified to see this discussion here–thank you, Ruth, for your cogent thinking about such an emotionally-fraught topic.

  • Glad you liked the post, Jane.

    I’ve become increasingly conscious about this half and half language, probably from working here. The problem with calling any child part this and part that is, it still makes them, in the listener’s mind, into a pie chart or a blended color from a box of watercolor paints. Human beings don’t work like that.

    But how to acknowledge each person’s background and history, and right to his or her full ownership of all of these identities? I don’t know. I guess I’m not going to find out whether I did a good job of explaining to my own child until he’s an adult. We just have to keep trying to make them a place in the world and trust that they will turn out well-adjusted and with a feeling they belong.

  • I agree. A great commentary on Chang’s piece. My son (age 5) often tells me about another child in his class – also from an interfaith family, but like my son is being raised Jewish. This child is also from an interracial family – chinese & white. My son often say that his friend tells him he is 1/2 Jewish and 1/2 Chinese. My response is always the same, no, he is 100% Jewish and part Asian and part American (or white). I guess the reason that I respond is that I wonder if in some way my son will start to think of himself as 1/2 Jewish too. I always add to our discussion that his friend is 100% Jewish just like you. Both children are only being raised as Jews, but in a way that acknowledges their non-Jewish parent’s background.

  • Ruth wrote:

    Parenting “colorblind”–pretending that racism doesn’t exist and that people aren’t different– doesn’t make racism go away or make your children accept difference. In fact it demonstrably does the opposite.

    How right you are, Ruth. Sometimes people think that an ideal world would be ‘color-blind”, so because they want that to be the reality, they think it is virtuous to act as if it is true. These people are usually well-intentioned, but clueless “WASPs” who have not experienced racism first-hand.  But it’s not true that the world is colorblind. And in denying that there is indeed racism, you imply that anyone who has suffered from racism is either not truthful or is mistaken or even somehow brought that racism on himself. So it is, in effect, a cruel and insensitive attitude.

    Many years ago, I was brought close to tears by an argument with a college friend—a secular male WASP—who insisted that there was no racism in the US, thus denying the validity of either my minor experiences with racism or the much worse experiences of an African American classmate.  That woman had the humiliation of having her presence in a courtyard on the Ivy League campus where she was a student challenged by security guards. My friend thought he was being “politically correct” in his attitude (this is well-before that phrase was in common usage), but I found his attitude hurtful.

    For this census, I was happy that for my kids, we could check off all the appropriate boxes: Asian, Hispanic, and White. Their grandparents were from three distinct ethnic groups.

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