Barack Hussein Obama and the Lies of Ethnicity

I will tell you now that I have not read any of Barack Obama’s books, but I have heard him speak many times on race and have read much about what he has written in his own words about his experiences as a bi-racial man in America. Obama’s mother is white, his father black and a true African native. Obama’s father left them when Obama was quite young, so much of Obama’s early experiences had him identifying more with his white side than his Black.

Things changed when he got older. The color of his skin clearly marked him as non-white. There’s an email going around apparently, covered over at Snopes, that contains a number of quotes from his books that reflect his feelings about being black. Quotes like, “I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites” and “It remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names.”

The history of black America is one of constant struggle and, in many ways, humiliation at the hands of other people who just happen to have lighter skin. Slavery gave way to blacks being considered 3/5ths of a man, which gave way to the civil war, which resulted in Jim Crow laws, segregation, poll taxes and literally hundreds of other methods intended to marginalize, intimidate and otherwise “put the black race in their place.” I believe amongst many non-blacks that there’s a sense that they should just get over it. Unfortunately, many of these laws were still on the books up until the late 1960s and the animosity felt on either side of the racial fence has not yet had the time to fully leave our collective systems. Thus, “getting over it” is much, much harder than it looks.

Obama’s personal struggle with his ethnic identity and his eventual sense of militancy is a direct reflection of the time and place in history in which he lived. In other words, there are few things more quintessentially American than an angry black man in the 60s and 70s. And why not? We still feel the reverberations of not only the Watts riots in 1965, but also the L.A. riots of 1992. If you truly believe there’s no more racism in this country, I urge you to visit the iron triangle in Richmond, California – a place dominated by poor blacks still paying the price for this nation’s history of institutionalized racism.

I know terms like “institutionalized racism” because I spent five years at UC Berkeley, the home of all kinds of riots and protests held throughout the past 40 plus years. When I was still in high school and applying to colleges, I had a bit of a dilemma to face. My father is a mixture of Mexican and Basque. My last name, Zazueta, is actually a Basque name, heralding from a region in Europe near the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. It is, however, widely recognized as a hispanic name and, when I was 17, I received a number of bilingual letters and scholarship offers geared specifically toward helping latino students – presumed by their race alone to be disadvantaged – attain a college education. I was, in fact, named by my high school as one of their top latino scholars with a newspaper picture and everything. That was among the more confusing and conflicted times in my life at that point because, though my father was indeed Mexican and, as I like to tell people, “Zazueta ain’t just a fancy name,” I was clearly not in the disadvantaged crowd they were trying to target.

I wasn’t a wealthy white kid by any means, but my family was fairly solidly lower-middle class. I was clearly on a path to college pretty much from birth and had every possible opportunity handed to me. Because I also happened to be of hispanic heritage, I had an extra helping of opportunities piled on my plate that my mostly white and asian friends did not. When I would point this out to those making the offers, they would simply tell me to take what I could get – I was hispanic and, by that alone, I deserved these additional opportunities.

Getting into a good college was extremely important to the crowd I ran with in high school – more important than anything else. I remember clearly when my then girlfriend, like all but two of the 20 or so students in my class who applied, got rejected from Stanford, her dream school. I genuinely thought she was becoming suicidal as a result. With all that going on and my own sense that this was the single most important thing I had to do in my life, I marked “Hispanic” under the ethnicity box on all six of the applications I filled out with the understanding that it would improve my chances. I was accepted to USC, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Boston University and Cal Poly SLO. The only school to reject me was Stanford, which came as no surprise. I was, naturally, ecstatic and gladly shared this with my friends, many of whom were not as lucky. I was never what you might call a star student academically, but I did quite well on my SATs and advanced placement exams and can write a mean essay. Knowing my GPA, however, I got the same response from most of my friends – “You only got in because you’re Mexican.” That was deflating.

For various reasons, Boston University was my first choice for schools, but I hadn’t really expected to get into Berkeley and, as I thought it through, I decided I’d be happier there. That August, I arrived on campus and moved in to the dorm. When I signed up for classes, I was required to take one to fulfill what they called the “American Cultures Requirement” – essentially a class that covers a wide range of the major ethnicities that are found in the US in an attempt to give us some appreciation for our nation’s multiculturalism. The residence hall I was living in held several sessions where we talked about ethnicity and how important it is to respect ourselves and each other. Even the freshman orientation session has a mandatory unit covering multiculturalism where we were strongly encouraged to share our experiences with racism and explore our own ethnic identity.

I later joined the freshman orientation team, called Cal Student Orientation or “CalSO” for short, as a counselor for new students and their parents. During the summer training, we spend an intense week living together and learning for about 12 hours a day all of the ropes of life at Cal and what information we’re supposed to share with the new students. One of these learning sessions was held with Dr. Francie Kendall, a huge friend of the CalSO program and an expert in ethnic, sexual and other social issues. For one extremely intense, emotional day we discussed at length our identities – from ethnicity to cultural, to sexual orientation to gender – and watched videos talking about racism, intense sexism, feminist theory and other weighty topics. I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t feel a little like brainwashing. We learned during one such session that more than one of the women in our group had been raped at some point in their life and that we were the first people they ever told. We experienced first hand the anger certain ethnic groups felt as they expressed their views and got into rather intense, heated arguments with those who were of a race they felt looked down upon them. Through it all, we were encouraged to strongly identify with our backgrounds and own them while respecting each other. While I do sort of feel like I’m a better man for having gone through that, I don’t believe it was necessary.

Cal is full of ethnically-related organizations. MeChA was a big force on our campus and they sponsored an engineering tutorial program open to everyone but geared toward latino students that I was consistently encouraged to join. When I arrived, though, no one looked like me. Many spoke to each other in Spanish, a language I passed up in high school in favor of learning Latin. And, though everyone was welcoming and friendly, I just didn’t feel like I fit in. Again, I felt like the privileged white kid taking an opportunity from someone who really needed it.

And yet I identified with my Mexican heritage, desperately clinging to it and trying to justify it to myself and others even though I really didn’t have much of a tangible sense of it. The most exposure I got to my Mexican half was attending the huge family parties my aunt Nena held with her six children and their spouses, significant others and children. They were clearly Mexican – let there be no doubt. But even amongst my own family I felt like an outsider, very non-Mexican despite my name and parentage.

Fast forward to just two years ago. Shortly after my mother died, my father told me that, from a biological standpoint, he’s not technically my father. He had assured me at the time that I was still Mexican, but a close family friend later revealed that this was also not true. Apparently, when looking through the catalog of potential sperm donors, my mother did not find an ethnic match she particularly liked, so she chose a man with mostly Italian heritage who also happened to be extremely healthy and successful as a doctor.

For all of the urging that I identify with my ethnicity (notice I only mentioned the word “culture” once – it was always more important to everyone that I have Mexican blood rather than have a genuinely Mexican cultural experience) and all of the internal struggles I’ve dealt with in regards to my “Mexican-ness” it turns out I may not have a single drop of Mexican blood in my veins to begin with. It turns out that my ethnicity is, ultimately, a completely irrelevant issue. You can not imagine my anger at this realization.

So to listen to Barack Hussein Obama’s detractors attack him on the front of him exploring his ethnic background, of dragging out the fact that parts of his family are Muslim (on the whole, an extremely peaceful and pious people marred by a handful of marginalized extremists) and trying to paint him as an angry black man makes me one hell of an angry Irish-Italian-formerly Mexican man. The issues of his race are completely and totally irrelevant, as it seems he himself has come to realize as he has worked his way through his own black anger and come to recognize that his own ethnicity does not define him, it simply accentuates him. Being black is part of his American experience, and to be black and not have some anger fed by the racism that continues to be felt throughout this nation, albeit less obviously than before, is to be someone who is simply not paying attention. But he is paying attention, and he is saying to us that we need to get past this. He knows it’s easier said than done, and the racism inherent in such things as the warning email posted at Snopes makes it all the more difficult. Despite it’s incredible irrelevance, race and ethnicity will always be an issue in this and every election, just as it has been at issue in every election that has addressed slavery, reconstruction, segregation and immigration. Racism is among the more truly American hallmarks, which is a tremendously sad thing to say. But it’s an identity we must eventually own and come to terms with if we can ever hope to get past it.