PG Article on Obama and racial identity

Today's Post-Gazette has a very interesting LA Johnson piece about the cultural implications of electing a President who identifies as African-American, yet acknowledges his biracial (multiracial?) heritage.  Johnson interviews two local women, both with biracial heritages to explore this topic.

The article is pretty interesting, exploring the cultural milieu of racial identity rather than simply a blood drop count.  Be sure to check it out.  I think there are some interesting parallel explorations in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity that have played themselves out over the past few years.  People really seem to need labels to settle into our comfort zones.  

Some examples from my own life?  My grandmother brought me up to identify as an Irish-American Catholic.  The truth I discovered was that I am primarily German and that my few Irish ancestors were Protestant.  It was stunning to realize that half my recent ancesters weren't baptized, yet attended Mass regularly. It was also a reflection of our family culture in general – ignore what we don't like. Now I am passionate about figuring out where all these relatives come from.  It feels like somehow I can figure something out about myself now if I get some answers.  I'm not sure what I hope to get, but I signed up for the DNA testing.

Anothe example is the process of claiming my sexual orientation identity.  There is, frankly, no good word for me.  I came out when I was 28 years old, but unlike many other women, I feel like I was leading an authentic heterosexual life prior to that, at least for say 26 years.  It makes folks uncomfortable when I present my identity in that way and they have a tendency to try and label me “Oh, you are bisexual.”  “Oh, you were just in denial.”  No, I wasn't in denial.  I was a young adult trying to figure out her identity and it took me time to grow into knowing my real self as I had a lot of crap to work through.  Sue at 21 was as authentic as she could be considering her lack of self-actualization which is very understandable if you grew up with people who denied they were German and pretended to be Catholic and introduced a lot of other fucked up delusions into your life as part of this overall remaking of their entire identity.  Not to mention when the Catholic priest in your parish is one of the noted child molestors of recent times. 

It was like a godsend when Liz Winters, Ph.D, did a presentation on the continuum of sexual orientation for a graduate class I was taking.  I was like “a ha!” because something finally made sense. 

For me, it boils down to my being the own who defines my identity.  I want as much information as possible so I can make an informed definition.  If you ask me my family heritage, you'll get a rambling dissertation on the 1200 people I've linked to my family tree over the past ten year and the two “missing” branches for which we cannot account.  If you ask me my identity in terms of sexual orientation, I say I am a lesbian.  If you want to label me as bisexual, I'm not going to be offended but you will have missed the point.  There is no one way to define lesbian. 

Barack Obama doesn't deny his heritage when he defines his cultural identity. I guess in a very small way, I try to do the same thing.  I don't deny the 8-10 years my adult life was shaped by my identifying as a heterosexual woman.  I wasn't converted at age 28.  I didn't flip a switch.  I simply learned something pretty amazing about myself that changed me and how I experienced the world.  Sometimes I do wonder if bisexual would be a more accurate term for my identity in the large picture, but then I think about all of the cultural implications and it doesn't feel right. 

Am I a coward?  Maybe.  It certainly is easier to be a white lesbian  than a white bisexual woman in Pittsburgh.  When I was dating, that was made very clear by many of the women I met.  And, frankly, the majority of the bisexual women I know now are involved with men.  The rest are part of the trans community which seems to be a hell of a lot more accepting than mainstream gay culture.  So, I'll admit that it is complicated issue for me. 

But I really like the idea that I get to define myself and trust that my instincts may be influenced, but not driven by societal expectations and values. 

This is from the article.  Good way to start my day. We don't necessarily need to rock the entire universe, but maybe a few worlds would be nice.

We have a mixed-race president,” Ms. Stewart said. “Maybe it will open some eyes up and end some racism.”  


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  • Identity: we define our own identities, whether it be lesbian, gay, male, female, gender-queer, African-American, black, etc. No one should be deciding who we are. Discovery of one's true self can take years and it is a testament to anyone that has the hootspa to be honest and say they are gay/lesbian/etc.. It takes courage to be different, especially when not defined by a visual difference. I came out of the womb singing Broadway showtunes, but tried to convince myself from age 13-19 that I was straight.
    I think what I'm trying to say is this: be honest to yourself and be who you are *at the present*. That may change over time based on self-discovery or experience, but it is the best we can do. I also think it is great that the President is identifying with his absent father's heritage and in fact representing an entire culture that he did not necessarily grow up in. Again, we create our own identities and we need to be proud of them.

  • You have just labeled your “bisexual” friends. You say they're involved with men. How do you know they're bisexual? If you yourself are having so much trouble labeling yourself, why do you insist on definitively labeling others?

  • Well, perhaps I should have a bit more precise. The majority of women who identify as bisexual that I happen to know. It is their self-identification and they have shared that with me (or the general world). I don't make a practice of labeling people as part of the queer community if they don't identity that way. I wouldn't out someone like that.

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