Dear Ta-Nehisi Coates:
I’m a fan of your writing about Blackpeople from a Black perspective. I find your work to be sharp, thought-provoking and valuable to the ongoing conversation about racism in the U.S. I’ve read your books and attended one of your live events. And I appreciate your views and voice in the national discourse about race and racism.
With one exception.
In writing about President Barack Obama’s Biraciality, you miss the entire mark. This is in contrast to how well informed you are about the other topics you cover. When you first noted last December how “unusual” and “unique” it was that POTUS 44’s White grandparents loved him, I was too preoccupied with adjusting to the election to respond. But when a FB friend posted it again recently, I realized it was time to weigh in.
As you wrote in your multi-part “My President Was Black” series for The Atlantic:
Then as part of The Atlantic’s partnership with PBS News Hour, you said:
“A lot of attention … gets focused on the fact the President is a Black Biracial man. African Americans actually have quite a few Biracial Black people throughout our history: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Bob Marley … What’s unique about the President is that he was born into the house of a White woman and her parents in Hawai’i which was far, far from the fulcrum of Jim Crow, at a time when the marriage between his mother and father was illegal in broad swaths of the country. The very conception of him himself was taboo and yet in this family and in this place of Hawai’i, there was great, great security and there was great love and not a kind of love or security that required a denial of himself as a Black man. In fact, it was actually confirmed and there was no contradiction between this White family loving him deeply and him being Black. THAT IS INCREDIBLY, INCREDIBLY UNIQUE. I’VE NEVER COME ACROSS THAT IN MY LIFE, ACTUALLY.”
And here is what POTUS Obama said in conversation with you about his political ascension for The Atlantic, around that same time:
“There is no doubt that as a mixed child, as the child of an African and a White woman, who was very close to White grandparents who came from Kansas, that I think the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that White people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity, or judge me on the basis of merit—that kind of working assumption is less embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle.”
Please note, Mr. Coates, that he is comparing his “working assumption” of how White folks might treat him to that of his Black-Black wife. He is not suggesting that there is anything “unusual” or “unique” about being loved by White kinfolk as a Black Biracial family member. At all.
He also mentions his White grandparents’ reaction to meeting his father:
“Yeah, listen, I’m always kind of surprised by that. Like I said, it wasn’t Harry Belafonte. This was like an African African. And he was like a blue-black brother … And so, yeah, I will always give my grandparents credit for that. I’m not saying they were happy about it. I’m not saying that they were not, after the guy leaves, looking at each other like, ‘What the heck?’ But whatever misgivings they had, they never expressed to me, never spilled over into how they interacted with me.”
Before we move on from the specificity of POTUS Obama’s family dynamic to address the broader issue, let’s address the things that are genuinely unusual and unique about his background compared to most other Black-White Biracial Americans:
- His father is not African-American, but Kenyan, thus both his DNA and his overall perspective naturally have significant differences from many African-Americans and those of us whose mixture includes the brand of African-American growing from the USA enslavement experience.
- He spent large portions of his childhood in Hawai’i and Indonesia, without the Black-White dynamics so prevalent in the continental United States.
The problem here is that you, Mr. Coates, said—or the way that your comments are presented suggests—that what you consider unique and unusual is the fact of Whitepeople loving their Black/Biracial kinfolk here in the USA.
Without denying any of the ubiquitous anti-Black racism that girds and fuels our nation’s history, institutions and overall dynamics, there are in fact many, many examples of cross-racial love in Multiracial families in all categories, including Black-White.
While this specific information from the Pew Research Center wasn’t available back in December when you made these statements, let’s look at a few highlights they shared on the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia last June:
In a survey of 1,555 Multiracial adults, Pew found that we are:
- At the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S. …and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole.
- Mostly proud of their Mixed-race background (60%)
- Often subjected to slurs or jokes because of our racial backgrounds (55%)
- About 24% have felt annoyed because people have made assumptions about their racial background
- Overall, Biracial adults who are both White and Black are three times as likely to say that they … feel more accepted by Blacks (58%) than by Whites (25%) and report having far more contact with Black relatives (69%) over the course of their lives … than with their White relatives (21%). About 41% say they have had no contact with family members who are White.
- 21% of White/Black Biracial adults say a relative or member of their extended family has treated them badly because they are Mixed-race.
While this study might not be completely representative, it suggests that there is nothing “unusual” or “unique’ about White family members accepting or loving Mixed kinfolk.
Why do I care what you think, write and say about this topic?
You’re a leading influencer on race talk in the USA with millions of followers. Your mainstream cred and visibility put you in a position of responsibility around these topics. An off-the-cuff statement from a private citizen or from you in a personal context doesn’t carry the same weight. And thus we need you to step up your game when it comes to referencing Multiracial folks and families.
While you might have grown up in a predominantly-Black environment, surely during your college years and in the time since, you have seen, talked with, heard and/or read about Black-White Biracial people whose White family members loved them. This love might be complicated by racist beliefs or attitudes, but that’s an innate part of being Mixed. A Multiracial Facebook friend wrote that she knew you at Howard University and can attest that you came into contact with plenty of Mixed folks during that time.
If you don’t know about or haven’t been exposed to Mixed people and our experiences, there are numerous books, studies, blogs, articles and more to bring you up to speed. For someone as steeped in history as yourself, someone publicly considered a journalist, whose works are widely read and well-regarded, you do a disservice to yourself and to us if you choose to maintain and promote this form of race-blindness.
You were born in 1975, long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Loving v. Virginia. While your childhood exposure might have been limited, you made this problematic proclamation as a full-grown man who has traveled the country and lived abroad. Who attended a major university and has successfully built a brand as a thought leader and expert on race relations.
So, dear Ta-Nehisi, the next time you decide to speculate about us, please accept my warm and sincere invitation to widen and deepen your frame of reference by connecting with us directly and considering our diverse, sometimes divergent and always nuanced truths. We might not be president, but we’re here and happy to share.
I’m not faulting you for a lack of exposure. The issue is that you’re perpetuating racism by framing willful ignorance as spectacle and turning it into click-bait. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt by assuming that you’re better than that. If I’m wrong and you choose to continue perpetuating this racial tunnel vision, please remember that, like other People of Color, we’re already juggling way too many struggles and battles on the personal, professional and political fronts against racism in its many guises. We don’t need you further weighing us down by making our first president into a Magical Mulatto and exception to a rule you refer to without trying to understand.
While our existence and family dynamics are not the antidote to racism that many folks fantasize about, we do represent the variances and potential of human emotion and interactions along the spectrum of contemporary, consensual race-mixing. There are many stories as fascinating as that of POTUS Obama’s family just waiting to be told. By portraying him as a kind of racial unicorn, you contribute to the Tragic trope and support the racist binary that keeps us from seeing each other as the complex, nuanced humans that we are. You’re in a position to help right this wrong and present a more accurate vision of America’s racial dynamics in the process. I hope you consider this opportunity to help move us forward rather than feeding the status quo.