Navigating New Definitions of a Multiracial Identity

December 11, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour essayist: In Hawaii, where Barack Obama was born and raised, the native word for someone of mixed race is “hapa.” Once derogatory, hapa has become, among many young people, a boast, meaning part-Asian or part-Hawaiian, and something else.

U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you very much, everybody.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: On the mainland at his post-election press conference, Barack Obama, the son of white Kansas and black Kenya, used a colloquial canine analogy to describe himself.

BARACK OBAMA: A lot of shelter dogs are mutts, like me.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: We Americans have never had a graceful vocabulary to describe our racial mixture. In generations past, when white or black married an American Indian, their children became “half-breeds,” as though less than whole.

When black and white married each other, their children were governed by the Jim Crow “one-drop” rule, making mixture impossible, for if you had a single drop of African blood, you were black, no matter how light your skin or straight your hair.

Who then could wonder at the joy among African-Americans in Grant Park or in Harlem on election night? Having been taunted by Jim Crow, African-Americans celebrated the election of the first black man to the White House. But these faces in the crowd, their variety and mix, suggest that we already a nation more complex than we know how to say.

Television and print journalists who witnessed the night relied on the old black-white vocabulary. The media proclaimed Barack Obama “America’s first black president,” their formulation suggesting that Jim Crow still trailed the nation, even at the moment when racism’s curse seemed to be broken.

Beyond the black-white dialectic

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Even while all this has been taking place in our national political life, there has been in the quiet of the de Saisset Museum here on the campus of Santa Clara University in California an exhibit called "Part Asian, 100 percent Hapa."

These photographs by Kip Fulbeck are of people who foretell not a post-racial, but a multiracial America: Chinese-Japanese-German-Hungarian-English, Japanese-Mexican-Spanish-English. Think of the many journeys, the many loves that created these lives.

The Chinese-English-Scottish-German woman writes in the caption alongside her portrait, "My last boyfriend told me that he liked me because of my race, so I dumped him."

Their humor is striking, as is their refusal to choose one parent's culture or blood over the other. "I am, yes, an American kid who celebrates Hanukkah with his Jewish stepfather, prays to Buddha with his Buddhist mama, and then goes to midnight mass with his Christian father, and waits for Santa Claus to come down the chimney. Yeah."

Much has been written lately in the press about the rugged individualism of Sarah Palin's Alaska. Lihue, Hawaii, exerts an opposite pull on the American imagination. It is a state of our greatest miscegenation.

In recent years, an Asian in America might be regarded as an honorary white. This Asian-Hawaiian generation revels in the opportunity to avoid the black-white dialectic altogether and marry in any direction.

Though Tiger Woods is not included in this exhibit, I remembered in these faces the famous son of Thailand and Africa who named himself Cablinasian, acknowledging the Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian within himself. I remember how at first his self-designation offended some African-Americans who accused him of denying his blackness.

Now Barack Obama's half-sister, Maya, the daughter of an Indonesian father -- Barack Obama's stepfather -- and the wife of a Canadian-Malaysian Chinese might also be called a hapa. Perhaps all of America will become hapa.

This Japanese-French-Chinese-Irish-Swedish-Sioux Indian writes beside his portrait, "I am exactly the same as every other person in the year 2500." Oh, brave new world.

I'm Richard Rodriguez.