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Navigating New Definitions of a Multiracial Identity

Essayist Richard Rodriguez reflects on how Americans view multiracial and multicultural identities in the wake of Barack Obama's election to the presidency.

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  • 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.