Obama: An Asian American?

Jan 21, 2009
*Special to asia!
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They are calling him the first post-racial president. But theasiamag.com is playing the race card and claiming him as one of our own.

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obama at las vegas presidential forum


American Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama at the Presidential Health Forum in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.

Photo credit: Center from American Progress Action Fund


Post-racial and bi-coastal: in the four short years since catapulting to global recognition from little-known Chicago politician, Barack Obama, the junior US Senator from Illinois, has meticulously outlined himself as many things to many people.

A policy wonk with the delivery of a preacher; a big-spending social democrat with a fondness for Milton Friedmanesque fiscal conservatism, the out-of-place son of an immigrant father with a middle America rootedness. "People on almost all sides of any issue can see parts of themselves reflected in Obama's eyes," writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. "But it does make him hard to place."

In the dwindling days of an outsized, adrenalised, over-analysed election cycle, the mosaic of Obama's life and the myriad ways in which Americans perceive his candidacy tell us as much about America (the most diverse society known to humankind) as it does about Obama (the most culturally diverse presidential candidate in American history).

An African American man in a country with a deep and difficult racial history, Obama's identity makes him unique among the hundreds of men who have sought claim to the Oval Office. But while pundits speculate on the significance of a black man in the White House, consider this – could Obama be the first Asian American president?

This question, recently posed by San Francisco journalist Jeff Yang in an article entitled “Could Obama be the first Asian American President?”, is a riff on the now infamous phrase that novelist Toni Morrison used in 1998 to describe Bill Clinton – "our first black President". 

Earlier this year, Morrison publicly endorsed Barack Obama during the democratic primaries. Though author endorsements are not known for galvanizing the electorate, Morrison's backing resurrected a question that hung over Obama early on in the campaign: Is he "black enough"?

Around the time of Morrison's endorsement, the Senator's wife, Michelle Obama, summarily dismissed questions about her husband's degree of cultural affinity with black America as "silly". "It's part of the silliness of our culture," said Mrs. Obama, adding, "I don't think there is a person of colour in this country that doesn't struggle with what it means to be a part of your race versus what the majority thinks is right."

In 1995, Obama wrote his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father". "Where did I belong?" he asks, recollecting the emotional and physical displacement of his early 20s.  "Whatever my father might say, I knew it was too late to ever truly claim Africa as my home. And if I had come to understand myself as a black American, and was understood as such, that understanding remained unanchored to place."

Between being born to a teenage mother and the quest to become the 44th President of the United States, Obama's trajectory took on a distinctly Asian American tenor. Certain elements in the Obama life resume make this connection obvious: the childhood years spent in Honolulu, Hawaii (the US's only Asian-majority state) and Jakarta, Indonesia; the stepfather, half-sister and brother-in-law of Asian lineage.

Yet the Obama story resonates with many Asian Americans, especially those who are second-generation, on account of the intangibles.

There are the elevated academic expectations from his parents, for instance. ("If [Barack] has done his work for tomorrow, he can begin on his next day's assignments" exclaimed the senior Obama, criticising the junior Obama's post-homework TV-watching habits). There's the youth spent quietly grappling with issues of racial and cultural identity ("I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself as a black man in America…"), and second-generational cultural complexities on visiting his father's homeland ("My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand."). 

It's the self-consciousness and self-awareness that stems from a lifetime spent on the outside looking in.

"With minor search and replace," writes Yang, "much of the first half of 'Dreams from My Father' could have been excerpted from an Asian American coming-of-age work."  Varun Soni, Dean of Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California and one of the founding members of South Asians for Obama (SAFO), agrees. "Obama recounts his experiences of being marginalized and disenfranchised, of being between cultures, nations and religions," writes Soni on the blog, Inside Outsiders. "Many of us at SAFO felt like we were reading our own autobiographies in his."





The other half of the equation

The Republican candidate, Arizona Senator John McCain, had been lauded as a military hero and for the tenacity that saw him through five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain's Asian American supporters cite his moderate position on immigration and his adherence to tax policies that support small-business owners. With Asian Americans being the minority group most likely to be self-employed or own a small business, such policies could provide many Asian Americans with a measure of financial relief amid the current cascade of problems crippling the US economy.

McCain's popularity is also tied to his uncensored speaking style, a quality that he refers to as "straight talk" and which has resulted in a slew of McCain campaign ads featuring the word "maverick". But while McCain's candour has served him well with independent-minded voters, it has not always charmed Asian Americans.

kavita pillay

Kavita Pillay is a Boston based documentary film-maker, wanderluster and occasional soapmaker. She is the creator of ‘Scrabya’ (https://scrubya.com), a soap company she started in 2006, which donates all of its proceeds to nonprofit groups that are “cleaning up the mess” it blames on Dubya & Co.