It's no secret that I'm over the moon that Barack Obama is our President-elect, but for those of you who don't know me or read my blog, I've been a supporter since he first announced his candidacy some two years ago. I've written about what it means to me as a biracial American to have someone like me ascend to the presidency. Of course - inserting necessary caveat - I've supported him not because of his race, but because he is the right person to lead our country right now at this moment in our history, fraught with both peril and unfathomable potential.
And I know, I know that he cannot be expected to carry the weight of all that he is to all of us. As the first African American, the first minority, the first biracial president in our history. It is too great, too momentous. I read a beautiful open letter from Alice Walker to Obama written just after he was elected and she said, "But seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear." The word "historical" is being thrown around like "bipartisan" these days, but all that history making, all that symbolism and standard-bearing, it creates some sticky expectations.
So, I admit, I have expectations. And when Obama was talking about his daughters' promised dog during his press conference on Friday, I was troubled by his use of the word "mutt" to refer to himself.
He said, quote:
“This is a major issue. It has generated more interest on our website than just about anything. We have two criteria that have to be reconciled. One is that Malia is allergic, so it has to be hypoallergenic. There are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic. On the other hand, our preference would be to get a shelter dog. But obviously a lot of shelter dogs are mutts — like me.”
The press conference is already being called the "mutts like me" press conference. Some are praising his comfort in talking about race.
So yes, he was trying to be light-hearted about the dogs and inserted that little self-deprecating comment about his race to heighten the effect. After his prepared remarks, he appeared a bit on edge, perhaps a little nervous, during the question and answer session with reporters. He seemed to be laboring to hit the right tone - serious but not somber, concerned but confident - and his gaffe about Nancy Reagan seemed to be a product of jitters, more than anything else. But the inquiry about the dog and his daughters was an opening for him to shake it out, if you will.
And so he threw it out there, it was nothing, just three little words. Right?
I've heard mixed-race people use that term to describe themselves before, usually in the same ha-ha way Obama did. I've also heard it thrown around as an insult, a pejorative, a slur. I've felt the slap of that word across my face and it is not a word I can "reclaim." My fear, however, is that Obama, as the first mixed-race president, will shape the way most Americans view people of mixed race for at least a generation. And will Obama calling himself a "mutt" - with humor, as if the word is nothing, nothing at all - make it socially acceptable for people to start calling me a mutt? My kids?
Because not only does the word have a history as a slur, but there are reasons that that word makes such an easy slur. It allows people to rhetorically reduce us to animals - people "bred" like dogs are bred. For all our "mutts are better!" talk (it is, as Obama knows, better to adopt a dog from a shelter, right? Rejected, but nonetheless in need of love), it still comes from a place where "purebreds" are better. It stinks of eugenics and generally just makes me queezy.
Mutts, like me, we may not be as desirable as purebreds but we can be lovable despite our unfortunate mix.
Or maybe I'm just taking it all way too seriously. This is possible, if not probable. I just admit to being disturbed when I heard it and I do wish that he would take more care in the words he uses as he speaks about race and identity. And yet then I come back to this - I cannot lay on him the responsibility to speak for all of us, for me, for my children when it comes to race. Certainly not in an off-handed remark during the middle of his first press conference as President-elect of the United States. I am, just in writing this, placing him under a microscope, imposing all my own longings and misgivings about race and identity in America on him.
After all, like all of us, he is entitled to navigate his identity - to identify himself as he feels is appropriate.