The students at my daughters' small Miami school come from all over Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States, with skin tones ranging from caramel to bronze to honey to the paper white of the little red-headed boy who has to spend five minutes applying sunscreen before PE to keep from turning flamingo pink. I love this variety and I love that my kids are growing up with it. Whenever the subject of race comes up, all I have to do is point to their playground to demonstrate that people cannot be easily labeled as "black" or "white" or "brown."
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I know, I know, it's an easy out. But when you're a kid, life should be simple. Then Barack Obama came along and things got complicated.
"Mommy, what color is the president?"
There's nothing in the Crayola crayon box to describe the one-man melting pot who becomes our president today. What color is African-Indian-English-German-Irish-Scottish-Welsh-Swiss-French?
"Obama is black," I tell them. And now, because my girls are 8 and 9, I wade into the uncomfortable waters of slavery, racism and Jim Crow laws. They seem to get it. After all, they're learning about the Civil Rights Movement in class. They know that Martin Luther King Jr. is more than a day off from school.
Unfortunately, these lessons seem to be lost on some adults I've encountered. "I don't know why Obama is always emphasizing his blackness," a 60-something white woman said to me the other day. "You know, he's white, too. What about us?"
It seems that after centuries of a racist "one-drop" rule in America, everybody wants to claim a piece of this man. Only 44 years ago, our president would have been turned away from a southern lunch counter because he looks "too black." Why, after all these years of pain and progress, should we deny the blackness in Obama, reversing years of historic standards? It's as if some white people want to rob black people of even this euphoric moment.
Yes, Obama is bi-racial. The half-Kenyan, half-Kansan politician grew up largely in a white household. But he chooses to identify himself as black – largely because that's what our world told him he was when he was growing up.
"Well, I'm not sure I decided it," Obama said in a 60 Minutes interview last year. "I think, you know, if you look African-American in this society, you're treated as an African-American."
Last year, researchers at the New England Historic Genealogical Society reported that Obama can call six U.S. presidents his cousins: both Bushes, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and James Madison. The nonprofit group also found Obama is related to Churchill, as well as Brad Pitt. An Irish rector also claimed to trace Obama's maternal roots to an Irish Anglican shoemaker from the small village of Moneygall, Ireland, which proceeded to celebrate the election of "O'bama" (anything for an excuse to drink more Guinness)!
Although races have been mixing in America since Columbus arrived, it was only nine years ago that multi-racial people even had a box to check on the U.S. Census. Yet the world our kids are growing up in is diversifying at warp speed. Tiger Woods is the super athlete of their generation, Will Smith is their movie star, the Cheetah Girls are playing on their iPods and Dora the Explorer is their cartoon of choice.
In an essay called "The End of White America?" published in The Atlantic this month, American music critic Hua Hsu comments on the erosion of "whiteness'' as the touchstone of what it means to be American, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200901/end-of-whiteness. In 35 to 50 years, statisticians predict there will be no majority race in the United States. The future, Hsu writes, will belong to people who can successfully navigate a post-racial multicultural landscape.
It's important that we don't forget the sins of our past, but I'm excited to think that Obama's inauguration today marks a turning point for a future in which race becomes the background noise to a chorus of many voices. I already know what I'm going to say years from now if my grandchild wants to know the color of the president.
"Why, honey, it's obvious," I'll say. "That color is called American."