February 22, 2008



By Mohammad Ali Salih

I wasn’t ready for my son’s harsh words when our family went out for dinner last week. We were talking about the elections and, specifically, the competition between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.

I asked my son, a twenty-something Democrat and Obama supporter: “Why do you favor Obama?” With his mother and two sisters listening, he offered the usual arguments about “change,” “unity” and that Obama didn’t vote for the Iraq war. Unconvinced, I asked: “Aren’t you supporting Obama because he is bi-racial like you?”

His angry response: “I knew you were going to ask about race. ... And I understand that, because of your age (I am in my 60s) and your background (an immigrant from Sudan). But, Dad, you need to wake up to the new thinking about race in America.” He added, “It is not about being racial; it is not about being bi-racial; it is about being post-racial.”

I twice repeated the question.  My wife, a white Southern conservative Republican, intervened: “Don’t you understand what your son has told you? Why do you want him to think the way you think?”

My college daughter, in few words, agreed with her brother, but the high-school one didn’t want to talk about race or politics, but about “Cloverfield,” “Hannah Montana” and other new movies.

I have always wanted my children to be proud of their mixed race. Since they were young, I’ve read them books about bi-racials, told them to write “bi-racial” whenever they filled out forms and paid special attention to the other bi-racial kids they hung out with.

But, before teaching them about their identities, I had to find mine.  When I came to Washington, D.C., in 1980, I was ambivalent about the racial divisions in America.  After I became a U.S. citizen 10 years later, I started searching for my identity.  I didn’t want to be part of the “white guilt - black victimization” syndrome. It took me 10 more painful years to realize that the color of my skin is not part of my identity.  And that faith (Islam) is the core of my identity. Then my culture (Arabic) and my citizenship (American).

Yet I didn’t think about the contradiction that, although I had “liberated” myself from having race as part of my identity, I wanted my children to belong not only to one race but to two — until my son’s lecture. His message is now clear: not only that race doesn’t matter, but mixed race also doesn’t matter. And the new “post-race” thinking could be equivalent to “no race.” 

A country without racial divisions. What a concept.

Mohammad Ali Salih has been a correspondent in Washington, D.C., for major Arabic newspapers and magazines in the Middle East.