Friday, June 06, 2008

Does Race Still Matter In America?

Tomorrow I'll be moderating a panel at Green Acre Baha'i School as part of a day long Race Unity Symposium. I'll be blogging about the symposium next week but wanted to give my readers a chance to participate "virtual" in this discussion. The basis of the panel will be a piece from USA Today that was published in February of this year. I'll include the entire piece here for your review:

A son’s wisdom on a post-racial world

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 Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.

I asked my son, a twenty-something Democrat and Obama supporter, two questions. “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. Then I asked: “Are you supporting Obama because he is biracial 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 biracial; 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 agreed with her brother, but the high-schooler didn’t want to talk about race or politics but about Cloverfield and Hannah Montana.

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

Before teaching them about their identity, I had to find mine. When I came to Washington, D.C., in 1980, I was ambivalent about the racial divisions. After I became a U.S. citizen 10 years later, though, 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 doesn’t dictate my identity. I found faith in Islam as the core of my identity. That and being an 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 is a correspondent based in Washington, D.C., for major Arabic newspapers and magazines in the Middle East.

Now you get to respond to the same questions that will be addressed to the panelists tomorrow:

Having read the story detailed in this column, please respond to the following questions:

1. If you were speaking with the son from this story how would you respond to his opinions about race? Would you agree or disagree with him. Why?

2. If you were speaking with the father from this story how would you respond to his perspective on race? Would you agree or disagree with him? Why?

3. The father mentions finding Islam as the core of his identity rather than “skin color”. How important is religion/spirituality in addressing issues of race and racism in American society?

I hope you'll join in this conversation by leaving lots of comments and engaging with each other, especially if you haven't commented on this blog before. I look forward to hearing what you all think. I also encourage you to engage in this discussion with other people in your life and share what you learn from those discussions.