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Out writer Andrew Jolivette on Obama and race
BOOKS Extended for the online edition of Windy City Times
by David-Elijah Nahmod
2012-02-21

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History was made a few short years ago, when Barack Obama became the first African American president in U.S. history. Though it's been mentioned, the fact that the president is actually half white hasn't gotten nearly as much attention.

There's no question that American demographics are changing rapidly. The Leave It To Beaver/Father Knows Best nuclear family is disappearing, and is being replaced by families that encompass all the colors of the rainbow.

In his new book, Obama and the Biracial Factor ( The Policy Press ) , professor Andrew J. Jolivette of San Francisco State University offers a series of essays in which a variety of writers discuss the changing colors of the American landscape. The writers are all university academics, representing a variety of schools and ethnicities. Jolivette talked with Windy City Times about why he felt the book was needed, as well as his own status as a multicultural gay man.

Windy City Times: Can you tell us about the classes you teach at San Francisco State University?

Andrew J. Jolivette: I started teaching almost 12 years ago at the University of San Francisco. It was a people of mixed-descent class that focused on people who are multiracial. I was born and raised in San Francisco and moved to Oakland about eight years ago. For the past two years I've been chair of the American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University.

I've taught a lot of different classes over the years: Mixed Race Studies, People of Color and AIDS, American Indian Education, American Indian Religion and Philosophy, and Black Indians in the Americas. I suppose because of my training in sociology I am interested in many different social and behavior explanations for societal inequalities, especially for Native Americans, LGBT and communities of color.

WCT: And don't you also work with the LGBT History Museum in San Francisco?

Andrew J. Jolivette: I first involved with the museum as a volunteer many years ago, maybe around 2003. Then, in 2009, a colleague asked me to consider joining the board. After looking and programs I saw how important the work was in narrating the lives and histories of queer people of color in the Bay Area and nationally. I began my work on the board as a co-chair of the program committee, helping to organize film, and speaker series dealing with diversity and inclusion. For the past year and a half I've been co-chair of the board of directors. We are doing some really exciting work this year that will increase our visibility with the museum and the archives program.

WCT: Why do you think there's a need for this book?

Andrew J. Jolivette: My own background as a Louisiana Creole ( French, American Indian--Opelousa and Atakpa, African and Spanish ) has always hadan impact on my identity. Growing up I wasn't sure where I fit in exactly in terms of race. My father is a Creole from the Southwest and my mother is African American and American Indian from Alabama and Indianapolis. People always tried to guess what my background was and I've heard just about everything from Egyptian and Cuban to East Indian. People from mixed backgrounds are often forced to move between different identities. In the case of Mr. Obama, I argue he knows how to navigate through many different communities. He can relate to white Americans, Black Americans and many other groups because he's lived in so many different cultures. He has found a way to relate to people that helped him get elected.

WCT: In your opinion, how big a part does race play in the hostility towards President Obama from the Tea Party and Republicans?

Andrew J. Jolivette: You don't hear things like "food stamp president" or elected officials calling for the president's wife to be a widow, or having a Congressman calling the commander-in-chief a liar during a State of the Union address. Obama is trying to build a different type of ideology and American majority that includes LGBT folks, people from all walks of life, poor and working class, and so this is why we're battling for a new American majority. I think the irony of Conservative comments that say the president is using Politics of Envy or creating class warfare has been used over and over to scare people. Some candidates for the GOP nomination won't even refer to President Obama as President. It's always "Obama" or "this president." It's an indirect, passive aggressive approach to denying Mr. Obama's legitimacy.

WCT: When he was first elected, much was made of Obama being the first Black president. Do you have any insight as to why his biracial status hasn't gotten nearly as much attention?

Andrew J. Jolivette: Most of the country still argues that if you have any African or Black ancestry you will be seen and treated as Black. This is true only to a certain extent. In the book, I argue that being half white, being biracial, also shapes who he is as a person.

At the beginning of his first campaign his "Blackness" was heavily questioned: Was he "Black enough" or "too Black?" As some of the chapters in the book suggest, his private identity is more likely to be multiracial. As a mixed person you are always compromising, trying to fit in and find your place in the world. I think this is true also for LGBT communities. We have to learn to move through the Queer or Gay world, and the mainstream world. So mixed race and LGBT groups are both looking for a world where there is more acceptance. Obama as a biracial person is also looking for a society that is more equitable. His background, like all our backgrounds, does shape how we talk, how we relate and our values.

WCT: How far away do you think we are from an Asian, Latin or female president?

Andrew J. Jolivette: Gender is still something we are also dealing with in this country. From recent attacks on a woman's right to choose to unequal pay for women. I think we also have to shift the ideology in this country that assumes "immigrant" when we think of Asian and Latino communities because when we think Asian and Latino we assume immigrant means not really American. This is why the birther movement is such a big deal.

Consider that no one asked for John McCain's birth certificate and he was born in Panama. Mitt Romney's Father fled to Mexico to avoid U.S. laws, but no one is questioning that because at the end of the day this battle is about using ideology to keep the most powerful and wealthy in the positions they currently hold. If we can build a new, more progressive American majority then perhaps as early as 2016 we might see a female president. Maybe even a queer president will be on the horizon. We just have to move step by step to change our thinking from one view to multiple views and perspectives.


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