We Had an Asian President in Barack Obama

Revisiting Obama's Asian identity.

3 years ago

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Eric Chang claimed last year in his tribute to Barack Obama in Vogue that Obama was “the first Asian American president.” Drawing a parallel to the deep connection black Americans felt towards Bill Clinton (which famously led Toni Morrison to proclaim Clinton as being the first black president) Chang wrote:

The visceral recognition I and Asian-Americans like me see in President Obama rests on a similar foundation, and so I frame my argument as an intentional parallel to Morrison’s: Black skin notwithstanding, this is our first Asian-American president.

Chang points in particular to the birther accusation leveled against Obama — most stridently by our current President — as a similar “visceral” connection between Obama and Asian Americans. Asian Americans know all too well that no amount of achievement, outward style, or even generational time will allow us to either feel or appear as genuinely American. This double standard was revealed in even greater relief upon the realization that Obama’s opponent John McCain was himself born on foreign soil. But such a fact about a white man was a mere technicality (he was born in the Panama Canal Zone prior to its handover by the U.S. to Panama in 1979), something Obama could not even call attention to without simply bringing more attention to his own unsubstantiated foreignness.

Just as so many black Americans felt that Bill Clinton was made to suffer as they suffer, through presumptions of guilt and all the injustices that follow, so too had Asian Americans felt that Obama was made to suffer as we suffer, through presumptions of foreignness and all its subsequent humiliations. Chang’s claim of Obama being the first Asian American president are thoroughly convincing.

The subsequent humiliations were in turn thoroughly relatable. That the accusation was unsubstantiated except through preposterous forgeries did nothing to quell the very real political threat they posed, and Obama was forced to respond as if it was a legitimate question. He did what all Asian Americans at some level fear we may have to do one day: he presented his papers to the white man after being asked for them, for no other reason than it was a white man who asked. And although Obama won his elections, that white man had the last laugh. Obama’s final act of public service was to welcome the Birther-in-Chief into his own home, and then hand him the keys with a forced smile.

But the connection between Obama and the Asian American identity runs deeper than just this shared grievance. While the public figure of Obama was carefully crafted as a man steeped in the black political establishment of Chicago, his actual origins are much closer to Asia. While it is common knowledge that he was born and raised in Hawaii — a state where Asians have long been the dominant racial group and political establishment — it is less well understood that his connections to Asia run far deeper than that. For example, that his stepfather, an Asian man named Lolo Soetoro, was a deeper influence upon the young Obama than his biological father. Soetoro raised Obama for several years in Jakarta, putting him through Indonesian-language schooling from age six to ten (a fact largely suppressed except by the right wing, which purported to have a school registration document listing Obama as a Muslim). Or that his closest sibling, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is the hapa Asian biological daughter of Lolo, and is herself married to a Chinese Canadian named Konrad Ng*.

*Note: This brings the known number of Obama’s Chinese siblings-in-law to at least two, the other being Liu Xuehua, the wife of Obama’s paternal half-brother Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who resides in Shenzhen. Indeed, a full biography of Obama would require a One Hundred Years’ of Solitude-style family tree.

Photo of the Obamas and extended family
The Obamas with Maya Soetoro-Ng and extended family in Hawaii.

Earlier this year, it was revealed in a book by David Garrow that prior to meeting Michelle, Obama had proposed twice, unsuccessfully, to his previous girlfriend, a hapa Asian woman named Sheila Miyoshi Jager. Miyoshi Jager’s Asian identity seemingly runs quite deep; she is a professor of Asian studies at Oberlin College, has published several books on Korean and East Asian history, and is now married to a Korean American.

At his final APAICS Awards Gala in 2016 — an event jokingly referred to by Asian Washingtonians as the “Asian Prom” — the wildly popular Obama opened his keynote address by saying:

You know, being with the Asian American Pacific Islander community, is like being with family. As many of you know, I grew up in Hawaii. I spent time in Indonesia as a young boy. The food, the culture, the spirit of the Asia Pacific Region, that’s who I am.

The apparent cultural connection runs both ways, as the audience is so vocally enthusiastic that he can barely find enough silence in the room to get through the opener. It’s clear this is more than just commiseration over Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome. This is shared identity.

Obama’s working relationship with Asian Americans reveals a certain kind of comfort that seems born of familiarity. His Asian American political appointments included Steven Chu at the Department of Energy, Gary Locke as ambassador to China, Preet Bharara at U.S. Attorney, and Denny Chin to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. There was also his very public but failed battle to appoint Goodwin Liu to the 9th Circuit. Even his hiring of Kal Penn and Hines Ward as public liaisons is revealing of something perhaps unique to Obama: a comfort with Asian men in positions of authority.

That so many of Obama’s Asian American appointments were men rather than women is, at least to some Asians, a signal of some deeper appreciation that it is Asian men in particular who are notoriously difficult to cast in the saga of white hegemony. His Asian appointments were not the first, nor were they the last. But fully-compliant party apparatchiks like Elaine Chao and Nikki Haley — Asian female add-ons to the hooded whiteness of the Trump Administration —are much less of a threat to the white monopoly of power than, say, a free-ranging federal prosecutor in Manhattan like Bharara, or an infamously tough judge like Chin (before whom Bharara has tried many powerful white men).

Of course, that isn’t to say Obama’s selection bias for Asian men — assuming there was any, as no such accusation has ever been made — would be a good thing. Certainly there are independently minded Asian women who could have filled those roles. But there is some suspicion among us that white men have a selection bias for Asian women over Asian men, and this suspicion was somewhat validated in the Wikileaks record of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, regarding high-level political appointments:

That sucks. Can you call Larry and see what minorities he would put in top tier? Could be an asian. I know this isn’t Larry’s taste, but better if a woman.

By surrounding himself with Asian men rather than women, Obama demonstrates a certain comfort with Asian people that is in deep contrast to Podesta’s cynical yet all-too-typical race and gender tokenism. One can find in this a gesture of unspoken understanding between Obama and Asian folks akin to what Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s describes as a “telepathic intimacy.”

I love him. I love how he walks down Air Force One. I love how he walks down and hollers at people. I love how he looks at black folks… I love how he gives that negro intimacy that is communicated telepathically. I love all of the symbolic gestures that are articulated from Obama.

Of course, the true identity of Obama is notoriously difficult to pin down. He’s a kind of Rorschach politician, a man to whom almost all Americans can find some personal, nearly private connection. This unicorn universality was perhaps the reason for Obama’s success, and for an Asian man to see in Obama another Asian man is perhaps part of the illusion, and a small part at that.

But unlike the riverbanks of black and white identity between which Obama ferried, or between telegenic glamour and working class fatherhood, Obama’s connection to the shores of Asia were always more of a political liability than an asset. Asian American operatives within the DNC often reported that Obama had never put Asian outreach as a top priority, and in fact the Asian vote was barely a material factor in either of his two victories. If anything, Obama and his image handlers did far more to suppress his Asian identity than to play it up for political gain.

That so much of his Asianness still peeks through, despite concerted efforts to hide it, suggests that he truly is our first Asian President. After all, hiding our Asianness is exactly what so many of us feel compelled to do in American life. Going back to that Dyson quote, it came during a roundtable organized by Tavis Smiley, and attended by other black leaders including Cornel West, Louis Farrakhan, and Jesse Jackson, during which the growing criticism of Obama’s unwillingness to promote a black agenda was publicly voiced. Obama was known to shy away from his blackness, particularly in his first term, and he famously said that he was “not the president of black America.”

It is in this necessary public disavowal of racial identity that Obama shows us by demonstration, rather than through rhetoric, that ascension in social and public life in America requires a balancing act between being of a race, and transcending race. That is, if you’re not white. Trump has shown that white Americans have had enough of their white leaders pretending to be everything but a self-interested white man, one who cares first and foremost about himself and others like him. If Trump has shown any fiber of integrity, it is mostly through his stubborn devotion to his angry white base, and the not-so-telepathic tweets that signal his unbreakable communion with them.

For Asian Americans, we are only now preparing to consider the sanctity of the bond between our communities and our leaders and representatives. The accusations that some of our public figures are not “Asian enough” has long been met with internal derision, as if such a demand were a relic of a tribal instinct that American life would sand away through modern enlightenment. But now that we find ourselves living under a white supremacist regime, longing for the bygone days when we had our own telepathic communion with the Commander in Chief, perhaps we can finally appreciate the importance of having a solid base of our own to build upon.


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Published 3 years ago