In his new book, “Barack Like Me,” comedian David Alan Grier takes a humorous, edgy look at America, explaining why being multiracial is now the epitome of “cool.” An excerpt.
Chapter two: Beige is the New Black
A few months ago, I saw this West Virginia coal miner, white guy, being interviewed on TV. Real redneck. I’m talking about a one-tooth, throwback hillbilly. He couldn’t even pronounce “Barack Obama.” But he said to the interviewer, “Look, man, I am voting for him. We need to make changes here. I will vote for a frog if it will help me feed my family.”
I thought, Man, we have come a long way. To him, it is beyond race. Barack Obama is just the best guy for president. He sees him only as someone who can help.
I know that early on, when Barack started running, before the first primary, before the Iowa caucuses, we weren’t there yet. He wasn’t really clicking. A lot of people confused Barack Obama with the other guy, the guy whose name sounds like Obama. I heard people saying, dubiously, “That’s the guy with the beard and the cave, and now he’s running for president? This is a great country. Look at him. He’s really cleaned up. Lost the beard. He looks like a nice guy. He’s not so scary looking. He doesn’t hate us anymore, huh? He wants to lead us. You have to love America.”
Then people started to figure out who Barack Obama was, where he came from, and what he stood for. He spent most of his time and energy going on the road, talking to people, mostly white people, convincing them. “Hey, look, I’m not scary. I’m just like you. See, I have a wife. I have two kids. I’m not crazy. I don’t have a tail.”
Gradually, people got to know him and discovered that they liked him. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t come across like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. He wasn’t trying to stir things up. He looked okay, even presidential. He didn’t look too “black.” He didn’t have dreadlocks. He didn’t wear a hoodie. We know he smoked cigarettes, but Michelle made him stop. A point for him. Two points for her.
He seemed very comfortable and happy in his marriage. And so did she. They came across as a great couple, interesting, intelligent, funny, people you’d invite to dinner, have over for potluck, play charades.
But when the primaries began, it seemed that everyone had already conceded the nomination to Hillary Clinton. It was her time, her turn. She had a lock on the election. Except they didn’t count on Barack Obama. They underestimated him. He surprised the world and won the Iowa caucuses, then he started winning primaries, and Hillary started to panic. She came out fighting, flexed her muscles. Her campaign turned on a dime and went all hard-ass. It was all about, “See how accomplished Hillary is? She can arm-wrestle you. She can drink you under the table. If she punches you, she will knock you out. She has skills and you have sh--.”
Then her campaign flipped even more and turned ugly. She was so desperate to be president that she would try anything, any tactic. She tried everything but screaming rape. I wanted to call out Bill Clinton. I wanted to say to him, “If it’s true that you were the first black president, then brotha, please ... get your woman in check. She’s running wild. Get control of your woman. What kind of black man are you?”
Barack never panicked, never lost his cool, and he kept winning. It got tight toward the end, but finally, kicking and screaming, Hillary dropped out, Barack got the nomination, and rolled in for the win. Hillary got her reward, too. Secretary of state. Big job. Lot of responsibility, and most important, a lot of travel. I know who put the thought in Barack’s head: Bill. I know he whispered in his ear, “Barack, please, send her on the road so I can have the house to myself. Please. Get her out of the country. This weekend if possible. I got two sororities on call and a whole bunch of kegs just waiting for me to bust open.”
My quick, hourly reality check.
Barack Obama is still president, right?
I have to ask. Because our economy is so bad, he could get laid off. Could happen. The brother is always the last hired and first fired. Our luck. We finally get a president and before his ass hits the chair, he gets a voice mail, “We need to see you in my office, right away.”
“Hey, guys, what’s up?”
“Listen, Mr. President, you’re doing a great job, you really are, people are very impressed. This is awkward. We’re gonna have to let you go.”
“But I won the election.”
“I know. Which makes it harder.”
“Damn. Do I at least get two weeks’ notice?”
“I’m sorry. Clean out your desk and hand over your keys. The guys here will escort you out of the building.”
He’d slouch home in the middle of the day, looking grim and defeated, barely able to make eye contact with Michelle.
“You’re home early, Barack.”
“I got laid off.”
“What? You’re no longer president?”
“No. Ambassador. Pack everything up. Pull the kids out of school. We’re moving to Afghanistan.”
“Afghanistan? We’re at war there!”
“Honey, in this economy, at least I got a job.”
I know. Not gonna happen. He’s cool. Truth is we’re flying high. Being black like Barack is the new, new thing. Every pundit from Larry King to Atlantic magazine agrees: black is in. All shades of black. Which is good for most people, because so many of us are of mixed race. Myself included. It’s mind-boggling that we have ended up here, at this point in our history. There was a time, only a few generations ago, that being of mixed race was not so cool. In fact, it was illegal to try to pass yourself off as a different race. If the authorities found out, you lost everything — your position, your home, and all your possessions. You’d be separated from your family and often lynched.
President Barack Obama has changed all that. People now want to be mixed. Bi-racial, tri- racial, quad- and quinti-racial, how many you got? The more the better. Multiracial is the hot new facial, the best look in the book. Mixed race is the new superrace. If you look too black, people seem disappointed. They look at you and say, “You’re just black. Oh. That’s too bad. Are you sure? Anything else in there?”
They’re looking for the Obama mix. It’s like a new kind of coffee. “We just came up with it. Try this. The new Obama roast. It’s the perfect blend. Strong, but not sharp. Seductive. Bold. Sweet. Smooth. And not too dark. Not like that Dikembe Mutombo roast they’re brewing across the street.”
And why not be black like Barack? He’s the coolest guy on the planet right now. He’s bigger than any rapper, more popular than any rock star. He’s huge. We admire him and kids aspire to be like him.
Sometimes we even go too far.
I have a very close friend, who, when I first met him, told me that he was half Mexican. Not sure how that came up. He just made a point of telling me.
I shrugged and said, “All right, cool. Whatever.” I’m wondering what half Mexican looks like, because his Mexican half is pretty well embedded. I never give it a second thought, but for some reason his being half Mexican comes up in almost every one of our conversations. One night, he and his wife invite me over for dinner. His wife is charming, smart, funny, and pretty much entirely Puerto Rican.
We’re sitting around the dinner table, having a great time, laughing, chilling, and I say casually, just making small talk, “Well, you know with your husband being half Mexican and all —”
A plate falls out of his wife’s hand. Flutters toward the real, genuine Mexican tile floor like a dying bird. I dive for it and snatch it out of the air before it smashes into a million pieces.
She is looking at him but talking to me. “He is half what?”
“Mexican,” I say.
His wife now fixes my friend with a Jedi laser stare. “You are what?”
“Mexican?” he squeaks like a mouse.
His wife nods. “May I see you for a moment in the kitchen?”
His wife blasts out of her chair as if shot by a cannon and storms out of the room with my friend trailing ten feet behind. The kitchen door flies open, then swings shut with a bang. A short, muffled, indecipherable “conversation” carries through the door, then the door flies open again and my friend and his wife — her head thrown back defiantly, my friend looking stricken and whiter than Liquid Paper — return to the dining room.
“We have an announcement to make,” she says. She folds her hands under her chin and glares at her husband. He stares speechless into a bowl of rapidly browning guacamole, then finally speaks.
“Okay, see. I’m, okay, I’m not, well, you know, Mexican. Half. I’m not half Mexican. I’m not Mexican. At all.”
“I am aware of that now,” I say.
“I don’t know why I said I was,” my friend says miserably.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say.
“I’ve always wanted to be Mexican,” he moans. “Ever since I was a little kid. I used to call myself Roberto.”
I gently lay my hand on his shoulder.
He shakes his head. “You guys are all something else. You guys are all mixed. You’re all great.”
“Well, you’re something, too,” I say.
“I’m just white,” he says. It sounds like a death sentence.
“If you want,” I say, “I will call you Roberto.”
“No,” his wife says.
“You didn’t let me finish,” I say. “What I meant was.” I swallow. “More wine? Anyone? I brought this good bottle of red. Let me pour. This is so good. Umm. I believe Parker rated this baby like a 127, blindfolded —”
Barack is president. Black is in. Black is cool. Everyone wants to be black now. But Obama black. Tiger Woods black. Halle Berry black.
Not Samuel L. Jackson black. Or OJ black. Or Mike Tyson black.
I also think that having Barack as the leader of the free world gives us at least a temporary pass. Until he f---- up. But he’d have to f--- up worse than the last guy, and that just isn’t possible. So I think we’re all right for a while.
Still, I worry that it will all come tumbling down in the blink of an eye. It used to be, before Barack, that if I saw a piece on the news about a guy shooting up a 7-Eleven and killing twenty-seven people, I’d pray, “Please don’t let this guy be black. We don’t need that. Wait. There he is. He’s coming out of the store with his hands up. He’s ... Armenian! All right! Thank God!”
As black has become, for now, the “in hue,” that is, as long as Barack is cool and going strong, I’m amused at how popular culture — popular white culture — defines being black. As a kid, I remember seeing the movie Black Like Me. In this movie, a white guy’s skin turns black and all of a sudden, he’s saying, “Hey, Daddy-O, let’s go hear some jazz, baby. You down? I’m down. Let’s go hear some groovy music. Come on. Let’s go smoke some dope and hang out with Negroes.” He was a pre-Ebonic, medically enhanced wigger!
For now, when it comes to color, all bets are off. You can be anything. When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, I had a roommate who found out that he was one-eighth Native American. Man, did we party! In the mid-1970s, being Native American, even one-eighth Native American, was like hitting the ethnic lotto. The next morning, he marched right into the financial aid office, and, wham, full ride!
The night Barack Obama became president of the United States, something else happened. Not only are black people in, but smart people are in. Power to the nerds! And if you’re black and smart? Home run. You’re a blerd. Election night, Christine grabbed Luisa and started dancing around in front of the TV, holding Luisa’s hands up higher and higher, shouting, “Woo hoo! You’re in! You’re a blerd!”
Wait. My kid is half Korean. She’s a Blasian. Damn. I know you’re not yet two, but name your college, baby!
It’s still hard to get my head around this, though, the idea of acceptance that comes with the Barack Obama presidency. There is a part of me that acknowledges — and remembers, historically — that people of color who tried to deny any part of themselves were suspect. They would have to make a decision and stick with it. If it was found out that they were denying a part of themselves, they would be accused of running away from themselves and be rejected by their own. We’re looking at a whole new playing field as of right now. You can embrace all the parts of you. You can say, forthrightly, “I am who I am. I am all my parts,” or even, “I am all my parts, but I am embracing this particular one. This is who I am.” And we, as a people, will embrace it as well.
I do wonder, though.
What if you are a thirty-year-old brown-skinned African-American man, college-educated, holding a corporate job, married, kids, and you, in this Age of Obama, decide to reveal to your family, friends, and coworkers that you actually identify yourself now as a fourteen-year-old white girl?
“This is who I really am. From now on, please call me Julie. If you need me, text me, or hit me on Facebook. I’ll be in my room listening to the Jonas Brothers.”
I guess as we go along, we have to draw a line. Create boundaries. I’m not sure if my example of announcing that you are now a fourteen-year-old white girl is an apt one. I suppose there are people who now want to push the envelope. After all, Michael Jackson did that years ago!
Excerpted from "Barack Like Me" by David Alan Grier with Alan Eisenstock. Copyright (c) by David Alan Grier. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.