Sometimes I wish I were Obama’s therapist. Not that I think he suffers from any kind of mental illness, on the contrary, he may be the sanest man in Washington. It’s just that I think anyone with a stressful life deserves someone to talk to, to help them manage daily frustrations without taking them out on loved ones, developing an ulcer, or worse. I don’t know what the president’s out-of-network mental health benefits are—if any—but I’d take him on pro-bono, viewing it as my patriotic duty.
I’d start with the unraveling of his well-intended plan to be a “bridge builder” between left and right, to heal this country as a Master of Compromise. Boy did he walk into a firestorm with that one. But I understand all too well where he was coming from. My hypothesis? On some level at least, it’s a biracial thing.
There’s a sort of naïve, benevolent, yet hubristic thing you do as a mixed person. You believe you can go anywhere, talk to anyone, say anything about any issue and be heard in a way you wouldn’t be if you couldn’t claim membership in so many groups. You’re pliable, agile, adaptable, with loads of finesse (stored up from fitting in with relatives of both colors who might not have gotten you or trusted you at first, but who you now have wrapped around your finger). You believe you can fit anywhere, join any group—even ones you weren’t born to. You have black friends, white friends, East Asian, South Asian and Latino friends. You get along with them all and believe, in some small part of your brain, that you have what it takes to make them all get along with one another. You believe if you’re careful, if you’re nice, if you’re smart, if you speak the right way; you can pull anything off.
Being mixed is different for all of us, we all have different experiences, different attitudes, different alliances, different world views. Even within a family, siblings have different lives. The variables include family constellation, birth order, gender, age, education level, socioeconomic status, as well as physical things like hair texture, skin color, facial features. Yes, the degree to which you “look black” affects your experience of being biracial. For example, if you appear white—to whites and others—you may go through life feeling angry and misunderstood, even as you unwittingly reap certain privileges. You might go out of your way to prove your blackness to others, becoming more Afro-centric than you might otherwise be. I’ve seen this in colleagues, friends and psychotherapy clients alike. If you appear black—to whites, to other blacks—if your mixed-ness is invisible, you might feel defensive about your dual heritage being constantly overlooked. You might bend over backwards to avoid having black stereotypes pinned on you. I’ve seen this contribute to eating disorders in young women (myself included), as well as anxiety and depression in young, professional men.
As a family therapist, I’ve worked with lots of interracial families and couples, as well as biracial individuals. (Once word got out that there was a biracial family therapist in my very diverse town, I began getting almost weekly referrals from clients answering to those descriptions.)
On several occasions, I got intake calls from young men, hoping to make appointments—either for their families, with spouses or for themselves alone. The voice on the other end would be soft, yet clear and chatty—total absence of accent, flawless diction. The tone would be deferential: Doctor Rosenberg, they’d call me, though as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I am no such thing.
Gentle voices, polite patience, clipped consonants—fastidiousness about taking down the hours I was available and agreeing to my full fee without the slightest hesitation.
“That guy’s biracial,” I’d say to myself. And four out of five times he was. (The fifth time he was white and gay, but that’s another story.)
These guys presented as the polar opposite of the stereotypical angry, black man. Some of them had gone through phases where they’d had to prove themselves to “the brothers,” acting “blacker” during high school, but then “whiter” during college, where success depended on not matching anyone’s stereotype. By the time they got to me, these guys were mostly settled in being themselves, with flexible identities, stores of bicultural competence, a few different selves to wear depending on the occasion. I didn’t consider this dishonest; they were just gauging the situation and coming prepared. (During the intake calls, I’d been treated to their professional telephone voices.)
These men still had trouble expressing anger however. They were the appeasers in their families, leaving wrathful outbursts to “whiter-looking” siblings; they were the quiet ones in their marriages, sighing wordlessly as their wives (who were a range of races) hurled accusations and went on tirades.
And yet, the exhausting task of controlling how they were seen, how they were judged, how they did or did not defy expectations, meant that the guys were often full of unexpressed rage. One man—who had been bullied by employer after employer—said to me:
I can’t let myself get as angry as I feel; if I do, I’ll choke on it—or choke someone else. Then I’ll have given them what they expect.
He settled that day for tears, which streamed down his face. What, I wondered, would it have been like for him to stand up for himself in a healthy way? How would he have been seen and how would he see himself?
I know anger can be destructive. It can stand in the way of accomplishing great things. When you are yelling, it is impossible for others to listen to your words. But anger, channeled properly, can lead to action, to addressing injustice, to change. Which brings me back to the president.
What would it have been like, Mr. Obama, to challenge your haters as soon as you took office? When you learned how committed our Republican Congress was—not to working with you to save the economy, create jobs, invest in education and infrastructure—but to making you a one-term president? I’m not in Washington, I’m not even in politics and sometimes I miss the news because I’m so preoccupied writing books about ballerinas and getting my kids to tennis on time. Still, I noticed it, how long the list was, how it was growing, even as you took your oath on that blustery January day in 2009: the list of people devoted to purging you from the White House. They’d stop at nothing. Even when evidence pointed to your stimulus package’s effectiveness in preventing another 1929 style Depression, they blocked your continued efforts to boost the economy. They signed the Norquist Pledge, tying their own hands, even as they knew—they had to know—that all cuts, no taxes would only dig us into a deeper, more divided hole. They knew that if they worked with you, if things improved, you would look good and their one-term dreams would go up in smoke. It was more important to make you look bad than to help save the country. You got that, but you got that too late, only after the hand you reached across the aisle got bitten a slew of times. You believed too long in your own power to make a pie-in-the-sky dream of compromise come true.
But then again, I guess I share that with you, Mr. Obama, as I shared it with those young men I saw for therapy: this idea—often but not always misguided—that we are uniquely suited to build bridges wherever we go. How very biracial of us.