November 12, 2009

What is it like to be a black man in China? Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo — Obama's half-brother — is asked.

He's answering questions this hour over at WaPo. This exchange touched me:
Anonymous: I'd be interested to hear about your experiences as a black person in China. Have you encountered any difficulties? Have things changed since you first moved to China seven years ago, and if so, how?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo:
Thank you for your question. In my book, there is a scene where Spring (David's love) visits a Shenzhen orphanage for the first time. In a room filled with 60 cots, baby in each cot, she puts out her hand to one of the babies in the cot. Its big, black eyes look up at her and it grasps her finger and refuses to let go.

This happened to me too. The baby didn't think of black or white or yellow or brown. I have lived in Shenzhen for almost seven years. I speak the language and am married to a Chinese woman. Speaking for myself, I have generally been very happy while I have been here. The key is to have an openness and curiosity about the culture and it very much helps to give back or help those in need.
He didn't really answer the question. I remember the notorious Newsweek exposé of racist babies, but I'm sure the questioner had nonbabies in mind. Ndesandjo made an elegant decision not to talk about the worst things that had happened to him, I think. Over the years, various Chinese adults must have said bad things, snubbed him, discriminated against him, or threatened him. He doesn't say they didn't. He doesn't say everyone's been just wonderful. He says he's "generally been very happy" — note the generally. So I assume he's got his collection of racial anecdotes, and he chose not to go there. He spoke of the babies at some length, then shifted to the subject of the things he has done to connect with the people — marrying a Chinese woman, speaking the language, being open to the culture, and doing charitable acts. These are all things he has done for the benefit of others.

It's a contrast to the way his brother addresses the subject of race:
... my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
Barack Obama displays his collection of personal racial experiences for us to contemplate. He doesn't eclipse them and — like Ndesandjo — deflect the subject to our shared humanity and what we can do for others. And yet, I don't know what Ndesandjo would say if we had the opportunity to listen to him longer, if he were already embraced and given trust and power, and — most importantly? — if he were living, not in China, but in the United States. And Barack Obama himself moved into power and gained our trust by speaking of shared humanity and service to others.

62 comments:

Fred4Pres said...

Obama's brother seems like a introspective quiet guy. I like what I have seen of him.

I am guessing Obama caught some shunning growing up in Indonesia (because he was different not necesarily because of race) and perhaps in Hawaii (which is a very racist, to the point of race obsessed, place). But if he was molded politically by Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and of course "Frank"--well then it is no surprise Barack Obama sees the world through skin hued sensitive eyes.

Andrea said...

"And Barack Obama himself moved into power and gained our trust by speaking of shared humanity and service to others."

He didn't gain my trust. I didn't fall for that line the way so many others did. Why on earth are people so swayed by pretty words that only confirm how wonderful the listeners are for being swayed by them? Well I guess I just answered my own question.

David said...

"Ndesandjo made an elegant decision not to talk about the worst things that had happened to him, I think."

A decision many people make, for various reasons, and usually a good one.

As to Obama, his entire life is built around his race. That's inevitable, especially for someone in politics, since our society is so race conscious. It's a crucial element in our history, and this emphasis is unlikely to change. As Obama demonstrates that consciousness can be extremely beneficial to the individual who knows how to manipulate it.

We have come a long way. Race consciousness does not equal racism. But there's a very long way still to go.

Chase said...

Our human pride will always make us defend things that we don't fully believe. It is why we become polarized so often: we feel challenged or judged, so we take a firm stand in defense of our culture, choices, associations, views.

I don't begrudge Mark his choices and joy in living in China; I only hope that he doesn't wrap his descriptions in either overt or implied superiority to general American ideals or culture. That would be so tiring.

ricpic said...

The most natural thing in the world, to prefer those of your race over those of a different race in every way, including aesthetically, is labelled racist. Sick.

former law student said...

When you're a real minority, you're more of a curiosity than someone to be despised. I learned that years ago from a black man who noted how white people's attitudes towards him shifted when he moved from Denver (where he was a curiosity, and where Hispanics were the despised minority) to Chicago (where Hispanics were hardworking Catholics, like Italians but swarthier, and where blacks were the despised minority.)

Barack Obama's story was different. Moving from multiracial Hawaii to the mainland meant he suddenly was African-American, and was faced with white people's expectations of and for him.

Essentially he learned as an adult what it meant to be African-American, a well-established role in our society. In contrast, Chinese people have no particular expectations of the Afro-Chinese.

Almost Ali said...

A bit of a stretch, this mind reading - assigning experiences, horrible in all their imagined colors.

CarmelaMotto said...

If you White and are in China or Japan (the only Asian countries I have spent time in) you run into racism too, btw. Even if you speak the language, they still don't think you understand when they are talking about you (personal experience). So, he can't tell me he hasn't had experiences.

Perhaps he doesn't want to make a career out of race like his brother.

AJ Lynch said...

Philly elected a black district attorney last Tuesday. Even though we have a black president and Philly has had 3-4 black mayors, the news media trumpeted it was an historic election since he was the first black elected DA in the state. IMO, most people, who are not part of the victim classes, are very tired of hearing about race. And isn't it hypocritical when the news media is one of the whitest groups in the country?

wv = shees

Maguro said...

Well, the two men have completely different goals in mind when they discuss race.

Obama's brother is trying to sell a novel - an uplifting story of love with a Chinese woman. It's obviously in his interest to talk about love and shared humanity rather than racial slights inflicted on him by the Chinese. Not saying he isn't sincere - he seems like a decent guy - but he naturally wants his chat to focus on the themes of his book.

Obama, on the other hand, told his racist grandmother anecdote to deflect attention from his association Rev Wright in the midst of a political campaign. Don't criticize Rev Wright, he told us, because you whites are racist too. I know because my own grandmother was a white racist!

Different goals require different approaches.

former law student said...

The most natural thing in the world, to prefer those of your race ... is labelled racist

It's naturalness does not excuse it. Feeling comfortable only among one's own race/culture/language means you miss opportunities. When Chinese engineers are promoted to manager, notoriously their once diverse sections gradually become all Chinese. Meanwhile they complain of the glass ceiling.

mrs whatsit said...

It is still amazing to me that all Obama had to do to gain your trust, and that of many other voters like you, was to speak of things you liked to hear. Wouldn't it have made more sense to decide whether or not to trust him based on what he had actually DONE?

former law student said...

Wouldn't it have made more sense to decide whether or not to trust him based on what he had actually DONE?

Obama's resume was no thinner than his competition's -- The bulk of Hillary's experience was being Bill's wife, whereas McCain's heroism was forty years in the past. McCain found a comfortable billet and stayed there. Dumping his loyal but no-longer-beautiful wife for the hot young daughter of a rich felon was the most significant thing McCain did subsequent to being a POW. Similarly, Hillary's tolerance of Bill's tomcatting showed she wasn't all that much either.

Almost Ali said...

"It's naturalness does not excuse it."

Yes it does. More, it justifies nature itself.

Andrea said...

How interesting. Ask a question about Obama's accomplishments (or lack thereof) and fls responds with slams against his former competition.

I'm not saying anything for or against Clinton and McCain -- just pointing out one of the many common tactics Obama's fans use to defend him. "Incoming fact request! Quick! Raise the deflector shields!"

miller said...

Obama is black? Who knew‽

former law student said...

Ask a question about Obama's accomplishments (or lack thereof) and fls responds with slams against his former competition.

Mrs. Whatsit was speaking of how voters came to trust Obama. She argued that trust should be based on the candidates' accomplishments. I pointed out that Obama's accomplishments were not markedly less than the other candidates, so that voting for him did not violate the practice she advocated.

If you can find a non sequitur there, please let me know.

Lem said...

It sounds kind of simplistic maybe.. to just choose not to play it a certain way.. to choose not to talk about what Obama chose to talk about.. but its admirable i think.

Here is how the great Ted Williams chose to play it, when he could have made a different.. bitter choice.

(the example is not a 'race' story)

Darcy said...

Of course Obama's accomplishments were markedly less than McCain's. They were non-existent save the "writing" of a book about himself (lol). How idiotic to say otherwise.

Sheesh. Rejecting who McCain was is a different thing. But he had a record. A long one.

the poseur said...

I don't care about Obama's personal life. How do you think I feel about the brother?

bagoh20 said...

Andrea is scoring today.

Shanna said...

"Ndesandjo made an elegant decision not to talk about the worst things that had happened to him, I think."

I think that is often a good decision, but I am interested in how China is as compared to say, Japan. I read stories from someone on a financial site who lives in Japan and is a white american, and it is always kind of fascinating the way they treat people who are not japanese. Not bad, really, but just differently. My cousin’s husband has said that japanese companies often discourage their american employees from learning japanese because they want to be able to speak freely in front of them. It’s all pretty fascinating and I would love to hear more about how the Chinese treat people who are not Chinese.

I have heard that Greece is very racist against blacks, in particular, but generally against non-Greek people.

Lem said...

You people leave Fla alone..

Palin Pawlenty are going to need her aplenty.

wv misme - nice

Lem said...

oooh its not fla.. its fls..

still.. all those ps. love it.

AJ Lynch said...

Good video Lem. Thanks

AJ Lynch said...

FLS claimed:

"Obama had as much experience as McCain!!"

LOL. You are too funny!

Rich B said...

"Of course Obama's accomplishments were markedly less than McCain's. They were non-existent save the "writing" of a book about himself (lol). How idiotic to say otherwise."

Unfortunately, events have confirmed his inexperience. The election of Obama should go in the Guinness Book of Records under "Extraordinary delusions".

Incidentally, after reading Dreams from My Father, I cannot believe he actually wrote it. Mostly, it appears to be the work of a skillful writer. I have seen no corroborating evidence that Obama is or was a skillful writer. Does anyone have any evidence?

former law student said...

But [McCain] had a record. A long one.

The old question: Did McCain have twenty years of Senate experience, or did he repeat the same year of experience twenty times? McCain's most significant accomplishment in his last full term was helping a real estate developer swap some worthless land for a government plot near a freeway interchange.

Dutch Canuck said...

Needs an "Obama is not like his brother" tag.

WV: quitio - the third Mario Brother, who left the team in disgust.

Arturius said...

I pointed out that Obama's accomplishments were not markedly less than the other candidates, so that voting for him did not violate the practice she advocated.


Which I suppose is possible if one overlooks McCain's near 30 year House and Senate service versus Obama's 2 year stint moonlighting as a Senator while running for President.

Balfegor said...

Perhaps he doesn't want to make a career out of race like his brother.

You can't make a career out of moaning about Chinese racism, at least, not when you're living in China. I mean, you'd just look stupid. It's kind of a what did you expect? thing.

I don't begrudge Mark his choices and joy in living in China; I only hope that he doesn't wrap his descriptions in either overt or implied superiority to general American ideals or culture.

I don't think he's an American -- wasn't he actually born and raised in Kenya, during his early childhood? Even if his mother got him citizenship somehow, that doesn't necessarily mean that the US has any particular claim on his emotions -- there are many people who have that kind of accidental citizenship who don't feel themselves to be American. I've relatives kind of like that, for example -- born in the US because the parents were here studying or on business, but raised in Korea.

The old question: Did McCain have twenty years of Senate experience, or did he repeat the same year of experience twenty times? McCain's most significant accomplishment in his last full term was helping a real estate developer swap some worthless land for a government plot near a freeway interchange.

That's because his big effort during that term -- McCain-Kennedy immigration "reform" -- went down in glorious flames.

William said...

I'm pretty certain that racial discrimination is more overt and pointed in China than in America. Nonetheless, it is probably less anger provoking for a black man. A Jewish person probably takes less umbrage at an anti-Semitic slur delivered in an Indian accent than in a German one. There is much to criticize about the Irish, but don't do it with a posh English accent. It's a fine thing to transcend history. Levitation is a neat trick too.

MayBee said...

In China, if you are not Chinese, you are always going to be an outsider. Even then, it is best to be Han Chinese.

Shenzhen is a little different, because it's a free trade zone. It's very easy to get a Visa in and out and it has probably hundreds of millions of visitors from around the world there every year. People have moved there from around China to do business. It's probably an easier place to be an outsider.

I'd be curious to know if most people who meet him think he is American.

mrs whatsit said...

"I pointed out that Obama's accomplishments were not markedly less than the other candidates, so that voting for him did not violate the practice she advocated."

FLS, Ann said, explicitly, that Obama gained her trust by speaking of "shared humanity and service of others." I commented that this made little sense to me and wondered why she didn't pay more attention to what he did than what he said. Your response makes even less sense than her original remark. First, whether other candidates have more or less experience than Obama has nothing to do with my point. I did not compare Obama to anybody. No matter how much experience a candidate may have, I would still call it foolish to rely on what they say rather than what they do. If he had been the most experienced candidate in the race, would still have relied on what he had done rather than what he said in evaluating him -- and in fact, in that case, I would have had an actual record of accomplishment to rely on, which would have been nice. Yours is the classic Obama-supporter Deflection Twostep: Oh no, somebody said something bad about Obama -- but I can't think of anything good to say back -- so quick, point out that somebody, anybody, else is worse!!!

Your claim that Obama somehow had as much experience as McCain is too silly to bother arguing about.

Balfegor said...

He spoke of the babies at some length, then shifted to the subject of the things he has done to connect with the people — marrying a Chinese woman, speaking the language, being open to the culture, and doing charitable acts.

There's an interesting parallel to what Barack Obama did in Chicago. As a young man, son of a foreign father and raised by Whites with roughly zero interaction with "African-American" society, he decided to immerse himself in Black culture, affecting an AAVE accent, choosing a Black church, and marrying a Black wife and having children with her.

David said...

Obama was inexperienced--very inexperienced--compared with other presidents.

Eisenhower--Supreme Commander in Europe.
Kennedy--14 years in Congress, military officer.
LBJ--Over 20 years in Congress, Senate Majority Leader, Vice President.
Nixon--U.S. Senator, 8 years as Vice President.
Ford--20+ years in Congress, House Minority Leader.
Carter--Governor of Georgia, military officer on nuclear submarine, businessman.
Reagan--Two term governor of California, union official.
George H.W. Bush--Military officer, cofounder of Zapata Petroleum, Member House of Representatives (first Republican from Texas since Reconstruction), Ambassador to UN, Head of U.S. Mission in China, Head of CIA, Chair of Republican National Committee, Vice President of the United States.
Clinton--Two term governor of Arkansas
George W. Bush--Two term governor of Texas.

Every one of these presidents had a job for which there was personal accountability for results. Most of them had several such jobs, at very high levels.

Obama had never been responsible for anything except his own political advancement and it shows.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

And Barack Obama himself moved into power and gained our trust by speaking of shared humanity and service to others.

For certain values of the word 'our'.

Scott M said...

If the Chinese are anything like the Koreans, they do NOT like black people.

Of course, it must be said that Koreans dislike pretty much anyone not Korean. I don't know if the same xenophobia exists in China, but there's ample reason to believe it does.

WV - kinth - no idea...but wasn't it used as a term in Niven/Pournelle's Footfall?

former law student said...

I did not compare Obama to anybody.

You're quite an unusual voter, in that case. Personally, I've spent decades picking the lesser of two (or least of three) evils.

Henry said...

The old question: Did McCain have twenty years of Senate experience, or did he repeat the same year of experience twenty times?

Ha ha! So Sarah Palin was the most experienced person in the race. All her experiences were unrepeated (and unrepeatable).

FLS, what an brilliant way to undefine experience. One doesn't grow and mature by dedication to a complex task. One has to do something different. Join the vanguard culture! Be a bohemian!

Darcy said...

2008 voters preferred the facade of the man they elected. We're finding out just how much of a facade it was.

Anybody hear about his latest dithering about Afghanistan? "Thoughtful", some will no doubt say.

How many days did it take him to reach no decision?

former law student said...

One doesn't grow and mature by dedication to a complex task.

Did McCain objectively get better? Did he become more effective? Wiser? Or was he on ROAD status?

If you can't distinguish the accomplishments of the twenty-year man from the two-year man, how does experience provide value?

Balfegor said...

Of course, it must be said that Koreans dislike pretty much anyone not Korean. I don't know if the same xenophobia exists in China, but there's ample reason to believe it does.

There was an article about Chinese racism against the Nigerians living in China, earlier this year. Google tells me it was in the New Yorker, but it's behind a subscription wall, so I can't see it. So in short, yes, I think the Chinese are still that racist, but never having visited China proper (only Hong Kong), I don't really know.

With Korea, on the other hand, I think attitudes have changed a bit over the past decade or two. As a Korean half-caste myself, I've been surprised to see how other half-Koreans appear from time to time as major supporting characters in TV dramas and so on -- I feel like twenty years ago, that would have been unheard of, and ten years ago, it would have been highly unusual. Koreans are still racist and quite frank about it -- particularly in all-Korean groups or when speaking Korean, there's little effort to be "PC" -- but I feel like the society is less xenophobic than it used to be.

Darcy said...

You were one of those who couldn't distinguish, fls.

LarsPorsena said...

"....In contrast, Chinese people have no particular expectations of the Afro-Chinese."

Ah, so,...the soft bigotry of no expectations.

Balfegor said...

Did McCain objectively get better?

If you're a conservative, no, he got worse. If you're a moderate who thinks things like campaign finance reform and amnesty for illegal immigrants are great, then he got better and better as time went on.

Did he become more effective?

Yes. Um. Undeniably, although part of that is just Senatorial seniority (see, e.g., the late Sen. Kennedy). But at the same time, he started reaching for goals that were harder to attain. Campaign finance reform is, in general, something with popular support, even if Republicans hated it. Amnesty for illegal immigrants is something the public hates, along with the Republicans in the House.

Wiser?

Again, the problem is you're directing this question at Conservatives who think he just got softheaded as he gained experience. But from a moderate perspective, yes, people would probably say he grew wiser over the years.

mrs whatsit said...

fls, go back and reread what I wrote and try to get it this time. My original point had to do with comparing Obama's actions to his words rather than comparing Obama to anybody else. I was not talking about voting strategy. I was talking about the assessment of an individual's character.

You must have an interesting time trying to pull off that lesser-of-two-evils voting strategy of yours when you are, apparently, incapable of imagining the possibility of assessing a candidate on his own merits, without comparing him to somebody else.

Lem said...

I remember during the cold war whenever I red or heard about nuclear reduction talks, the numbers always looked like they favored the Russians, and the class discussion centering around trying to explain that just getting the soviets to agree not to make more in the future was thought of as a success let alone trying to get them to give up anything, and how that was good for us.

The subject of race is kind of like negotiating nuke reduction with the Russians.

Nobody was really going to be happy ever.. It was just good that they were "talking". Sometimes just talking about the talks.

mrs whatsit said...

"If the Chinese are anything like the Koreans, they do NOT like black people."

I spent some time in Korea in the 1970s and was dumbfounded by the frank racism there. In particular, I've never forgotten the ragged biracial children begging in the streets of Seoul and Pusan. I was told that they were children fathered and abandoned by American GIs and that there was no place at all for them, no possibility of acceptance, in the Korean society of that time. I note that Balfegor says this is changing now. I certainly hope so. I remember bringing home a new appreciation of what the US was at least trying, however imperfectly, to accomplish, by comparison to a place that didn't seem to think that anything needed to be changed at all.

traditionalguy said...

Making a person's race the biggest weight on the scales when we evaluate someone is a survival instinct. This tendency can be overcome by appearing as 100% non-threatening. That is the amazing Mr Obama's gift with a great smile added at no extra charge. As our electorate has become more and more a mix of diverse cultures and races who came here to live in freedom and prosperity, that Non-Threatening look is THE TICKET! Don't try to do politics anymore without it. So we can rally behind non-threatening Tim who is a non-threatening man or we can go all the way and rally behind Sarah who is deemed the best smile and is not mean enough to seek any harm to people or their families. The old guard McCains and Fred Thompsons and even the Romneys have a threat based style lurking just under the surface. We once respected that style and could win when America was a majority Scots-Irish dominent culture. Today you can bet that Axelrod and Obama are playing this new electoral game every waking moment, such as their brilliant Sotomayor play by nominating a lady who isn't even a liberal but whose nomination fight would capture more new voters who are hispanic to go with the Black voters and the Muslim voters and reach the needed winning numbers. IMO we need a plan to win the next election or just hide away again like conservatives did last year facing Mc Cain the RINO candidate. The key is a conservative candidate with a Non-Threatening demeanor. Anyone who encourages white male conservatives to act stupidly showing a public belligerance at everybody they hate IS our secret foe. Remember that Ronald Reagan was sweet and mild towards everyone in his public demeanor and he won a political landslide.

former law student said...

I was told that they were children fathered and abandoned by American GIs and that there was no place at all for them, no possibility of acceptance, in the Korean society of that time.

Are they stigmatized because they're multiracial, or are they stigmatized because they have no fathers, or are they stigmatized because their mothers slept around?

mrs whatsit said...

It was "were" not "are" -- this was in the '70s and Balfegor says it's changing. My understanding, as an outsider who knew only what I was told, was that they were stigmatized primarily because of their race and secondarily because of their illegitimacy.

Shanna said...

Clinton--Two term governor of Arkansas

Pretty sure Clinton served more than two terms. He was governor throughout my childhood until he was elected President. Wiki says 5 terms, but some of these were 2 year terms.

Of course, it must be said that Koreans dislike pretty much anyone not Korean. I don't know if the same xenophobia exists in China, but there's ample reason to believe it does.

My friend who was Chinese was always making cracks about Koreans, so there was definately some anti-korean sentiment.

Pogo said...

Race is just one more team sport. Minnesotans have good Iowa jokes.

In school we used "One Iowa Unit" to mean 100 pounds.

Kirk Parker said...

"I spent some time in Korea in the 1970s and was dumbfounded by the frank racism there."

Hey, you want a real interesting time, try hosting a Korean and a Chinese exchange student, and watch what happens when the subject of the Japanese comes up. :-( Although to be perfectly fair, the Korean student in question subsequently took a school-sponsored trip to Japan, and came back saying they weren't so bad after all.

Balfegor said...

Are they stigmatized because they're multiracial, or are they stigmatized because they have no fathers, or are they stigmatized because their mothers slept around?

All three, but mostly, I think, because they were multi-racial. They'd have been stigmatized even if their fathers were known and kept in touch -- White fathers essentially do not exist for purposes of respectable Korean society. Who were their ancestors? Where are their graves, their temples? As I said, though, my sense is that this attitude is changing slightly.

Balfegor said...

I should note that I say "White fathers" because my own father is a White. I suspect that for Black (or South Asian, etc.) half-castes, the situation is still pretty bad, closer to what it was for half-Whites back in the 70s and 80s.

mrs whatsit said...

The street children I remember clearly came from fathers of several races: there were many children who appeared to be half-black and many others who looked half-white, including a particular boy I'll never forget who looked as if he'd just stepped off an Iowa farm. I may be remembering this wrong, but I believe I was told they were not even allowed to go to school.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

It's interesting that everyone think it's a given that China or Korea should embrace Western multiculturalism and diversity concepts. Why should they?

Balfegor said...

It's interesting that everyone think it's a given that China or Korea should embrace Western multiculturalism and diversity concepts. Why should they?

Well, I can't say I think they ought to. Tolerance is as far as I'd go -- acceptance is a personal matter, and entirely up to the individual.

Ben (The Tiger in Exile) said...

Remember near the end of "Dreams From My Father", where Obama talks with his brother Mark?

Same difference comes through -- Mark refuses to romanticize Africa, and tells his brother Barack that their father was a drunk who beat his (Mark's) mother.

Oh, and Ndesandjo is an American citizen through his mother -- he also went to college and grad school Stateside.

Ben (The Tiger in Exile) said...

(Suffice it to say, I think Ndesandjo has his head screwed on right, on these issues; not Obama.)