I watched Barack Obama’s farewell address Tuesday night with my kids held close, feeling sad exuberance at what this unique and incredible man had accomplished over the past eight years, and at the fact that his time as President would fast be over.
When he turned to his family in the audience — giving shine to Michelle Obama, the first lady, America’s mom, and their lovely and accomplished daughters, Malia and Sasha — tears welled up in my eyes, as they did in the President’s own. After all, the special power of this presidency was not solely in the occupant of the Oval Office; Mrs. Obama transformed and transcended the role of first lady, and the daughters that she and the President raised, the family they made together, stood as an example that gave the lie to every conservative narrative about the degradation of family values in our modern era.
That’s when I noticed that one family member was missing. Malia was there, proudly celebrating her father’s legacy. But 15-year-old Sasha was not. I was hardly alone in recognizing this, and as is usually the case these days, a trending hashtag was born, as thousands of people tweeted wondering #WheresSasha.
The truth was simple, and so very in line with the President and his message. Sasha had a science exam Wednesday morning, and so, despite the historic moment, was left behind to study. Education first. Responsibility first. The needs of the future above the celebration of the past.
This, like so many moments of the Obama presidency, was one I recognized and connected with. I remember staying home to grind on SAT prep while the rest of my family went on vacation. As a dad, I’ve made similar decisions for my own kids. And so I posted a tweet that summed up that empathy — but in doing so, undercut a critical truth about Obama and his significance.
It was rapidly retweeted by those who shared these rueful memories and sense of empathic bond with missing Sasha.
But as the tweet spread, responses began to call out the central problem in what I’d posted: By claiming the Obamas’ parenting style for Asian-Americans, even as a joke, I was effectively dismissing the notion that a black family might do exactly the same thing. In satirizing an Asian-American stereotype, I was feeding into an African-American one.
A private message I received said it best: “Your tweet about Obama being Asian because he prioritizes education plays into dangerous, harmful, and offensive stereotypes about Asians as model minorities and black people being lazy at worst, unfocused on education at best.”
There are many reasons why, in the absence of an actual Asian-American president — a vacuum unlikely to be filled in my or my children’s lifetimes — Obama might symbolically occupy that role. He was after all born and raised in Hawaii, the only state in the nation with a majority Asian-American population. He spent crucial years of his childhood in Indonesia, with an Asian stepfather and half sister.
And much of the way in which he has been depicted in media and by antagonists has lined up with imagery that is familiar to any Asian-American: He has been called remote, robotic, repressed, logical at the expense of expressing his true emotions. (Key and Peele even had to invent an anger translator for him.) He has been made foreign, “othered” — and framed as un-American.
He has had his birthright challenged and his citizenship attacked as fraudulent, most notably by Donald Trump, the next occupant of his office. At a recent event, I had the chance to speak with the President and discussed these tropes and how they made him feel Asian-American to those in our community, and he laughed his booming laugh and said it was all true.
But as much as I and many other Asian-Americans may want to claim him as our own, voting for him in unprecedented numbers and surging into his party, the absolute and essential truth is that what made Barack Obama the quintessential American president is that he was the first black president.
Black identity was the first identity forged in the fires of this nation. It was crafted out of the horrors of slavery and beaten into form by centuries of persistent and corrosive racism that continues to this very day.
And it has defiantly and proudly transcended all of this, extracting from suffering a unique — and uniquely American — culture and traditions, producing much of our most powerful art, raising up many of our most celebrated creators and leaders.
That includes the President, whose origins as a biracial son of an African immigrant points to the next chapter of the increasingly diverse narrative of blackness in America, and it certainly includes Michelle Obama, who — as the President noted in his speech — is a native daughter of Chicago’s South Side. And yes, it includes their two incredible daughters, one standing tall at her father’s side, the other living out his message at home.
Perhaps if I had paid closer attention to the President’s farewell words, I wouldn’t have made the mistake of posting that tweet. He spoke of the dangerous aspect of social media, of our tendency to create context-free bubbles that prevent us from understanding the impact of what we say and do to others.
He spoke of the need for empathy — for living in other people’s skins — but he didn’t mean to walk away in those skins, stealing them for ourselves. Our strength as Americans comes from our unity, and the President used his final public words to remind us that that unity may only be preserved if we continue to struggle against those things within us that are un-American: racism, intolerance and a lack of mutual respect.
That he did so, even as so much of his legacy is under assault by those who don’t accept this credo, is part of what will make history see him as one of the greatest ever to hold his office.
Thank you, Mr. President, and farewell.