Part of the Family

An interesting article in the New York Times about the diversity of the families to which the First Family belongs:

The family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama is black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Very few are wealthy, and some — like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-roofed shack — are quite poor.

The article notes the First Family is more diverse than most families, and it is, although I wonder if it is in fact substantially more diverse. My own extended family has white, Hispanic and black members, Christians and non-believers, straights and not-so-straights, poor and well-off, college graduates and those who didn’t finish high school, liberals and conservatives, and so on and so forth. Diversity happens, simply as a consequence of people being people, to whom one just happens to be related.

To be sure, the Obama-Robinson family overachieves in the diversity area as they appear to do in so many things. Damn overachievers! But it’s an issue of degree, not kind. As the article suggests, this is the direction we’re headed. I can’t see a problem with this, personally. Look where it’s gotten the Obamas.

54 Comments on “Part of the Family”

  1. Obama’s family, yes. Mine I suspect is Canadian free. Although you never know. Canadians look just like us! Only their “u”s and zeds give them away.

  2. My family is german Mennonite (I have relatives among the Amish in central Ohio), Jewish, Indian and Greek. No Canadians, alas.

  3. My family, for example, has Poles and Ukrainians on one side, and Germans and Slovaks on the other!

  4. Anyone notice that Malia took a LOT of pictures yesterday? She was snapping away like crazy with that little camera of hers, and at one point VP Biden leaned over to look at some of the images she was editing. I can’t remember taking that many pictures when I was 10, and I had to make that roll of 12 shots really count. Still, if I had been 15 feet away from Aretha Franklin I would have blown the whole roll. What a photo op!

    Still, I think it’s awesome to have a little photographer in the White House. Rock on Malia!

  5. I think that it might be a pretty distinctly American phenomenon though. Or at least a distinctly “new country” phenomenon, sociologically I could see it happening here, Canada, and…not much of anywhere else. Partly that’s because we have a lot more diversity in general than many countries do, and partly it’s because we’ve tended towards assimilation of immigrants, not segregation. Something I have frequent discussions with against the anti-immigration crowd now, who all have Irish immigrant blood somewhere. The exact same arguments they’re using were used against their ancestry, and they seemed to turn out alright…

  6. My parents were fluent enough for Summa Cum Laude in Greek, Latin, and French, with my mother then learning Spanish to read “Don Quixote” in the original. Their parents also spoke German, Polish, Hungarian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Plus some others I’m not listing because I’m less than 100% sure. I’m married to a Physics professor from Scotland with dual British-Australian citizenship; I have a dark-skinned nephew adopted from Brazil as a baby, and a sister-in-Law from Mexico. My siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles include a director of corporate communications, lawyer, engineer, staffer for politician, two travel agents, painters, a science teacher, mailman, quality control mathematician, and an officer at McDonald’s trying to make them more Green. And most public: my first cousin Rich Vos, award-winning Stand-Up Comic.

    I feel that my family is as unexceptional as Obama’s family. The United States of America, for all its flaws, is still the great Melting Pot.

  7. Canadian genes are nothing to be ashamed of. Really. We have support groups and everything.

  8. Chris – I’d like to point out that other countries do in fact have a lot of diversity.

    Spain has an “immigration problem” with folks coming out from Morrocco and other African nations. Brits complain about muslims (I assume from the middle east) and Indians. Germany has a huge issue with the Turks, who are essentially regarded the way Mexicans are here in the South-West.

    Now that the EU has been formed, and their immigration rules have changed, people from Slavic countries are flooding into the rest of Europe. The face of Europe is changing mighty quickly and both intolerance and diversity is growing accross the pond.

  9. 7. Chris – Reminds me of a line near the end of ‘Blazing Saddles’. Sheriff Bart is trying to save the town by involving the railroad’s immigrant & blacks to build the fake town to fool Hedley Lamarr’s gang of thugs, in exchange for a little bit of land. Olson Johnson says they can have everybody but the Irish, but Bart gets him to change his mind.

    Almost everybody in this country came from immigrant stock, either forcefully, or by choice. Those of us who have some non-immigrant blood are in the distinct minority. :)

  10. Christopher @ 6 – I saw Malia doing the same thing in a few clips from Sunday’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial. While Stevie Wonder was singing, she was snapping away. I think it’s great that she brings that hobby with her to the White House–think of the opportunities she’ll have to practice her photography skills over the next few years!

  11. It’s a much more diverse family than mine: on my mother’s side, 100% pur French back into the mists of time; on my father’s, an American stew of German, Irish, more Irish, Swedish, English, and–if family history is to be believed–the merest soupçon of Hungarian nobility (which I am happy to claim, so long as it wasn’t Elizabeth Bathory).

    #6: if the elder First Daughter is smart, she’ll sell them to a newspaper. That’d be the start of a fiiiiiiine little secret fund, in case she wants to order in a pizza or something without the ‘rents knowing.

  12. I, for one, love it. My family isn’t quite as diverse, but we’re a pretty mixed bag in our own right.

    Let’s see now, paternal grandparents came here from Poland around the turn of the last century, settled outside of Pittsburgh, ran a neighborhood deli-type store in their home and raised 8 kids.

    Maternal side is a little varied, with a mix of British, German & Russian joining in at varioius times. One distant uncle even served with the Union Army during the Civil War.

    So we’ve got a religious mix of Methodist, Catholic, and Jewish heritages. We have (had) a shoe maker, steel workers, power plant worker, shop owners, Union Army soldier, career Marine (now retired to Vegas and on career 3 or 4 running a pet sitting business), agricultural formulation chemist, telecommunications management, nurses, technical engineers, executive secretary, professional clown (currently touring in Japan), several computer geek types, physics professor & author, car dealer, truck drivers, legal assistant, oh, and a sheep farmer. Plus a bunch of others I can’t think of right now.

    And I got my first camera when I was 10 for a holiday trip to Florida, so Malia’s the perfect age to start snapping away at family events. At least she doesn’t have to wait for film to be developed!

  13. Of course, having a mixed ethnic heritage can often work against people. I’ve lost track of all the comments during the election that Obama wasn’t “really” African American because of his white mother. The idea of racial purity is still around and can be invoked at the strangest times.

  14. I think the increase in diversity within families is a product of recent generations. My parents grew up in a community that was almost entirely Norwegian, and only one of my mom’s cousins married outside that ethnic group. In my generation, while some married inside the community, a fair number of us married out, and a few of us spectacularly so — my grandchildren are Afro-Norwegian-Native American-Russian-Jewish, otherwise known as all-American kids. And we’re only the most extreme of our family. Having a First Family that reflects this generational change in the melting pot really pleases me greatly.

    I noticed Malia’s photography, too. Good for her.

  15. Diversity? Ah! As far as I know all of my known ancestors (up to the beginning of the 19th century) lived in a 30 km circle centered on my house.

    Some of my relatives researched the history of their families, so I also know that my maternal grandfather’s family moved in the 17th century in the same village in which my mother lived until she married, and that my paternal grandmother’s family lived for 300 years in another village a few kilometers away.

    I specified “known ancestors” because one of my great-great-grandparents was a foundling, abandoned in a church in Venice, and he never found out his real parents; also, this country was crossed by countless “friendly” or “enemy” armies during the last centuries, and we all know what that meant for the poor peasants women.

  16. The article notes the First Family is more diverse than most families, and it is, although I wonder if it is in fact substantially more diverse

    I don’t think so.

    My family includes Irish, Scot, English, Swede, Sami, Italian, Korean. Religiously we run from Pagan to Jew to Baptist to Episcopalian to ‘Church? I’ll be out fishing’.

    And, probably, others that I don’t know about.

    A good thing, I think. Plus when you mix up Jews, Italians and Koreans you get some hot, hot hot women for in-laws.

  17. Certainly more diverse than MY family, which is Irish and Irish (my hubby is .75 Irish and .25 Polish)…even the spouses in both families are either Irish or some European Catholic variation (Italian, Hungarian, etc). Nice to see the diversity on stage yesterday!!

  18. On my father’s side, I am the first native English speaker. His parents and brother and sister were German peasants who came from the Volga River area of Russia around 1905. On my mother’s side, mostly British folks, starting with Puritans who went to Holland to escape religious persecution, then back to England, then hopped the Mayflower and came to the new world, where they set up religious persecution of their own. Later there were folks on both sides of the civil war and pioneers who moved west. Fairly typical American, actually. No Canadian in the ancestry, but some side line folks lit out for Alberta when the US Gov said they couldn’t be polygamists here.

  19. Canadians look just like us! Only their “u”s and zeds give them away.

    And the use of “eh?” in the same way that you would use “nu” in Yiddish.

    crabby lady – ah, but what KIND of Irish? Munstermen? Folks from Cork? Even within ethnic/national groups there is a lot of diversity – try and tell a Galitzianer that she’s the same as a Litvak because they’re both of Eastern European Jewish ancestry.

  20. The U.S. is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures, but that has rarely, if ever, been represented in the president’s family. All of our other presidents were white men from white families. I’m sure if you dig deep and go back far enough in their family trees, you’ll find other enthicities, but no president (that I know of) ever embraced that. President Obama is unique in many ways. I like him.

  21. CosmicDog – “white” isn’t a real ethnicity. Irish and Italian ancestry is considered “white” now, although it didn’t used to be. I agree with you that it’s now something to be celebrated rather than hidden, and yay African-American president, but when you say that “white men from white families” means homogeneity, you’re buying into that myth that skin color is a useful means of classifying people into groups.

  22. Mythago:

    Indeed, there was much made about the fact that Kennedy was Irish (and also, Catholic). Which seemed a bit shaky to some folks.

    I’m mostly Irish and Italian myself, so 60 years ago I’d have been somewhat suspect.

  23. Diversity in a family is a good thing. Ask any woman of Ashkenazi heritage about BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.

  24. A friend of mine who lived in Chicago for many years (I believe in the 70s) was involved in local politics. When he moved away, he was astounded to learn that anyone thought of “white people” as a monolithic group. Sure, he understood and saw racism, but he was used to ethnic groups all having separate and competing interests – “the blacks” were a separate ethnic group that stuck together politically, but so were Poles, Jews, Italians, Irish, etc. The idea that, say, Poles and Italians automatically had overlapping interests or some kind of natural brotherhood because they were “white” boggled his mind.

  25. Chris wrote: “I think that it might be a pretty distinctly American phenomenon though. Or at least a distinctly “new country” phenomenon, sociologically I could see it happening here, Canada, and…not much of anywhere else.”

    I had read that as well, that Canada and especially America are the most diverse countries. And that is a good thing.

    Often diversity is missed or under-reportedbecause of larger ethnic grouping, thinking of people as Black or White but not Yoruban or Zulu or Northern German etc. Then there is the whole phenotype genotype thing. I am part Cherokee (I will not tell which part) but you can’t tell it by looking at me.


  26. Cosmicdog wrote: “I’m sure if you dig deep and go back far enough in their family trees, you’ll find other enthicities, but no president (that I know of) ever embraced that.”

    Good point. In fact, President Obama kind of over-embraced his ethnicity in referring to himself as Black when he is multiracial. Of course, almost everyone else did as well. He had the honesty to refer to himself as a mutt which I found endearing.

    The latest rumour I heard was that the reason the birth certificate was not produced was because on it he is listed as white. That makes more sense than some of the ideas I have read.


  27. Yeah — it’s nice to have a family that looks like mine, sorta. German, English, Scots, French, Dutch, St. Lucian, Mexican-American, African-American, Native American, Irish, and Thai. And a great-grandmother who spoke fluent Yiddish, which no one can quite explain (although she had 6 other languages as well).

  28. I’m mostly Irish and Italian myself, so 60 years ago I’d have been somewhat suspect.

    John. You write science fiction for a living – you are somewhat suspect.

  29. I was thinking about this last night. My son looks aryan (blue eyes, blond hair). I am a German/Russian Jew with dark hair and blue eyes and my wife is Irish (1/2), Italian (1/4), Mexican (1/4) with blue eyes and blond hair. So my son is Mexican, Irish, German, Russian, but overall- 100% American… I think he should get some free money in college for the Mexican part. he he he

  30. Sadly, not much diversity is obvious in my family tree. My parents both came from backwoods Alabama (though at least different parts of it), and efforts to track our family tree backwards pretty much find one Anglo-Saxonish backwoodser after another, until you get back to our oldest known ancestor popping up in Georgia shortly after the inhabitants of the debtors’ prisons of England were dumped there. About the most diversity you get is that one side was Methodist and the other was Baptist.

    My kids will at least get to add in German and Irish, but that’s about as far as it goes, to the best of our knowledge.

  31. See, that seems like a *normal* family to me.

    But then again, I’m one of six adopted kids and only two of us are white. And my mom’s gay and my dad’s an overachiever. So, maybe I’m biased. :)

    I think it’s good though. The USA is a diverse country, hopefully someday we can all just be American no matter what we look like (or our social class…), instead of something-american.

    course, at the moment I’m brokegradstudent-american. :P

  32. at #28 – I think Barack has been dealing with the “is he Black enough” question for pretty much his entire political career.

    And one of the cultural legacies of one drop rule are the assumptions made about mixed race people with african heritage.

  33. Not much diversity in my actual ancestry. I’m a British Isles mutt – diversity extends to having English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Black Irish and Scotch-Irish ancestry.

    But once we get into marriage relations suddenly the family explodes with religions and ethnicities.

  34. Tapetum wrote: “diversity extends to having English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Black Irish and Scotch-Irish ancestry.”

    There was a day when that kind of diversity would have gotten someone killed! Maybe that is the lesson, this too shall pass.


  35. This subject came up last week with an cousin. Most of us who grew up considering ourselves white were kind of surprised to find out when we became adults that we were suspect! I’ve got German, Dutch, Irish, Mexican, American Indian, and who knows what else. I married a cajun, and added that to the mix for my kids. But I was always considered white. I’ve been saying for years that the “beiging” of America was underway, and it’s a good thing. I think this just goes to reinforce that idea. Mainly, I think we’ve got to get that racial consideration out of our general thinking. Which is harder to do than to say.

  36. @DG Lewis

    Agreed. Genetic counseling is your friend. :-)

    My family consists more-or-less of every type of eastern-European Jew out there. My hypothetical future kids will be even more muttlike than me, since my grandmother-in-law is a yekke (German Jew), one place I don’t have in my gene pool…

  37. What’s also excellent was a comment on a news program about the diversity of all the people around him (unfortunately I forget the whole text, but all the “firsts” that were on the stage with him and their backgrounds). And that this wasn’t a specific “diversity” program per say (such as picking cabinet positions), it just happened that way.

  38. The USMC thinks I’m Swedish, but that part of my ancestry (Grandpa W’s g^3?grandfather) is actually Norwegian. If you trace Damn Yankee Grandpa T back, you find five brothers who fought in the American Revolution; one died, two of them, Royalists, moved to Canada afterwards. Going further back, we’re supposedly Persian.

    Counting by width at the Cousin’s Picnic every 4Jul … I’ve never bothered, and won’t.

    Stupid thing to brag about, your ancestors are given to you.


  39. On one side, I have both Mayflower-ish ancestors and pogrom-fleeing Russian Jews. On the other, folks from Kansas and New Hampshire, who came to California as WW1 draftee, and decided never to leave.

  40. Damn. I’m just from a bunch of white people with a few Indians in the mix who married into a bunch of white people with a few Indians in the mix. Twice. That means I’m whiter than Michael Jackson.

  41. Our extended family is mostly varying strains of European(pick a country) but one thing I appreciate about both the family and the inlaws is the religious/political/career/lifestyle diversity we’re all required to deal with if we’re going to make it through Christmas and Thanksgiving. Nobody goes along to get along, but you learn not to make sweeping statements over dinner if you don’t want the union rep or the Republican attorney or the general-purpose crankypants to tell you what all you don’t know. I think everybody should have family like that.

  42. German, Irish and Native American (Cree) here. I guess I have enough % to claim Native American but it never seemed important to me. Unless I can get Casino $’s. 8D

    I’ve always known that our little Whatever community is very diverse but it seems a little weird to me to have a discussion on our own diverse backgrounds and have it feel like a linking experience. I really like that feeling and hope it continues.

    Maybe that’s the whole point of yesterday. If so, it bodes well for the future.

    Jeff S.

  43. @leigh in 43 – I think we all need a general-purpose crankypants to be wary of at the Thanksgiving dinner table, what a great idea! Maybe I can adopt the moniker as a way to get everyone to give me my way for the evening. My son was nicknamed Captain Crankypants while still in diapers, so he may try to finagle the position, but I’ve still got 3 feet on him so I’m hopeful…

    Meanwhile, going back to your bit about being mostly Irish and Italian, John, I’m reminded of a time when I was teaching a class in Prague (ah, the good old days before the tech bust of 2000…) and talking to my students about my cultural heritage – sidebar: I spent most of the trip to the Czech Republic in stunned amazement because *everyone* looked like me. I was home at last. My Czech/Bohemian heritage is no greater percentage than the polish, irish, english, or whatever else parts my parents could piece together about our family’s generic central/western european heritage, but apparently our family’s feature set favors the Czech Republic.

    At any rate, I explained my background, then described my husband who is 3/4 Irish and 1/4 German (so if you’re looking for the math – back on one side of the family a 100% German dude married a 100% Irish gal). The mostly central European group looked around at one another and chuckled. I asked to be let in on the joke and they said it just struck them as odd, imagining the combination.

    And *that* explains just about everything about my husband. ;)

  44. Gosh, some feel so un-diverse! I’m 3/8 Swedish (but look 100%), 1/8 German, 1/4 English, 1/8 Irish, and 1/8 Native American. Basically, white with a bit of Native American in the mix.

  45. mythago @ 22: good point…my Dad was from the Gaeltacht Dingle pennisula in Kerry and my Mom is from Monaghan, directly on the border between North & South, regions that, in the ’70s (when I spent my summers there) were about as different from each other as Maine and Mississippi. But Ireland has become a microcosmic melting pot in the last 15 years, so much so that even Obama’s familial variations may not be all that unique there.

  46. Pure blood here. My parents and ancestors back unto the severalth generation are Sri Lankan Tamils of a particular caste and subcaste. My mother once told me quite loudly during one of our arguments that NO ONE IN OUR FAMILY HAS EVER MARRIED OUTSIDE OF CASTE.

    It took me partnering with a white guy and having a mongrel daughter to taint the bloodline. Ah well.

  47. I’ve always considered myself a western european mutt (English, Irish, Scottish, Germanic, Spanish). That said, one of the more fascinating aspects of my heritage (to me) are the forebears who came to the states to join the Morman faith. I just can’t quite wrap my head around an englishman who decides “Yes, I’d like to follow that Joe Smith guy. He saw an angel!!”. I cannot, however, argue with being a native Nevadan, so good on you Thomas McBride!

    As another aside, I spent part of my childhood on Maui (rough times…not!) where I was the minority (a good thing in my mind). And I loved the diversity amongst all the kids I grew up with (and can imagine to a degree Obama could relate to as well). One of my best friends was the daughter of an African-American engineer and a Jersey Italian housewife. The other was a hybrid of Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian and Filipino ancestry. And they were hardly unusual. It was rather shocking to me when we moved back to the “mainland” and my school was virtually all white. I like that were turning beige.

  48. Mary Anne, you’re much nicer than I am. Last time Mom bemoaned some failure as a daughter I pointed out that it was clearly her fault for doing such a piss-poor job of mate selection and then raising me. Last time we had THAT argument…

  49. As I delight in reminding current anti-immigrant know nothings, even those of us of Native American ancestry are immigrants from Central Asia….just a bit further back in the past than the rest of you…

  50. My wife and I were looking at that picture and agreed that it looked like a pretty typical family for Hawaii.

  51. My birth family is very WASP, with a dash of German, Irish and Quebecquois.

    My husband’s family is Italian/Irish/German/Hungarian (via Croatia) and Catholic.

    One sister-in-law is Russian/Jewish and the other is Italian/Catholic.

    So, yes, I am impressed by the diversity of Obama’s family.

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