Yesterday, President Barack Obama visited daytime talk show “The View” and touched on a wide range of topics, including Lindsay Lohan’s prison term. But during a more serious exchange, Obama used a word to describe African-Americans that has its own complex and emotional history: “mongrel.”
The president and the five “View” co-hosts were discussing the recent controversy around Shirley Sherrod and the dilemmas of race in America. Barbara Walters offered this comment and question to President Obama: “You do not describe yourself as a black president. Your mother was white. Would it be helpful or why don’t you say ’I'm not a black president, I’m bi-racial?”
Obama responded, in part: “The interesting thing about the African-American experience in this country is that we are sort of a mongrel people, I mean we’re all kinds of mixed-up. Now that”s actually true for white America as well, but we just know more about it.”
Mongrel has several meanings. In botany, it refers to “any plant resulting from the crossing of different breeds or varieties.” Used generally, it can describe “of mixed breed, nature, or origin.” If you are talking about breeding animals, especially dogs, a mongrel is “a dog of mixed or indeterminate breed.” And in the ugly history of racism, “mongrel” has been used to demean couples of different ethnicities and children of mixed race.
This last sense of mongrel invokes another nasty word, miscegenation, which is a derogatory term for couples of mixed race who marry and have kids. In many states anti-miscegenation laws made it a crime for two people of different races to have a relationship or engage in intimate activities. The Supreme Court found these laws to be unconstitutional in 1967.
This explanation barely scratches the surface of the context behind “mongrel,” and doesn’t begin to touch upon Obama’s use of the word or his intentions. That’s where you come in. The president is known for his precise and astute use of language. Do you think he meant to rehabilitate the word, by emphasizing the positive or neutral aspects of its history? Did he use “mongre,l” knowing full well that it has some an offensive tinge, as a reminder of the hardships that mixed-race families have faced for centuries? Or do you think he was simply not thinking about every word that came out of his mouth? Tell us what you think.
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