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Dear President Obama: I'm sorry about the Kenya thing

Posted November 5, 2012

I'm writing to apologize about this whole Kenya thing. A lot of people in this country mistakenly believe that you shouldn't be president because you were born in Kenya, and that it continues to come up, along with questions about your birth certificate, even though you're looking forward to reelection and the Supreme Court really doesn't look like it's planning to strip you of the presidency because of an abrogation of the Constitution.

Most good and decent citizens wonder how it's possible that a president could have mistakenly be identified as a Kenyan citizen, enough to repeatedly call for demands for said president's birth certificate, and much like a toddler and an iPhone, beg and whine to see the same certificate over and over again. It's time for me to come clean: I fear I have accidentally started this rumor.

Back in the early nineties I went to college in upstate New York. In a typical opening conversational gambit people would ask where you were from, which is the first step in a conversation that might either conclude with "I'd like to sleep with you," or "is there any important person in your extended family who might get me a job later and validate your incredibly boring companionship?" First I'd say New York, and they'd say "City or State," and I'd say "New York City." Then they'd ask really? And I felt bad because I was not from New York City. I'd say the suburbs, just east of New York, you know. If they had any sense of geography they would know what I meant, but because most people do not they would continue pressing until I had to admit that I was from Long Island.

And they'd complain about how everyone they'd met was from Long Island. Like it was my fault. Or that it was surprising that any school within the state would have a high level of representation from its most populous region. And hi, Wisconsin, why are you going to school in upstate New York? You wanted to learn that the rumors were true, that it was actually possible to make cheese from cows outside of The Dells?

After the first weekend of school I got sick of the question. They made me feel bad. They'd say things like "Long Island is the only place where people describe where they live by what exit they are on the highway."

This is a particularly useful way of showing where you live because the island is teaming with diverse communities and the strip malls that unite us operate outside of geography.

It was for this reason that I changed my answer. Other students asked "where are you from?" and I started saying "Kenya."

It could just have easily been Bahrain or Nepal but Kenya has always had a higher amount of visibility, and it's a generally funny name. Not at as funny as Cameroon, which is based on the Portuguese word for shrimp, but Kenya works.

Because I wasn't thinking I did no such thing. You should have seen them, Mr. President. They were looking at me and they wondered several things. Do I know where Kenya is? Can I find it on a map? I think Africa but this guy's clearly white. And he doesn't have an African accent. Would it be racially insensitive of me what a white person was doing in Kenya? Or is he full of shit?

Sometimes they'd walk away, not saying anything, thinking I've met my first white friend from Kenya, which I think is in Africa. College is going to be awesome. Others would ask "really?" and unless I were feeling disciplined I'd say "Of course not."

But there were those some kids who were convinced that I'd come to Ithaca New York from Nairobi, and pretty soon I'd witness snow fall for the first time, because they didn't know their geography and had no idea that the snows of Kilimanjaro were right in my imaginary backyard.

Because I shattered their stereotypes about who just might be from Kenya, a lot of people have no problem thinking anyone's from Kenya. This was not a meme I meant to create, but here we are: it's fifteen years later and people think the president is from Kenya too.

The rumor has stuck because of our shared backgrounds. You were a poor kid of mixed racial descent who was born on Oahu. I was a middle class white kid born on another island. You moved to Chicago to get an education in the power politics of the political machines, and I moved to the mean streets of Portland Oregon to get a better taste of craft brewing. And here we are, both of us, working past the dogged rumors of a false Kenyan background.

If you aren't from Oahu or Long Island you can't imagine what it might be like to live on a tropical or temperate island. Is it really true that there are shopping malls right next to the beaches? That you can surf year round, especially on Long Island if you have a wet suit and high immunity to major toxins?

It is here I beg forgiveness, and I hope when you read this you're in the "let's find common ground with Congress" kind of a forgiving mood rather than "lets go high-level target shopping with Predator drones in Waziristan."

Had I only known, Mr. President, that my little joke fake background would cause such trouble for you I might have chosen Latvia, a country best known for being confused as the birthplace and power base of arch villain Doctor Doom.

Thank you for your time and uhuru (ubuntu? ujamaa?)

G. Xavier Robillard



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