For some of us, the heralding of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States seems a rather uncontroversial claim.
Obama isn’t black. ‘Black,’ in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves
Not so for others. One well-known African American writer, Debra Dickerson, famously objected that Obama is not of the people properly defined as “black” on the grounds that because he is not descended from slaves.
Ergo, he is not black—at all.
The bulk of the people protesting against references to Obama as a black man, however, grant that he is “part” black (by way of his father), but assert that because he also has a white mother it is not “accurate” to call him black.
He is “in fact” mixed-race, they say.
My first reaction to questions about the “correctness” or “accuracy” of Obama’s racial classification is to undermine the premise of the question itself. The search for the “correctness” of racial identity presumes that a definitive answer can be found.
It presumes that race is a real entity, something fixed, or natural. It seems to deny what scholars have laboured for decades to demonstrate—that the criteria used to classify people in racial categories, the categories used in a given society, and the uses to which those categories are put—vary by place and time. They are, as academics are fond of saying, “socially constructed”.
Yet the predilections of the scholar fail to satisfy those who claim to know what race Obama “is”, for these are really statements about what the speaker thinks he ought to be.
When people insist that Obama “is” black, they point to his self-identification as such, and the assertion that when most people look at him, they see a black man.
Calling him “black” seems to acknowledge the connection between his rise and the struggles of a people.
When others argue that Obama “is” mixed-race, they point to the fact that he has a white mother, not only a black father, and was raised in an interracial family.
Calling him “mixed-race” seems to acknowledge that family, offering a corrective to centuries of denying our tangled genealogies.
What I find most interesting about the question of what racial label to assign Obama, is that we are asking the question at all.
As recently as 20 years ago, the question of Obama’s racial position would be presumed settled before it was even asked.
In keeping with the one-drop rule—the practice of categorising as black anyone with any known African ancestry—Obama’s identification as a black person would be expected, accepted and unremarkable.
The person suggesting that Obama be classified as mixed-race would quite likely have been met with suspicion or a confused look (“What’s that?”) since for most of US history, in most places, mixed-race identity has not been collectively recognised.
In the last 20 years, however, the collective efforts of mixed-race people in the US to de-stigmatise interracial families and garner public recognition of mixed race identity have been fairly successful (for example, the US government now enumerates mixed race identities).
Even so, the question whether Obama is black or mixed-race reflects a basic misunderstanding of the experience of those of us who have grown up in interracial families, particularly those of us of African descent, born in the post-Civil Rights period.
We (I have an African American father and an Irish American mother) were raised on the front lines of racial change, where the new rules about interracial intimacy often clashed with the old—both in public and in our own families.
The affection we were so comfortable showing our white mothers at home drew stares, and worse, from both whites and blacks in public.
It was in our families where we first felt love and protection as well as the first sting of racial prejudice.
And many of us forged a black identity, one that was not at odds with being mixed-race, but arose out of our experiences as mixed people: from an awareness that the racial dilemma we were born into has its deepest roots in anti-black prejudice.
For us, being black and mixed-race are not mutually exclusive. We have learned to live with the contradictions.
Perhaps it’s time for everyone else to learn to live with them too.