Why is Barack Obama Black?

Barack Obama Jr. and mother (From http://www.slate.fr)

It is given as a fact by people and media alike that Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States.  This has always irked me a little because Barack Obama is not black; he is biracial, as his mother is unmistakably white.  It makes me wonder why race is being portrayed a certain way.  It is not as if African-Americans are claiming he belongs to their race and white people are claiming he belongs to their race, everybody refers to him as being black.

I am biracial, with my father being from India and my mother born in Canada (half Scottish and half Mennonite).  Even if I were to choose which race I identify with

Barack Obama Sr. and Jr. (From http://upload.wikimedia.org)

most closely, it wouldn’t change the fact that I am of mixed race or that my skin tone is a lovely olive shade in between my darker father and my white mother.  Obama is the same way.  He is clearly lighter than his father and darker than his mother.  So why is he still black?  Personally I would be a bit offended if people try to label my race in a way that ignored the genetic and cultural influence of both my parents.  Moreover I was struck by the fact that when it comes to celebrities like Tiger Woods or Shakira, nobody has any problems identifying them as mixed race.  So, again, why is Barack Obama black?

Now it could be that African-American’s are happy to tout him as black because they are still an oppressed race in this country and for the sake of unity as they continue their fight for equality they are looking for an African-American leader.  Someone who can fly the flag for their race and as president make great strides towards greater equality in this country.  It would be sensible, but I think it would be insulting to many African-Americans to assume they are that naïve to think that one man can make that much of a difference to an elected body that is still predominantly white males and has relatively few minorities and women (in discord with the percentages of minorities and women in the country).

Then I wondered whether or not this issue doesn’t make a larger comment about race and racism.  Many people who are biracial have experienced some lack of acceptance as a result of their mixed race (fortunately not me).  This probably not only extends to mixtures of black and white, but all races.  Now here in the U.S. few would complain about a mixture between an Indian and Chinese person, but in India (and probably China) this would be a big problem.  As prejudice towards black people still lingers in this country, I wonder if it isn’t much more comfortable to label Obama as being black than biracial.  Many white people have grown to accept that black people have just as much rights at them, but for some it becomes a whole different ball game when their white child wants to date somebody who is black, or any other race for that matter.  It strikes me as interesting that while the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in 1954, it would be another 13 years before they ruled that banning interracial marriages was also unconstitutional.  It seems clear that people are uncomfortable with mixing.  And I know it’s not only white people, and I know it’s not just a matter of race either.  As a half Indian I am well aware how much of a problem it would also be for my dad’s side of the family (and probably also my dad) if I married a Muslim (even if they looked like any other Indian) given that my dad was born in the Sikh religion.  Indians also have trouble with mixing amongst classes.  If I were to marry an “untouchable” or low caste Indian then that would be even worse.

Finally, it’s important to ask Barack Obama how he identifies himself.  According to what I could find he filled in African-American on his census.  I imagine as someone who has darker skin and curly hair, he was likely treated as black by most people who did not know his ethnic origin and perhaps that is why he identifies himself that way.  Certainly his struggles would have been a bit similar, but of course he did have a fairly well educated and financially comfortable situation growing up.  The cynical side of me might say that he identifies himself as black instead of mixed race to gain more voters. Either way, maybe it’s best that we respect his wishes, but it still seems to me that his “white side” is essentially never mentioned.  He’s black. End of story.  As I jokingly tell my black colleague in my department, “Obama isn’t one of you, he is one of me!”  And although this is going to be very controversial, I don’t agree that Obama is the first black president, he is the first biracial president.  It could be that because he was largely raised by his mother and maternal grandparents that he acts and sounds white enough to please white voters, and looks black enough to please black voters.  There is that cynicism again.  I truly believe that being the product of two different races gives me more uniqueness and strengths in my worldview and how I perceive race.  Given our country’s history towards racial mixing, perhaps Obama’s biracial origin is something we should be celebrating more.




11 thoughts on “Why is Barack Obama Black?

  1. I think it is wonderful to celebrate both races of your origin, Swarn, as I am sure so many people in our modern world do. In fact, each generation forward, I envision, will see three, four, more races of origin running through the blood of humankind.

    It is a significant and important fact that President Obama is the first of black ancestry to be elected to the White House, and I believe that has much to do with why that is noted so often in the way he is described, addressed, and considered. It does not lessen this significance that he also is of white ancestry.

    This is my belief as an American of Polish and German ancestry.

    Thanks for allowing me the chance to comment.


    1. Thank you for your comment. And I do agree, and I don’t want to diminish the significance of the fact that he does have black ancestry and was elected as president. It’s extremely important. I guess I am just contemplating whether or not people in general have a harder time accepting him being biracial because of the general attitudes towards racial mixing, or does the possibility that he is half white make him thus more electable than someone who is 100% black? Since I often read stories about children of mixed race having trouble being accepted by either communities I guess I find it perhaps a little more remarkable that he was elected as someone of mixed race and perhaps speaks even more to the progress this country has made. 🙂


      1. I find it so sad that children of two races find it hard being accepted by either community. That is so wrong.

        Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, sir. And, wow, your lucky child, in my book!


  2. Nice article. My wife has been saying this since the R’s imploded upon Obama’s election. He is biracial. Black is all the R’s and the racist white boys everywhere can see. I am often in the company of people who hate Obama, not because of his politics, but his color. I live in a redneck infested, bible thumping, gun toting, racist/bigoted backwater of Tennessee, if that helps paint the picture a bit better.

    For the record, my wife is 100% Puerto Rican. Our son, though he looks much the white boy like me, is biracial. I am in a biracial marriage. Swarn, you are biracial. Obama is biracial. We live in a biracial world.

    There are far too many who can only see black, white, brown or red. If everything I have managed to glean from modern genetics, and science in general, shows me anything at all, it is that we are all one species. It matters not our skin color or country of origin. All that really matters is who we are, how we treat others, and that we reach out our hands to those in need regardless of color or borders.

    …those incapable of moving beyond the racism and bigotry we grew up with, will hopefully with time become less and less the norm. Enlightenment is slow, but with luck it marches on.


  3. David Fischer

    Excellent and insightful post, this is not something that I have given a lot of thought to, but it also is not something that is close to me as it is you. Upon reflecting on it for a few minutes after reading your post might I add another insight here: Obama is a politician, in all regards a great politician. We can all agree on that whether we agree on his views or party or race, his job is to be in office. To do this he had to make some choices, one of those was if he wanted to be identified as African-American or as biracial. I would argue that it was very much to his advantage to run on the “first black president” platform. There was an unprecedented number of african-american voters for both of his presidential elections and I hold that this was not a coincidence. While he has solid views (I struggle to call them good, but opinions are to each their own) and ran on a solid platform, he would not (necessarily) have won if it were not for the black vote. he knows it, his campaign manager knows it, and even if he had identified as biracial and still won, it would not have been by the margin it was. The increase in black voters was enough to swing the electorate in his favor. Had he identified as biracial he even ran the risk of pushing away some of the more moderate democrats and definitely would have pushed away the more moderate conservatives who voted for him for the very reasons you note above, it is still viewed as strange to mix in this country.

    FWIW I do not care either way, I have no problem with interracial relations and marriage, I respect everyone and all their heritages and views. Their views may not always agree with mine, but I can respect them nonetheless. I agree that this hesitation (to put it lightly) to move forward in this country is ridiculous and wrong, and I would love to see it change. I fear however that even in my lifetime this is a goal that is still just too lofty…

    Overall I would love to see this obsession with one’s race go away, in this country we are all a mix, which means we are all american. I am as white as can be: Italian, Polish, German, Welsh and some Slovak tossed in for flavor. However I was born in America, thus I am not german-american, or italian-american, I am just American. 90% (round estimate, no source) of so called african-american individuals in this country have never been to africa, and thanks to our public school system many of them couldn’t point to it on a map, therefore why do we insist on singling them out as a different type of people? They are just as American as I am.


    1. I agree, but until black people are not actually treated differently because of the color of their skin, this will continue to be a problem.

      Regarding the election, you are right it probably was to his advantage to run on that platform, but if that is something that helped him, then sure a shit FOX news would have made an extra special point to say he’s biracial in an effort to hurt his chances along with all the other things they have tried. Moreover it’s not like black people are confused about his parents but many would also say he is a black president. So it’s not just coming from Barack Obama himself.

      Regarding your point about an “unprecedented number” of black voters, the numbers don’t really support that. I could only find data back to 1976, but the percentage of black voters rose only from 10-13%. The largest increase back from 1976 is from Hispanic voters going from 3% of the voting population to 9-10% now.. This is why the Hispanic vote was a big talking point in the last election, because number show how much their numbers made a difference in 2008 when a good majority voted for Obama. In going through election data the Hispanic vote has not always been so strongly democratic where as the black vote has always been heavily weighted towards the democratic party. There also was an increase in the “other” category and Asian vote from both categories occupying 2% of the vote to now 5%.

      Overall white people are simply a diminishing demographic and the percentages from the last couple of elections much more closely represent the census data in terms of being truly representative of the population. I think that’s what you want in an election.


  4. and why is the color of someone’s skin so damn important these days? Biracial, quadracial? are any of us pure in culture? Geezzz my genetics could not make up their minds when formulating my skin. It is pink with tan pok-ka-dots!!! And red hair………And a fierce temper when it comes to bigotry!

    Stepping off my soap box and smiling, back to my charming self 😊

    “The Finish Line Is Our Starting Point”


  5. Great post on the biracial issues. If you read his biography, Obama goes through much inner dilemma in his youth on wondering which race he should align himself with, and also to which parent. You should read his book. It is eye-opening.


    1. Thank you so much…I would be interesting in understanding his perspective more for sure. But I think it’s also interesting the way society views mixed race too and often this may be counter to how the person sees themselves.


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