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
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.