Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama is just as white as he is black.

It's actually a factual comment. So why is it so offensive to many blacks, and somewhat soothing to many whites? I'm not sure there's a easy (forgive the pun) black or white answer.

I'm biracial too. I'm not sure I could say I'm equally black and white considering my German mother's father was Moroccan. Though DNA labs categorize many North Africans as white, I'm not so sure. Never-the-less, I grew up with a parent perceived as white and a parent definitively descended from African slaves in America. So, Elle asked me to give my take on this, and I reluctantly agreed. It's not that I don't have an opinion. I have many. But these opinions - when it comes to racial identity, for me, tend to contradict one another. But that's the problem isn't it. Racial identity and cultural norms aren't pretty, neatly divided packages. And for someone who doesn't fit squarely in one box or another, it's not as simple as just picking one.

Often-times, the box is checked for us. Barack Obama may have been raised by a white mother and white grandparents, and attended mostly white schools, but he looks Black, and, therefore, is Black. This is largely what our societal norms tell us. It's the same for me. I certainly don't look white (though I have often been mistaken for a Black Latina), so I must accept that society will always perceive me as Black. And Obama, clearly, has consciously accepted this norm, as have I, to a large degree. He writes in his autobiography about trying to find his way and teach himself how to grow up as a Black man. I grew up with my Black parent in the house, but still felt the need to adapt or favor my blackness - particularly once I made it to high school in Texas. Prior to then, I'd lived in Germany and California on military bases where many of the other kids were biracial in so many different combinations. My best friends were Black & Korean, White & Korean, Black & German, White & Japanese and Black & Mexican. Even at my high school in Texas these combinations were common - it was a military town too, but the lines between Black and White were much sharper and divisive. Biracial kids with Black ancestry were often asked what they called themselves by other Blacks. If Black wasn't the answer and only answer, you were a sell-out or Uncle Tom, or you thought you were better than non-biracial Blacks.* So I conformed. I fit in. Most of my interests in music, tv, fashion, boys, etc, were in step with my Black peers anyway, and I didn't want to offend, and didn't want to be seen as a sell out or "high yellow" (a new term to me when I moved to Texas). Being biracial is not something I advertised. I knew my husband for years in college before he knew I had a white mom - and he was shocked. His friends to this day come over to our house and ask who the white people are when they look at our pictures (I also have a white brother).

Largely because of societal constructs, it just seems intuitive to think of myself as Black. Having a white mother hasn't somehow mitigated the subtle and not-so-subtle racism I've experienced over the years. Those experiences and the fact that I am a real minority in this country helped bond me to the Black experience on a very rudimentary level. But it's not that simple. I am half white. That doesn't make me better than anyone, it's just who I am. And I like to look at Obama as someone like me.

My mother felt (justified or not) a very real rejection from me when I was a teen. To this day I'm not sure what I said or did - it's not like I had a afro and screamed "black power" every day. But she felt it, all the same. Claiming to be biracial to me is more an acceptance and inclusion of my mother, than a rejection of being black. She married my father before it was legal in all states. She experienced the hatred first-hand for having the gall to allow a Black man to raise her white child. She endured it all and gave life to me. She deserves to be included when I say who/what I am.

But often, many in the black community see it the differently. When Mariah Carey didn't say Black first when she said she was Irish, Venezuelan and Black, there was an uproar. I remember being perplexed at why she should embrace Black first when her Black & Venezuelan father was nowhere to be found. Halle Berry was hailed because she considered herself Black despite being raised by a single white mother. And Tiger...don't get me started. How DARE he not claim being Black. And while I find myself disturbed by anyone who seems to run from the Black part of them, I completely relate to those that simply include other parts of them as well and find myself frustrated with Blacks who can't see it that way.

But it's too easy to simply say that those who are offended or put off by biracial people who don't just pick Black are wrong. I understand the very real circumstances that have created this. I mean starting with "house niggers" and "field niggers" through brown paper bag tests to today's very real social constructs that teach us that the whiter you are the more appealing you are, there are very real reasons for the feelings of rejection for many Blacks. For so long people of color wanted to align themselves as closely to white or non-black as possible: "I've got Indian in my family" "I'm Creole" "I'm Spanish", etc. For so long those with very real non-Black blood in them used it as a tool separate themselves in class from their darker skinned peers (like with the above mentioned brown paper bag tests). I know fair skinned Black people to this day whose family members frown upon them being involved with a darker skinned person. And there are people who think they are better than, prettier than, smarter than, simply because their skin is light or they've got "good hair". The resentment some may feel is rooted in something real, whether I find it applicable to me or not. First impressions of me by Blacks are often that I'm stuck up, rather than simply introverted and somewhat shy.

In the end, facts are facts. Society may see me as black (or at least non-white). I AM both. Now that I have two boys who are light skinned, I don't want them thinking they are better than anyone, AND I don't want them struggling to prove their Blackness. Their grandmother is white. She adores them. They have white cousins - and while they have a gazillion cousins on their father's side, my boys and my other [biracial] brother's children (with Mexican mother!) are the only cousins my white nephews and niece have. I don't want them to grow up hiding that fact nor do I want them elevating that fact to separate themselves or make themselves out to be better. But, in the end, their white grandmother won't prevent them from being pulled over by racial profiling police. And it won't make it any easier for them, should they decide to run for president one day.

Obama is a savvy politician who clearly understood all of this and he smartly navigated a thin line. While I'm sure there is validity to his acceptance of himself as a Black man on his own, he's intelligent and self-realized enough to know that he couldn't be perceived as seeing himself as better than or other than Black by the Black community. What better way to embrace his Blackness than to declare it. But he was also careful to emphasize his real roots with his family. Being raised by a white mother and white grandparents no doubt made him more palatable to some whites with deeply ingrained prejudices. I find it ridiculous that it would, but I'm sure it did all the same.

So, what's wrong with saying Obama is the first Black president? Nothing. He is. Yes, there are a few Presidents that might have had some Black in them down the line, but none had a parent or even first grandparent known to be Black. But there's nothing wrong with saying he's biracial either. He is. To me, it's not a rejection of or separation from being Black, it's an inclusion of all that he is and involves people who were instrumental in making him who he is. But, I'll admit I am conflicted here as well, because I do believe his Whiteness somehow makes him more palatable and his achievement less earth-shattering to many whites. I've experienced this too. Having a white parent somehow explains to some why I'm smart or why my hair is long or why I'm so (here it comes...) articulate.** People actually think they are complimenting me by pointing out how smart and articulate I am for a Black girl. I seem to defy their ideas of racial construct until they find out my mom is white. Nevermind it's my father who has the college degree (that he got at 50) in our family and my mother was brought up very, very poor in Post WWII Germany and only made it through 8th grade.

So Elle, like many biracial people, I find myself on the fence here. I don't like the idea that Obama being half White somehow makes him more acceptable, in fact I find that insulting. But I don't like the idea that he must be considered Black to avoid somehow diluting the amazing accomplishment he's achieved. So, while I find myself taken aback by articles such as this that challenge the notion that he is our first Black president - the author linked believes it should be first biracial President, when I really think about it, the statement is simply fact. It's our convoluted, socialized racial constructs that make it seem like a controversial thing to say. Because somehow we (many of us) perceive that to be a rejection of Blackness rather than an inclusion of Whiteness.

* I say non-biracial Blacks, because, lets face it, Blacks in America, specifically ones descended from slaves are not 100% Black.

** I absolutely HATE that word when used about Black people. It's so patronizing.


cripchick said...

as a mixed person (white & korean) it feels so good to read someone speak of this experience and how being raised on military bases shaped how you understand race.

dance said...

[recent lurker on elle's RSS feed]

I have no problem with individuals identifying themselves as biracial but not black, or checking multiple boxes on the census instead of just one.

I get offended when it comes to Obama because people who claim that he is not black, but biracial, can only do that by ignoring and overriding what he himself says about his own identity, and what he has done for the last 30 years. I also get offended when people do this because it ignores the history of blackness as an inclusive category. Black has ALWAYS included people of mixed descent. To say that a white mother means Obama is not black is just totally ignorant of what blackness means in the US. Black and biracial are not and never have been mutually exclusive terms (while for hundreds of years, white and biracial HAVE been mutually exclusive terms). For Obama to call himself black is not a rejection of his white mother. He knows this. That others pretend it is a rejection, offends me.

I hated that WP article, but thanks for linking to the discussion.

[Sorry if this posts multiple times, getting weird error messages]

Kimberly said...

Thanks for your reply and I hear you. I too was put off by the WP article at first, but I can't say the author is entirely wrong, especially after reading her Q&A. It made me think. You talk about how biracial and black aren't mutually exclusive, but what drives us to believe that biracial and white are. The one drop rule is a white construct derived from a notion that white is pure. Why do we feed into a notion that is racist at its base? There are positives of-course in that there is a kind of strength that stems from numbers in a group with a common purpose.

While people of mixed Afro/Euro decent may have been more accepted by Blacks than Whites, I'm not sure one can say (not that you are) that they've always been entirely accepted. Obama himself was dogged at first by the notion that he wasn't "black" enough.

My intent wasn't to say that him saying he was Black was a rejection of his mother - simply that it should be okay to say he's both - which is something he's been doing more and more as of late.

I'm not sure what is right or wrong here given how different my experience has been from so many others', but I do wonder what motivates us to choose one way over another.

Anonymous said...

great post. i especially relate to the paragraph about your mom feeling rejected--i am arab and white raised by a single white mom and i know she definately felt personally rejected at first as a result of me getting more connected to my arab side.

dance said...

The one drop rule is a white construct derived from a notion that white is pure. Why do we feed into a notion that is racist at its base?

A good point. But I don't think the best way to deal with that issue is just to pretend that it doesn't exist.

I have seen the claim that to say he is black rejects half of himself, etc, several times, elsewhere when this discussion comes up.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...