How Will Obama's Racial Identity Play Out?

Election '08
"When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background ... I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am."
-- Barack Obama, from the Introduction to Dreams from My Father (1995)
"Allow myself to introduce ... myself."
-- Austin Powers (Mike Myers), from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
You don't know me, but I know Barack Obama.

At least I feel like I should. I mean, I didn't play basketball for a Hawaiian prep school or anything like that, but I grew up in the suburbs, attended a well-known university, and then moved on up to a low-key but trendy urban neighborhood. I'm biracial, my wife is African American, my parents are of different faiths and they grew up in two different working-class communities only a few miles apart.

It would be fair to say that I fall rather organically within Obama's core demographic. I am to Obama, presumably, what people who are dissatisfied with President Bush but who still favor a few extra years of the Iraq war are to Senator John McCain. One thing I think I can say with confidence is that we all need to take a deep breath when it comes to sorting out the implications of the, uh, mixed messages that abound regarding the identity crisis that America is currently undergoing with the prospect of a black or biracial President only six months away.

Just so that you know where I stand, I do think it was just a coincidence that Soledad O'Brien once hosted a show called Morning Blend. I can't give any of my beige peers a one-size-fits-all answer to use when asked, "What are you?," but I do know that the answer they're looking for is frequently not, "Just a proud American, same as you". And I feel kind of bad for Main Street, U.S.A. In just a few months, we've tossed around the possibility of a woman President, an African-American President, and now we're delving into the concept of a biracial President. It's a lot to take in -- you can't be sure what's true and what isn't. But it's simple: we're not all tragic, but we are all good-looking. Some of us are both (just ask Halle and Keanu).

With a surge of campaign spots that show family photos of the candidate with his (white) mother and grandparents, Obama the nominee and general election Presidential candidate is beginning to tinker with his pitch to American voters in response to questions about his background, his core beliefs, and his general American-ness as relates to his blackness, his whiteness, and his foreign sounding yet undeniably catchy name. Some are asking why these ads don't feature any pictures of his (black African) father or his hapa half sister. And while some may be a little suspicious of his less typical American success story, it's also arguable that he has generated more momentum than he otherwise would have been able to if his name was, let's say, "Mike Johnson", and he had been born and raised on the south side of Chicago.

The Real U.S. Open

We're already more familiar with other popular cultural models of the biracial experience -- the Tiger Woods "Cablinasian" school, wherein being many things all at once might allow you to be anything, but might also reduce you to nothing. And the Jennifer Beals experience, being admired for your exotic properties while at the same time being viewed with a certain amount of pity or even derision for not meeting the pre-conceived notions of those who are unable to reconcile fair skin with African lineage or brown skin with Middle America. Until now, the Obama model is something less examined, yet it is somewhat typical of someone situated as he is -- too young to have experienced the civil rights movement first hand, but too old to be a product of a Derek Jeter and Mariah Carey world.

For better or worse, the identity politics of biracial and multiracial Americans is most easily encapsulated by the now clichéd quandary within our community about which box to check on census forms, job applications, and surveys. Depending on how someone defines himself or herself, this can either be a no-brainer or a big deal. If you've come of age in the "Mulatto Millennium" (as described by Danzy Senna, the grande dame of biracial belles lettres) you're likely to check "other", then fill in the blank with "Taiwanese/ Danish/ Choctaw/ Dominican", and keep it moving without a second thought. But if you're closer to Obama's generation, it's your life experience as an "other" in a less hospitable era that may well give you existential pause.

During the last few months, I've occasionally heard people ask, "Why doesn't Obama call himself white?" Seems simple, right? Not really. One way to look at it is that Obama is black in the way that Senator McCain is a war hero. There's more to McCain than the years he spent as a POW. But that particular experience is endemic to who he is and how he thinks. His experience colors every decision he makes on any issue, and it is both the source of his strengths and some of his weaknesses.

So it is with Obama: despite the aspects of his belief system that derive from being reared by his mother and his grandparents, the arc of his life story and the public persona that we have come to know are ultimately informed by his African-American experience. A biracial person is perpetually making life choices that potentially affirm one part of his heritage and potentially reject another. But at the end of the day, biracial folks and black folks both fit under the broader umbrella of "people of color" in a majority white society, and for many of us that is the tie-breaker.

Good to the Last Drop

Salon's Gary Kamiya notes that the world is moving (slowly) in the direction of a world where traditionally static racial categorizations will eventually become unfixed. He's correct that blackness is no longer automatically conferred by the "one drop" rule (or "hypodescent" if you're feeling saucy and/or elitist). But when he says that "no one will do more to undercut that racist rule than Obama", in a sense, he's missing the evolution that has occurred, that the one drop rule has been turned on its head and embraced as a matter of pride by Obama and other biracial or multiracial Americans who identify with the part of their makeup that has traditionally been the most scorned by society at large. Obama isn't seeking to reject the "label" of being African American -- the one drop makes him whole. In response to prejudice or hostility, it's like saying to the world, "Black isn't just a job, it's an adventure!" or "I'm not just black, I'm BLIZZACK!"

Obama succeeds where other political figures have fallen short: he has avoided the mistake of skipping over race-impartiality as a short cut to the promised land of race-neutrality. He understands that in order to defuse race as an issue, you first have to properly dissect the meaning and impact of race. Too often, in an effort to make sure that we are not, ourselves, perceived as racist, we reach for the idea of colorblindness. Obama started out running a campaign largely free of references to race because he's offering himself as a leader of a multitude of constituencies, not only African Americans.

If he had started out in the "race doesn't matter" camp, he would have been at a loss when confronted by the controversy surrounding his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. What was he supposed to say? "I don't see color, but just in case you do when you see someone like me, it's all good, because I'm part white?" But because of his own self-examination and his earlier "skinny kid with a funny name" analysis, he was able to convincingly approach the problem of race relations in his Philadelphia address, noting that uncomfortable issues brought to the forefront by his candidacy "reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."

It was a speech that succeeded because Obama is grounded within the African-American community, and at the same time his upbringing in a white family provides him, rightly or wrongly, with a rare credibility on these issues in the minds of both black and white Americans. It's not that Obama is just as white as he is black; it's that any person has the ability to see the world through the eyes of the parents who brought them up. He isn't white, but he can see things through the same lens they might be seen through by his mother. At the time of the speech, Slate's Christopher Hitchens complained that, "To have accepted Obama's smooth apologetics is to have lowered one's own pre-existing standards for what might constitute a post-racial or a post-racist future." An erudite way of saying, "Get over yourself."

But Hitchens' way of looking at it is the intellectual equivalent of going to war without a plan to win the peace. If Obama had not explicated on the issue of race relations, he would have wound up displaying a lack of the very race-neutral leadership qualities that the electorate requires in order to support him. Not only would it have seemed irresponsible if someone in his position didn't try to do address race, but then he would have become the "he doth protest too much" candidate; never sure of where he stood in the minds of white voters. The first thing that happens when you try to avoid discussing race issues is that they pop up at the most inconvenient times (like when you're running for President).

The Burger King

Burger King's new tag line is "so special, people may think you think you're special" -- words of wisdom, if I've ever heard them. A tricky feature of being biracial is recognizing that you're different, but not special. Obama surely could have gone a long way in life with his charisma, his Harvard pedigree, and an attitude that he was some kind of breed apart: he could have chosen to spell "Coloured" with a "u." But there's a fine line between establishing yourself as something unique and going out of your way to isolate yourself. A private citizen can and should be whoever he or she wants to be, but a Presidential candidate has to set a table for more than just one.

Shelby Steele argues that Obama has allowed himself to be caught in an unwinnable dilemma between trying to be too black and not being black enough, asking, "Isn't his success, his ease in the American mainstream, due more to assimilation than to blackness?" Clearly Obama has assimilated well, but without affirming his blackness, what kind of leader could he hope to be? He'd be Kennedy without his Irish Catholic grounding, or Bill Clinton without his Hope, Arkansas bootstraps. People don't want to follow someone who doesn't come from somewhere. So along the way in his life, Obama embraced his blackness and his blackness embraced him back.

Yet, when Ralph Nader remarks that the only thing different about Obama is that "he's half African American," he says it like that's a bad thing, as if Obama should be pushing a radical agenda and speaking a black dialect. Doesn't he expect the next President of the United States be a mainstream guy? Wouldn't we all be caught off guard if someone with a blown out Afro, wearing an open-neck tunic and holding his fist in the air was the next President? Karl Rove engages in the fantasy that a young black man whose middle-class journey goes through Kansas and Honolulu is an "elitist", when the current President is the son of a President and the grandson of a U.S. Senator. Their comments betray a lack of awareness or willingness to acknowledge the diversity within African America, and bring to mind the words of rapper DMX, who once queried, "What they really want from a nigga?"

I'll offer The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman a one-time "Mulatto Mulligan" for when he made, and then apologized for, the comment that Obama "is much more white than black, beyond skin color." One can only assume that he was trying his best to jump into the "National Conversation on Race". But as Ta-Nehesi Coates, the new unofficial voice of young African America noted, you don't dip into the Kool-Aid unless you know what flavor it is.

Obama's objective is to appeal to the coal miner's daughter, the hybrid Saab driver, the hedge fund manager, and the retiree, all without losing his 'hood pass. When Obama described some of his fellow Americans as "bitter" and "clinging to guns and religion" he was portrayed as out of touch with the heartland. But what I heard was a textbook example of biracial exposition: "I feel your pain ... and I feel their pain, too."

Stamp of Approval

This whole topic can sometimes be like that free-association riff on dating that Vince Vaughn does in Wedding Crashers -- "a forced, awkward intimate situation," indeed. Is it more progressive to think of Obama as an African American or a biracial American? Should "biracial" be capitalized? If you're white can you talk about Obama's race without sounding like a bleeding heart? If you're black can you talk about his race without being called a reverse racist? If you're Asian, Latino, or Native American, can you get a word in edge-wise? What do they serve for dinner at the Obama family reunion? After the year we're having, biracial folks are going to have a harder time making the case that we're a rag-tag tribe of outcasts. There's a decent chance one of us is going to The White House. One of our greatest heroes is even on this year's Black Heritage stamp. Can a "Biracial History Month" be very far away?

As his lead grows in the world's most high-stakes popularity contest, Obama more and more takes on the role of a cultural marker -- embodying a multitude of narratives of the American experience: immigrant's son, righteous black man, working class kid goes Ivy League -- it's The Namesake meets Good Will Hunting meets In the Heat of the Night. He has as much reason as anyone to believe in the now presumed "post-racial" ideal, not because of a pie-in-the-sky philosophy asking "can't we all just get along?", but because of the work that many biracial/multiracial people do, consciously or unconsciously, in circumstances where they don't have the option of totally embracing one perspective or totally abandoning another.

Obama's detractors might argue that this unusual point of view has engendered in Obama a fragmented sense of what it will mean to lead America. But maybe Obama's perspective makes him more likely to identify common ground between different cultural groups in this society, particularly blacks and whites, and also to mend the relationship between the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Maybe the Obama phenomenon is neither the beginning nor the end of the national conversation on race. Maybe it's half-time.

Should Senator Obama win the election in November, it remains to be seen what he will do, or if he will live up to his potential. But from where I'm sitting, he's as all-American as you and me.

PopMatters, the #1 independent online arts and culture magazine, is international in scope and dedicated to documenting our times and promoting cultural understanding. Find more PopMatters content at

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