Barack Obama, Black, Biracial, Whatever

Question: is Barack Obama black or biracial? And does it matter?

There have been discussions about that all over the Internet, and no doubt in living rooms and business offices across the country.

For many black folks, it’s this simple: if he has a drop of black blood, he’s black. So people just need to acknowledge that and deal with it.

But it isn’t that simple. Being biracial IS a different cultural experience than being black. Adrienne Maree Brown makes the point in COLORLINES magazine’s RaceWire blog:

…I have to just share this temporary moment of swelling heart boom boom because Obama, Barack Hussein Obama, a half-breed, Hafrican, mulatto, black and white cookie, creamed coffee, is-he-is-or-is-he-ain’t, mixed, multi-, biracial, more-than-a-drop, cafe au lait like me is going to be the Democratic nominee for President.

No one will want to remember it that way, it’s too advanced to get into, its big enough that he’s a black man, the black candidate who has been running against the woman candidate in our oversimplified media vomitorium of electoral coverage.

But as a woman who grew up with that special experience of visiting the far reaches of the American experience as represented by the racial spectrum in my veins, as a biracial woman who takes note of all the multicultural straddlers out there leading and supporting movements, I want to take a moment that we rarely get.

Mariah Carey, goddess that she is, isn’t out there forging the path of righteousness for those who are undefining the boundary. Halle Barry wants nothing to do with the gray space. We haven’t had many public figures giving speeches about their mixed heritage, out there publicly applying the unique ability to go beyond temporary bridge-building to the true and evolutionary, fusionistic type of movement building which is a survival mechanism honed at the dinner table for multiracial babies.

James Burnett, a black journalist writing in theMiami Herald blog, says that it time for the press to start acknowledging this aspect of Obama’s life:

It is short-sighted and disingenuous for my elevated peers to keep referring to Obama as black or African American. He is biracial.

And while his skin color…and Clinton’s gender, and McCain’s age shouldn’t matter in terms of their qualifications, how we address those characteristics should matter to you.

This country has a history of using that whole “one drop” rule that basically stated anyone with a drop of black blood in his system is black. It was used as a means of holding some folks back, back in the day.

We’re past that kind of blatant stuff now, I know. But this has psychological implications too. By completely ignoring the fact that Obama is half white, when discussing voters’ feelings about his ethnicity, the media is perpetrating a fraud on the news consumer and  buying into to the racial hype that has contributed to people drawing tan lines in the sand this election season.
Let me say this one more time: if Barack Obama is black, then he is white.

He is half of both. So if my better-paid peers insist on continuing to refer to him as the black candidate, instead of a biracial candidate – on those occasions when his appearance is relevant to the conversation – then I am going to have to start referring to him as the white candidate. Why not? Clearly forcing him onto one side or another makes for better TV.

It hasn’t been that many years since the media crowned clergymen from New York and Chicago the co-emperors of black people. Are we so desperate to crown someone new that we’re gonna force the rectangle that is Obama into the square hole that is the mass media’s designated spot for such royalty?

All of this leads to the inevitable question: what does Barack Obama think? A piece from the Hartford Courant offers that

Paul Colford, director of media relations for the AP, reminded me of a “60 Minutes” interview in which Obama said, “I am rooted in the African-American community. But I’m not defined by it. I am comfortable in my racial identity but that’s not the core of who I am … that’s not all I am.”

“60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft pointed out Obama’s upbringing in a white household and asked, “Yet at some point, you decided that you were black?” Obama replied: “Well, I’m not sure I decided it. I think, you know, if you look African American in this society, you’re treated as an African American.” 


My own feeling is that, while this is a valid and interesting discussion, the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t care. What they see is a black guy with a black wife who attends a black church who’s from a black neighborhood, etc, etc. For all intents and purposes, Barack Obama is black, and that’s that.

Still, his story does say something to the biracial community, which has its own unique struggles and challenges. It remains to be seen if Obama will have the time to tell that story in the course of this election campaign.

Having said that, I do think that Barack’s biracial-ness has been a part of key to his success.

I often say that, the top-most emotion that blacks have about whites is not hate or fear, but mistrust.

Black folks know white people are not all racists, but we know that some are. The problem is, we don’t know who’s racist and who isn’t. So we go through life with our racist radar up, trying to see if a slight or insult or instance of unfair treatment is personal, or about race.

Over the course of a lifetime, the emotional baggage that comes from dealing with race gets so heavy, it can become a burden. A burden that can make us angry, and sap away our hope. (Barack Obama refers to this in his “Perfect Union” speech on race relations.)

Being biracial, Barack Obama doesn’t have the same baggage. When Barack Obama thinks of white people, his memories are about the white mother who told him bedtime stories and tucked him into bed; about the white grandparents who made his lunch before he went to school; about the white family members who celebrated his graduation and marriage.

Obama’s own life is as much about white “goodness” as it is about white racism. That, I think, has given Obama an ability to connect with whites that a black kid growing up poor in a segregated innercity neighborhood might lack.

And it gives Obama more reason to hope than cynics in the black community could ever dream of having.

In the end, I think the fact that Obama can get this far, and become the presidential nominee for a major political party, says something good about all of us in America – black, white, mixed, whatever. And that transcends the question of how he got that drop of black blood.

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2 comments

  1. AP

    It is true that President Obama is NOT a member of the very specific Ethnic group known as African-American (AA) — BUT — his being Mixed-Race is NOT at all what precludes him from being an AA (as +70% of the people born to two (2) AA parents are also of Mixed-Race lineage — with 20-30% European and +25% Amerindian bloodlines)

    What precludes him from being an AA is that the AAs are actually a very specific ETHNIC grouping of people.

    The term African-American (AA) does NOT even mean ‘Black’ !!!!-

    The term African-American (AA) – as it is used in the United States — simply means:

    “a descendant of the survivors of the chattel-slavery system that took place on the continental United States during the antebellum era!!

    The following links may be of some help in explaining this in more detail:.

    Have a nice day !!! :D

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/message/3331

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=Al5eeK2CFwcv4rD5U5qzvEfty6IX?qid=20070527201834AAIhzhM&show;=7#profile-info-CiC2JY9Maa

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=AiebDu.tSshJzQ0wS5fMp7jty6IX?qid=20070623205206AANUzPN&show;=7#profile-info-q1hdwifgaa

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=AjwuxYj8agKY7yGgqaJ7i.Xty6IX?qid=20070704121228AA7ZMsA&show;=7#profile-info-ezQwEaJLaa

    • lunchcountersitin

      As I read this I am reminded of the old AA joke:

      Q: What does a white man call a black man with a degree?
      A: A n*****.

      The point of the joke was: to white Americans, we (AAs) are all the same. As Obama notes above, “if you look African American in this society, you’re treated as an African American.” 


      Now: does Obama actually “come from” (was he raised in) the AA culture? Technically, no. So your point is “correct” in that sense.

      But as far as society is concerned, he is a black man, and that’s that. Note that, I am not saying that this shallow approach to racial identity is “right”, I’m just saying,that’s the way it is.

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