Looking in the Cultural Mirror

How understanding race and culture helps us answer the question: "Who am I?"

Is Barack Obama Black or Mixed?

What do the terms tell us about American racial categories?

Barack Obama's election as President symbolized for many a triumph over prejudice.  But for some the question remains--is he black?

As with all such questions, it depends on what you mean by black

One way to reach an answer is to list the principal meanings of black, and respond to each one.  That way you can choose the meaning you are interested in and get your question answered.  In addition to deciding how to classify Barack Obama in terms of a specific criterion, this exercise also helps to understand our culture's various meanings of black.

It is also possible to go further, comparing the meanings of various racial terms, here and in other cultures, and see what additional insights they offer.

When I was growing up, and certainly in my parents' generation, Barack Obama would have been considered black--though the words Americans used to denote people now called African Americans changed over time from colored to Negro to black.  Today, most high school and college students I've met would call him mixed.  This is a real change in meaning, moving people of diverse parentage out of one purportedly biological category of race ("If he has black blood he's black.") and into another ("If he's black and white he's mixed.")  People assume that racial categories are biological, and therefore fixed; but the fact that they can change from black to mixed reveals them to be social classifications.

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In Brazil, Barack Obama would most likely be called mulato, but not because his father was African and his mother traced her ancestry to Europe.  Although Americans categorize people racially by ancestry, Brazilians do so by what they look like.  Obama simply doesn't look African enough to Brazilian eyes to be called preto or negro

Is he African American?  If the question means "Does he identify with and is he accepted as a member of this group?" the answer is "Yes."  But if it means "Is he descended from slaves in the United States?" the answer is "No."  Furthermore, since nearly all American slaves came from West Africa, and Kenya is in East Africa, Obama doesn't even share a regional ancestry with African Americans. 

Census categories are the product of politicians rather than scientists (though scientists play a role in tidying up the conceptual disarray handed to them).  Over the decades--as we have gone from slavery to segregation to desegregation to some degree of integration--legal definitions of race have changed.  In the 2000 census, Barack Obama was free to choose among black, black and white, or even conceivably white.  Leaving these options open to the individual shows a degree of recognition that race is a social rather than biological category, since he would not have been free to choose his sex from among male, male and female, or even conceivably female (in recognition of the larger size of the X chromosome).

Barack Obama is what he is.  We know what he looks like; we know about his parents and ancestry.  The question "Is Barack Obama black or mixed?" appears to ask for information about him, but in fact gives clues to the cultural categories Americans use in thinking about "race."

 

 

Image source:

http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/image/ObamaBarack.htm

Barack Obama, Senator of Illinois, 2005

 

Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books at http://amazon.com/Jefferson-M.-Fish/e/B001H6NFUI

The Myth of Race is available on Amazon http://amzn.to/10ykaRU and Barnes & Noble http://bit.ly/XPbB6E

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Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St. John's University, has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.

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