Thursday 6 November 2008

Obama is black (if he wants to be)

Obama isn't black, writes a confused Toby Young. And Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in yesterday's Evening Standard that “while Obama and Hamilton are inspiring, neither is black” because they are mixed race, and she complains at the “outrage” of their being “misclassified”.

I disagree. The core principle in a democractic liberal society should be that we should be able to choose for ourselves how we wish to be identified.

So "mixed race" will work for some people. It does for me, up to a point. But not if it extends to an argument for making 'mixed race' a new category in the politics of multiculturalism. That is itself rather mixed up, as I have written before.

Obama’s book Dreams of My Father which chronicles the journey of his coming to terms with his mixed heritage shows how deeply he has thought about identity.

Interestingly, he wrote that he “ceased to advertise my mother"s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites,"

But he has made his personal mixed heritage part of his message of reconciliation and unity.

If Obama chooses to identify himself as a black American, that choice must surely be his to make.


Mil said...

I agree with you. I also think we all have the right to choose how we describe our identity - which bits of us we choose to include and which we might prefer to shed. After having lived for sixteen years in Spain, I would like to think I am part Spanish. Why shouldn't I be allowed to celebrate the cultural identification I feel even when my nationality is another? Surely that is what belonging to a global village should offer us.

Stuart White said...

What those who deny Obama's 'blackness' seem to ignore is that categories like this are inherently social and political constructions with a high degree of arbitrariness (on which, see, amongst many writings, Hari Kunzru's wonderful book, THE IMPRESSIONIST, and E.M. Forster's war-time essay, 'Racial Exercise'). Because of his father, Barack Obama, as a US citizen, would have experienced being categorized as 'black' from an early age. That is the social reality that he faces, and it is impossible for the individual, as individual, to deny or entirely escape it. Indeed, as Obama's remark about ingratiating himself with 'whites' by mentioning his 'white' mother indicates, it can feel wrong - a disloyalty or insult to other 'blacks' - to try to deny this categorisation. He is, after all, and to put it very mildly, far from being the only 'mixed race' 'black' in the US. Consider his wife, Michelle. She carries, as he put it, the 'blood of slaves and slaveowners'. Does that make her 'mixed race' rather than 'black'? We may want a world that is beyond these ultimately arbitrary categorisations. But insofar as they have a continuing power, rooted in histories and ongoing experiences of oppression and injustice, there is a laudable reason for someone like Barack Obama to accept and work with them as an act of solidarity with all those whose lives continue to be disadvantaged by them.

Robert Alcock said...

It's also worth bearing in mind the specific historical context of US racism.

The ‘one drop’ rule developed legal weight across the US South during the era of Jim Crow, which ascribed the status of ‘negro’ to people with only a small fraction of black parentage.
Take the case of Homer Plessy detailed here and this paragraph from the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes:
"You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown."