Is Obama Black, White, or Biracial?

One of the consequences of Barack Obama’s election is “talk about race” in the United States.  From local diners, to bus stops, to classrooms, to offices, to the family dinner tables, Americans are starting to talk about race with a frequency perhaps unheard of since the climax of the Civil Rights Movement.

No matter what he does as president, Obama’s very high-profile position is beginning to force a reckoning with small elements of America’s racial past.  [I am being very deliberate in the language I am using here.  I do NOT believe that the election of Barack Obama is, in itself, racial healing, or proof of this nation “getting past” it’s history of racial oppression.  It can be, but I am less than optimistic that it will be.  That said, his election is–almost unavoidably–framing a process that can lead to something better.]  Obama just being Obama makes it difficult for “everyday Americans”  to ignore race, which is not only something we have become expert at doing but also (contrary to the skewed interpretation of MLK’s “colorblind society”) stands as one of the biggest problems we continue to face as a nation.

This segment from NPR is a wonderful demonstration of this process.  The topic of discussion is Obama’s choice to call himself an “African American” instead of a “biracial” person.  Reflective of the ways his mere presence picks at some of the long-held racial assumptions of our national culture, these kinds of discussions can be huge steps forward toward better understanding ourselves, each other, and our common social bonds.

This particular issue interrogates ideas which are so deeply engrained into our collective ways of knowing.  Namely, it helps to expose the inconsistencies between our traditional notions of race (as a fixed and biological “fact”) with the historical evidence of it (as a set of socially constructed meanings we encounter).  On more personal level, it also helps to frame an inquiry into the politics of naming–the choices people of color make for themselves in representing their experiences and identities as well as the ones “others” choose for us.

The end result of discussions like this one are not preordained.  We are actually far more likely to retreat into the dysfunctional belief systems of the past, preserving the current incarnation of global white supremacy because, like all dysfunctions, it is comfortable and familiar.  But, if we learn how to work at it, we could also be moving, collectively, to a brighter day with respct to race and equality.  We’ll see.

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