In a provocatively titled op-ed for The Washington Post last Sunday, Marie Arana declared that President-elect Barack Obama is "not black" because he's also "half white." Arana argues, using a naïve and idealized evaluation of how race operates in Latin America, that identifying Barack Obama as black is "racist," and "racially backward," and pleads with the reader to stop "using labels that validate the separation of races."
If identifying biracial people as black "validates the separation of the races" then there is perhaps no one contributing more to the cause of these neo-segregationists than Barack Obama himself. "My view has always been that I'm African-American," Obama told Chicago Tribune reporter Dawn Turner Trice back in 2004. "African Americans by definition, we're a hybrid people." In seeking a validation of her own ideas about race and racial identity, and by casting Obama as the victim of a reductive racial vocabulary, Arenas simply ignores the will of her subject. But racial categories are only unjust insofar as they prevent people from identifying how they wish. Arenas is doing exactly what she is attempting to prevent, forcing Obama into the racial category of her, rather than his own, choosing.
Part of the problem with the American conversation on race is the bizarre license that people take when writing about it on the basis of their own biography. But being "biracial" does not make one an expert on race, or on racial hybridity, any more than being a Republican or a Democrat makes one an expert on politics. So much of the writing on Obama's racial identity, or on his political impact is muddled by our own subconscious racial desires. We want Obama to mean something specific, either to us or to others, with little regard for how he actually sees himself. As it stands, Arenas seems ill-prepared to talk about how biraciality operates in the African-American context. The black community in America has always accepted people of varying shades, cultures and backgrounds. Originally, this was a consequence of racial oppression; racist laws that determined that anyone with black ancestry was black. We may not have chosen to be a hybrid people, anymore than we chose to come here in the first place, but that's what we are now. And it's a beautiful thing.
There is a strain of paternalism, manifested in Arenas' op-ed, that seeks to define African-American culture solely within the context of oppression. Viewed in this light, all black cultural idiosyncrasies are the result of persecution, and are therefore cultural pathologies. It's not that black folks really like soul food, it's that we are drawn to it by historical trauma. If we only understood our tragic condition, we would all be eating cucumber sandwiches and Special K, jamming to Coldplay instead of Jay-Z. Likewise, we need to be emancipated from the antiquated definitions of American blackness that include everyone from the blond, blue-eyed Walter White to Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey. Except such analysis ignores the cultural, intellectual, and artistic traditions that evolved from such oppression, and therefore is unable to appraise their value.
When it comes to racial identity, there is an idea that being black is somehow reductive, that it obliterates all cultural variety. Nothing could be further than the truth. When asked about his own racial identity, the current president of the NAACP, the 35-year-old Benjamin Jealous, told NPR reporter Michelle Martin that he identifies as black because while he was growing up, "White was an exclusive definition; Black was [the] inclusive definition."
Obama is a "mutt" who identifies as black not merely because of the tyranny of the outside world, but because in America, biracial is just another way of being black. Tiger Woods' insistence on identifying himself as "cablinasian" was met with such hostility because of the extra distance he seemed to be drawing between himself and other black folks. Biracial blacks have identified as black for a long time, and while it was once because of oppressive laws and cultural practices, it is now because this is where most of us feel we belong, because this is where a space for us has been made.
But if there's some confusion on what exactly makes a person black, it's probably because some black folks remain confused about it. Many of America's prominent black voices seem to believe that black culture is defined by grievance and opposition. Jonetta Rose Barras, also writing in The Washington Post, remarked that Obama isn't "likely to be patient with the long-standing narrative of victimhood that has defined black America to itself and to the mainstream for more than a century." She was joined by Post columnist William Raspberry, who came out of retirement to express his hope that black children could now "begin to see life as a series of problems and possibilities and not just a list of grievances." Nevermind that younger folks were the first to believe that Obama could actually win, and that it was their elders who remained skeptical until Iowa held its caucus.
Obama desperately wanted to be a part of the awesome, confusing, tragic and triumphant journey of black people in America. (I know because he wrote a whole book about it.) Part of the reason black folks love Obama is not merely because he's black, or because he's successful, but rather that he is able to talk about the problems of black folks without reducing the entirety of black America to a series of oppressive historical events and subsequent grievances. He talks to black folks without just talking about them. He grins as he brushes his shoulders off. Then he asks brothers to "pull up their pants."
It seems so distant now, but early in the campaign quite a few prominent black voices were questioning Obama’s blackness. Debra Dickerson "pointed out the obvious" in Salon, writing that "Obama isn't black." Weeks later, Dickerson faced off with Steven Colbert who dismembered her argument with a simple question: "Well then why doesn't [Obama] just run as a white guy?" New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch made a similar argument declared in late 2006 -- apparently without actually having read Dreams from My Father -- that Obama "has not lived the life of a black American." By February 2008, Crouch was practically describing Obama in lyrical verse: "Barack Obama is actually a bluesman from Chicago whose big stage is not in a nightclub or a concert hall but the huge national podium on which politics are argued." Last December, Shelby Steele appeared on CNN and argued that Hillary Clinton was blacker than Barack Obama, which was strange considering he had just authored a book on how race would prevent Obama from winning the presidency.
Obama, has answered such criticisms patiently, often with recognizable clichés. Appearing on "60 Minutes" in 2007, cited that most hackneyed of class-specific black signifiers as an example of his racial authenticity, his inability to get a cab in New York. Such things are as old as black people in America. Thomas Dyja, in his biography of the light-skinned and deeply influential former secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, notes that White likely fabricated part of a story he liked to tell in order to certify his blackness. White had lived through the Atlanta race riot in 1906, but starting around 1930 an important detail had become part of the retelling: holed up in their house and fearing the whites rampaging on the streets, White's father hands him a gun and tells him to shoot the first person who sets foot on their lawn. The image of the young Walter White, gun in hand, eyes watching God, is tremendously affecting. It just probably wasn't true. Two other important race men, W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope, also had memorable gun stories, and White apparently felt he needed one of his own. The gun was the cab of the early 20th century.
The cab, like the gun, is basically irrelevant. Barack Obama will be able to get a cab in New York whenever he feels like it, and Walter White was one of the great figures of the black rights movement whether he held a gun that night or not. Why do successful black people need to tell stories to remind everyone that they're black? Standards of authenticity are an imperfect heuristic for determining whether or not people are on your side -- White wanted black folks to know how far he would go for the cause, and Obama wanted to make clear that he had "lived the life of a black American." But observers often rely too much on these superficial judgments when weighing matters of trust. Such performances of authenticity are often used to manipulate, and worse, people destroy themselves trying to meet such arbitrary standards.
What matters most is how we choose to identify, even if it causes consternation among those who seek to place us in boxes. Blackness is something like love, we know something about the broad contours, but everyone's experience is different, and trying to force one's definition on another person is likely to lead to hostility. If I were to make my own wish about how Barack Obama would magically change the world, it would that we would let Tiger be Cablinasian, and let Barack Obama be black. Please.
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)