Barack Obama: Biracial Icon To "Zebras" And "Oreos" Everywhere?

Illustration for article titled Barack Obama: Biracial Icon To Zebras And Oreos Everywhere?

Now that the nation has chosen Barack Obama as its next commander in chief, the question of whether or not he is really "black" has popped up again. James Hannaham has penned a piece for Salon called "Our Biracial President." Ron Liddel of the UK's Spectator penned an essay called "Is Barack Obama Really Black? Actually, I'm Not So Sure." In the same publication, Toby Young declares, "Obama Isn't Black."We all know that the man spent nine months in the womb of a white woman, and didn't know his Kenyan father well at all. But in this country, there's a "one drop" rule, which means that if you're got one drop of black African blood in you, you're black. However: For people who are biracial, or multiracial, like myself, there's an undeniable truth: Barack Obama is black, but he's also mixed. A duality exists. And in a world with very few mixed high-profile celebrities or icons, his election feels like acceptance. (Here's former Newsweek editor and biracial American Mark Whitaker discussing the issue.) Although I will say I am black if I am asked, and so will my mother, her father was Irish, and her mother was born on a reservation; part black and part Chicksaw. (On my father's side it's black, unless you go back before 1863, when there were slave owner-fathers.) Since my editor, Anna, is biracial, we had a little IM chat about how we felt about being mixed while growing up.

Dodai: I went through a phase in which my favorite animal was the quagga. I saw it in a book of horses, the kind that is mandatory for every preteen girl. I guess at some point I'd been called or maybe someone had called SOMEONE else a "zebra." For being black & white. Anna: Did you ever get "oreo"? Dodai: Yeah, I did get oreo… But I saw the quagga in the book and I thought this is what i relate to: The thing that is not black, not white, not striped, not solid, all mixed up. I decided it was cool. It became part of the family lingo; my sister and I would see some half chinese half black kids on the subway or something and be like, look, quaggamuffin kids. Anna: I didn't have lingo because seeing mixed race/biracial children, let alone adults, was pretty rare where I grew up. Also, I just considered myself to be black. That's what you checked off on school forms. There was no other option. Dodai: Oh, definitely. I considered myself to be black. But I also was sure I was something else, too. Something new. My sister, brother and I would visit my grandfather in the South every summer, and I became more and more aware that people were like, "What is that blue-eyed man doing with those black kids?" Anna: I was aware that I was "new." I kind of liked it! Dodai: Me too! Anna: I think I was a bit upset when I found out there were some other kids in my town who were biracial. Just like I was kinda "huh?" when I first heard about, say, Halle Berry. I knew intellectually that others existed, but I didn't feel as "special" anymore. Dodai: I was always EXCITED to find other mixed kids. I remember when i first went to Hawaii, and I saw so many black/asian/white/native mixed kids with dark skin and surf-blonde hair and almond eyes. I thought, hmm, I may move here.

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Another thing I remember about growing up was that all the black kids on TV — Diff'rent Strokes, Silver Spoons, Good Times, The Cosby Show — seemed to be having a slightly different "black" childhood than I was. They never seemed to have white kids ask, "What are you?" Or have black kids tell them they weren't really black. It wasn't until last week, when my sister told me she was working on T-shirts which read, "Half Black Is The New Black," that I realized Barack Obama is not just a black hero; he's a mixed-race icon. But when people talk about him as a black man, even though I know that is what they see, and that is how he's experienced life, as a black man, I also feel certain that Barack Obama is not a "typical" black American. Not that there is such a thing. But truly: He's African-American, which is different. The black experience in this country — if you come from a black family that has lived here for generations and you have a grandmother or greatgrandmother whose mother or father was a slave — is a different experience from someone whose parents are recent immigrants from Kenya, Senegal or Cote D'Ivoire. But also, being biracial has its advantages. As Anna said in our chat,

"The reason I grew up thinking I could do and be whatever I wanted was partly because I was precocious and confident (maybe not as a teenager.) But it was also from my parents, who made a big effort to always tell me how 'special' I was. I think they feared my being biracial could cause problems with my self-esteem. That may be a large part of the reason why Barack Obama believed in himself enough to become the man he is now. It's almost like to overcompensate for society's racism, and/or fear of the 'other,' parents of biracial kids give them added support that, perhaps, other children don't get. I'm only theorizing here. But there is also something to be said about the comfort in bridging cultures. When you can interact with white people and black people because you see yourself as part of them, that gives you a lot of confidence in yourself. I think it's almost freeing. I mean, a young black male can walk into a job interview, and the interviewer will have sorts of ideas about who he is before he even opens his mouth based on ingrained stereotypes that aren't even in our consciousness. Whereas someone like Barack Obama, or you, or me, they don't know what to make of us! Now, that's probably different now, in the year 2008, but in the '80s? '90s? I'm not so sure that there were ideas about biracial young Americans that created barriers in the same way that there are barriers for others."

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Hopefully Barack Obama's election is a giant step, just in terms of teaching non-black people not to underestimate black people. On the other hand, hopefully no one is out there thinking, well, black people have arrived! They don't need affirmative action, or scholarships, or after-school programs, or outreach. James Hannaham writes for Salon:

Privilege is no Death Star, and one Luke Skywalker can't obliterate it with a couple of lasers, no matter how well-placed. It did not vaporize last night, so in the Obama presidency we can look forward to some amusing and possibly infuriating contretemps that will arise from an African-American family leading the country. (Why was this never the premise for a sitcom?) The same battles will rage over affirmative action — will we cheat ourselves out of the next Obama by cutting it back? — and issues of discrimination in representation, education, housing, etc. For me, racism won't be over until a bunch of black people can move into a neighborhood and watch the property values rise.

Black carries with it so much weight, means so many things: Skin color, culture, heritage, identity, race, tradition. Writes Liddel: "Is he black? I'm not so sure. He has a white mother and a black father, so I suppose he is of mixed race, or what the South Africans used to call 'coloured.'" What's black in America is not necessarily black in another country. To the question "Is Barack Obama black?" There are two answers: Yes and no. One thing is for sure: With the so-called "browning" of America, with the number of people who identify as mixed-race growing, with all kinds of different families out there these days, his story — multi-culti, single mom, black, white — is completely American, and thoroughly modern. Our Biracial President [Salon] Is Barack Obama Really Black? Actually, I'm Not So Sure, Obama Isn't Black [Spectator] Mixed Messages,Mixed Race Portraits [Guardian] Obama isn't black [Spectator] For NBC's Mark Whitaker This Election Was Personal [Huffington Post]

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DISCUSSION

it's interesting how this debate plays out - i've always noticed that a lot of biracial african kids 'lose' their culture because somehow the parents don't prioritise their speaking the african parents language - which is pretty much a 'pass' into african culture here, if you are fluent in the language, you're 'in' into the culture is much easier.

but a lot of kids who grow up in with one white parent, for whatever reason, don't ever learn the african language, and that's what ends up creating a chasm - i feel especially sensitive about this issue because although i am black african, i grew up in another african country (moved there when i was 5, left when i was 14), and when i got there, understood english, but didn't like speaking it. so the teachers told my parents to cut out speaking seTswana, which is what i spoke - and so my siblings and i only spoke english.

when we moved back home, it was HELL. you look like a typical tswana girl, your name is VERY typically tswana, but you open your mouth, and sound like an alien. i felt VERY outside my culture, and actually clammed up and refused to learn the language for three years because i was so traumatised by people constantly being in my face and asking intrusive questions (much like the biracial kids get, ironically) about 'what are you???' , 'where are you from?? you can't be from HERE!!' and then, because i'm fairly light skinned, and have long hair 'are you coloured??' (mixed race)....

so, if you're an african - or having a child with an african, do the baby a favour - insist that they learn the language from the parent who speaks it - it helps to connect them with their community in a really important way. it's not easy, but it's important. one of the most painful things about it for me was not being able to have a meaningful conversation with my grandmother for about 6 years, and i adored her... but she had no english, and i had minimal seTswana....