I’ve been reading a lot about Barack Obama of late – and how, in the eyes of some members of the African-American community, he is not truly “black.”
This interpretation isn’t based on Obama’s mixed blood necessarily (his mother is Caucasian), but rather on his father’s history – Obama’s father was an African man who immigrated from Kenya
to the United States
. Thus, the theory goes, Obama isn’t centered in the African-American culture – he is not a descendant of West African slaves and has not borne the emotional and historical baggage associated with that heritage –he is not truly an African-American. Debra Dickerson
, a black writer for salon.com recently appeared on the Cobert Report
and explained that Obama is, in the black culture, not a true brotha – but an adopted brotha. Cobert then likened Obama to the red-headed stepchild “you get to slap around a little bit and people won’t care.”
To which Dickerson replied “We love him just the same.”
How is one’s culture determined? By race? By shared experiences? By geographical affiliations? My daughter is biracial – borne of a white mother and a first-generation Chinese-American father. But she doesn’t claim her Chinese heritage or blood. She is white, she tells me. Because even though the map of Kunming rests in my daughter’s face (as does the strong, sharp jaw line of her French-Canadian ancestors) she was raised in a white household – she is culturally white. This is how she sees herself. She neither speaks nor understands Chinese (not Mandarin, Cantonese, nor the Kunming dialect her paternal grandparents speak). She is at ease with chopsticks and knows what to order in a Chinese restaurant, just as many folks, regardless of race or ethnic background, living in the Bay Area. And she can cook some of the dishes taught her by her father – but his cooking was never quite like his mother’s – more like a California-Chinese fusion of ingredients, textures, tastes, and smells.
My daughter essentially rejects her Chinese heritage and lineage and sees herself as culturally white, but what do whites see her as? They see her as Asian. And what do other Chinese-Americans see her as? They often view her as a poorly-raised Chinese girl –because she doesn’t conform to the racial and cultural stereotype perpetuated not just by whites, but by Asians themselves. She is not a good Chinese girl – she does not just meekly obey, and she is not studious. She does indeed hold to strong family values, but those were instilled in her by both her white mother and Chinese-American father. If I use my daughter as evidence, racial identity is determined by cultural identity. But who determines cultural identity? Cultural identity is socially-constructed – but that construction seems to include not just the individual’s view of self, but society’s vision of that individual as well. Which vision holds primacy? One of my students told me Obama is “high yellow.” But he isn’t really that – for “high yellow” implies, at its core, that somewhere back in the Obama’s family lineage, a black slave gave birth to a child conceived of a white slaveholder. The signifying aspect of high yellow certainly a question of blood – but it carries with it the cultural history of black oppression in this country. Taking that history into consideration, Obama is not high yellow.
So Obama is not of the black culture. He is not a descendant of West African slaves. But does that mean he does not labor under the residue of that historical oppression? When some white bigot looks at Obama, does he see a man whose mother is white, whose father immigrated from Kenya, a man who was educated at Harvard, whose family history is not intertwined with slavery and Civil Rights, or does that white bigots see Obama as he sees any black man? As black? As a nigger? As inferior? As a threat? In his short essay, Just Walk on By, Brent Staples, an African-American writer, describes his experience walking in public spaces – and how whites cross the street when they see him – afraid of a black man walking the streets. These whites didn’t see an educated man, a peaceful man, a man perhaps just as fearful of them as they are of him. They saw a large black man and associated him with a multitude of negative stereotypes. If we didn’t recognize his face, if Obama were to walk the streets of any city in the US, would we, would I, as a white woman who has lived and breathed the racism inherent in our culture, be afraid of him as he came around a corner on a dark night? Would I, would other whites, see Obama not as a man just walking, but as black man encapsulating all the negative stereotypes white society associates (whether we are bigots or not) with black men? Does how Obama is viewed by white society matter more than how he is viewed by black society? By even suggesting that because he is viewed by whites as black (and all that implies culturally), am I saying that it doesn’t matter how the black culture views this man, only how the white culture views him? And yet, if the dominant culture views the man as black – doesn’t that then mean that he too is shouldering the burden of the past? And is that not what some black critics claim bothers them about Obama – that he has not suffered the same oppression as the other members of his cultural family? But in the eyes of his stepsistahs and brothas, Obama has been if not favored by the dominant culture, not historically abused by it either. And that makes him not black. (Obama is, in Dickerson's words, as close as you can get to black, and in Cobert's, lately arrived black.) But apparently, he can never be truly black – he will always be on the outskirts - that red-headed stepchild, perhaps much loved, but never, ever quite a full-fledged member of the family. Oh, how strange is the collision of race, culture, and politics in this country.
Labels: Culture, Identity, Obama, Politics, Race