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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Obama: The Collision of Race, Culture and Politics

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

if it
isn't one thing
it's another, eh?

for some the man is 'too black' while for others 'not black enough'

one day we might all be gray :)


February 11, 2007 12:43 PM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

As usual, bird, you write with passion, clear insight, and true concern for our culture. Our culture of all backgrounds.

Thank you for raising the questions you have.

btw, I left another comment at my #96. I lied. You'll see why

February 11, 2007 5:22 PM  
Blogger Little Lamb said...

Who would have thought we'd see a woman and a black man try for the presidency as democrats? In our lifetime.

I'm a died hard republican. I am old fashioned.

Even I must admit we've come a long way.

Imagine, we could see a woman president one day and on another day Black person as president one day. Not on the same day of course. Or maybe, who knows?

February 11, 2007 8:29 PM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Well, Little Lamby Pie, if Condoleeza were ter run, we'd have both in one day..shure like Condie better than Obama or ...or...gick, I cain't even write that thang's name.

February 12, 2007 6:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


thought provoking post boyed! of course on the SF news last night there were more white pro obama than black......he wont get the final nod but not because of race. reminds me of how in the south a child can say something about their own mother, but God help anyone "outside the family" if they speak ill of her.

i think in 'merica there is a classism set-up that transcends race. where do you think the mega buck rappers from the ATL live when they make it big? in the neighborhood of their origin? go back and spread the wealth? hell no its living large up in lily white NoATL

if you come down outta the north jawja mountains in a jacked up truck and a gun rack then the cosmos think youse (to borrow from aunty) an uneducated hillbilly.

during my first week here in Cali my hostess, a priestess of the church of universal knowledge seeks to separate herself from the (her words) woo woo earth mother types.

in the end each person decides their own destiny as an individual. thats how i hope to approach each person i encounter, though i acknowledge there are sterotypes that are tucked away somewhere.

that's why its good to be a dog.


February 12, 2007 6:54 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

It would be great if people would just get over it all at some point. People have so much more in common than the differences - and the differences, imo, are just plain interesting.

February 12, 2007 7:09 AM  
Blogger Little Lamb said...

I wonder if Condi is considering the presidency? Time will tell.

It's an exciting time to be alive.

February 12, 2007 1:46 PM  
Blogger ThursdayNext said...

LOL...as /t said, I wish we were all grey! I like Obama for what he stands for, and now people are saying crap like Giuliani won't even be a true candidate because he is a Catholic. Unreal.

February 13, 2007 7:50 AM  
Blogger Peaches said...

Wow Bird,
Fantastic post beautifully written and worked through.
You have cleared up a lot of confusion for me watching this 'presidential race' from so far away.

I have to admit that I neither know nor understand the 'fear' factor of race. But I have never lived in America, maybe.

I am amazed at the clarity in your writing even as it is posing questions and laying out confusions. Making it personal like that was very touching, indeed. I still, gulp and twitch at the use of the 'n' word. I find it so compelling and full of heavy hatred.

Your explanations and ponderings are powerful indeed.
Just because a woman and a 'black' man are running for Pres of USA how far have we really come when it is still noticed... 'a woman and a black man'.
Just saw the news tonight that a MOrmon is now running. Geez I think it would be more shocking in the USA if an ATHEIST was running.
Now there would be an interesting time in the great US of A!!!

February 13, 2007 9:49 PM  
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February 13, 2007 10:10 PM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Happy Valentine's Day Bird Beauty!!

Hope you gets a hug or two and maybe even a rose from a secret admirer!

February 14, 2007 6:56 AM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

Happy Valentine's day.

February 14, 2007 11:08 AM  
Blogger Mayden's Voyage said...

I saw the same interview...and while Cobert's forum is satire- there was a good bit of truth being revealed in the comic spurts of conversation between the 2.

"Lately arrived black"- I'm glad I wasn't drinking anything when he said that- I'd have choked :)

It was a great interview- though I found myself becoming angry with Dickerson...
I don't think she's the mouth piece she flatters herself to be...
but whatever.

I'm frankly tired of being referred to as "White"- so when I fill out a form, I put "other"-
Norwegian, German, French, Irish, and some American Indian...that's what I am. A mutt actually...but wayyyyy more than just white!
I'm splitting hairs here-
and so is Dickerson.

Happy Valentines Day, Bird!
I send a hug and a sister kiss...
and I'd send chocolate if I had that Willy Wonka machine-
but alas- I don't :)
-Cora :)

February 14, 2007 11:27 AM  
Blogger Riki D said...

So incredibly well written, bird. Bravo. And yes, anonymous dog, I agree--class means more than race in this country--but keeping everyone focused on race divides and conquers class.

I had a friend who could truly be called "black" in that she was the descendent of slaves, yet because she was studious, traditional, and formal--like her parents--she was not accepted as "black" in school. She was not allowed the identity she wanted to choose if she would not accept all the "baggage" and still choose to move forward with her life.

February 14, 2007 8:44 PM  
Blogger infinitesimal said...

The unfortunate fact remains:
His middle name is Hussain

February 17, 2007 12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy Belated Valentine's Day to all!

LL: I'm not sure what the connection is between being Republican and being old-fashioned is.

Mayden - yes, Cobert is satire - but that's the beauty of satire, iorny, and parody - it brings up the truth. i think cobert is hysterical - and quite often, right on the mark. dickerson was a bit befuddled by cobert - he essentially called her out on her "shit." though i do think race, class, and cultural identify collide to construct how we see ourselves and how others see us.

dog - i agree that class enters into all of thsi quite a bit, but i don't know as it trumps race per se. certainly money can give a racial minority an entree into a different world, but you don't see rich black rappers hanging with ... the rich, white elite. it doesn't happen.

infini - what a cryptic remark - hahaha! not sure where you stand on this. yes, obama's middle name is hussein - what does that mean i this picture? will he be rejected regardless of race or class because of stereotypes related to that name? because of religious connections made to that name? (yeah, yeah - of course he will...but - should that matter?)

condi? yuck! i can't stand her - regardless of race, class, gender. here's a reportedly intellignet woman, and yet anytime I've seen her speak, she boils things down to black and white simplicity - completely ingnoring the substantive nuances. she has had a hand in reducing intelligent debate to a minimum in this country. i think she's a discredit to her gender, race, and class. pity - because she is pretty smart. her little game of semantics with the house (it's not an escalation - it's an augmentation) was ridiculous.


February 17, 2007 12:28 PM  
Blogger infinitesimal said...

I like the guy, i like the way he stands up for himself and i like his "pluck"

but his name??

Is very unfortunate.

couple with the race issue and him being the first to run and then add his lack of experience.... well, it's a gamble, let's see if he wins.

February 17, 2007 4:05 PM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Jes' wonderin' if some vagabond dawg wandered up on yore balcony?

February 18, 2007 6:46 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

why aunty belle - i stumbled across a vagabond dog just the other day. i wonder if it's the same dog of which you speak? hahahaha!

new post in the works later this week - might just be about dogs. they are delightful creatures as you know.

February 18, 2007 7:48 PM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Well, now, well....I ain't much a fan of rabid curs, but an effervescent pup is good fer what ails ya', Bird Beauty. Check 1019.

February 19, 2007 5:50 AM  
Blogger K9 said...


boydie, im behind schedule on our project. *natch*
i know you are busy too so maybe a tern pardon is possible? flap flap swoosh see ya in a day or two.


February 22, 2007 8:18 PM  
Blogger Bird said...


all good terns must wait their turn - hahaha.

pardon granted.

i am so swamped, i can barely believe it.

February 22, 2007 10:25 PM  
Blogger boneman said...

I'de rather vote for someone who sez they'll legalize pot.
Last person that said that was Carter and his legacy continues to grow.

March 04, 2007 8:48 AM  

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