Is Barack Obama “black” enough?

by D. John Lee, Ph.D., Originally published in November 2007, Updated in November of 2008

Formally or anthropologically speaking, my cultural background is best described as “Canadian Chinese.” The dominant language in Canada when I was being raised was British English. I grew up hearing, speaking, and learning to communicate in the Queen’s English. I also grew up participating in and being formed by many “Canadian” cultural events: hockey, entertainment, media, etc. At the same time, my “Chinese Canadian” father and “Canadian Chinese” mother determined that my brother and I would eat rice everyday and regularly visit our Cantonese Chinese speaking relatives. So, my cultural background is a mixture of Canadian and Chinese norms and traditions. I am referred to by some Chinese as a “corrupted Chinese” (English translation) because I cannot speak Chinese. That is, if I was to run for political office, many “Asians” would criticize me as not being “Asian enough” because of my cultural background (i.e. English is my 1st language, not Chinese or some other “Asian” language). These critics would be confusing my cultural background with how I am racially identified. They would be assuming that if I am racially identified as “Asian” I should have been primarily raised in and/or currently participating in some “Asian” culture. (Note that making this assumption is an example of racial stereotyping: i.e. assuming that a person’s phenotype (race) is indicative of his or her’s culture: i..e. “You are Asian, therefore you must practice the martial arts.”)

Racially speaking, I am identified as an “Asian” by the “white” majority. The “white” majority doesn’t know, nor do they care, that there are several hundred cultures subsumed under their racial label of “Asian” (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.). The “white” majority is so firmly racialized that they have a difficult time separating their racial identification from their cultural traditions. For example, most “white” American Christians think of their Christianity as being “white” when in fact Jesus Christ never identified himself as “white” and there are more non-white Christians in the world than there are “white” Christians. David Duke, a white KKK racist and presidential candidate several years ago, complained that Kwanza could be celebrated in public schools but Christmas could not, implying that Christianity was the “white” race’s religion. Within the “white” racial category are several cultures and ethnicities (e.g. British, Irish, French, German, Dutch, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Republican, Democrat, Texan, New Yorker, etc.), but as Europeans became “Americanized” they also became “racialized” and thought of themselves racially instead of culturally. The racialization of Americans has become so lodged in the minds of Americans that “American” culture (e.g. individualism, capitalism, fast food, etc.) has become synonymous with “white” so that we have to qualify “American” with racial identifiers: e.g. African American, Asian American, Native American, etc.

The majority of the “black” community is so firmly racialized that they too have a difficult time separating their racial identification from their cultural traditions. (The cultures among Africans brought to America were systematically dismantled when they were shackled on the European slave boats.) Most “blacks” will acknowledge that there are cultural differences among “blacks” (e.g. North vs. South, rural vs. urban, middle class vs. working class, African vs. Caribbean, etc.). However, some will argue that all “blacks” share a culture that is characterized by its own language, food, music, art, dress, etc. These folk are confusing culture with the shared experience of being racialized and having to deal with racial oppression. That is, even though a “black” person may not speak Ebonics, dislike BBQ, and prefer classical over rap music, s/he has a bond with other “black” people because of their shared struggle of enduring racism. Certainly there is a culture in American made up of primarily (not all) people who are identified as “black.” This culture is referred to as “Black” (and sometimes as “African American”) but it is a culture not a race. Dark skin tone does not determine one’s culture (e.g. not all blacks trace their cultural heritage to Africa) and not all members of the “Black or African American” culture have dark skin (e.g. light-skinned Hispanics, Asians or whites raised in urban Detroit).

Barack Obama is racially identified as “black”: he “looks” more black than white and most Americans do not use the “multiracial” term. But, because Barack’s cultural background is Hawaiian and Indonesian he is being criticized for not being “black enough.” What is this all about? If Barack is not intimately familiar with Black English or Ebonics, BBQ, hip-hop, etc., then he is not “black enough.” These critics are confusing Obama’s cultural background with how he is racially identified. If Barack racially identifies himself as “black” he has to be prepared to demonstrate some knowledge of “Black” culture in America.

I know this gets confusing but making the separation between culture and race really does sort out who Barack is and why he is being criticized for not being “black enough.” It will also predict and make sense of how he will posture himself in a multicultural but racialized electorate as he seeks the U.S. presidency. Obama has to be careful if and when he identifies himself as “African American” because (even though his biological father is African) it is not “black” (see NOTE below). Barack cannot afford to racially identify himself as “biracial” or “multiracial” because it would alienate some blacks who would see this identification as a statement that he does not take racism seriously. (Tiger Woods is “black” to most people even though he racially identifies as “Caublasian” which is his mixed-race term. The black community has distanced themselves from Tiger because of his multiracial identification and being married to a “white” woman. In my experience, Tiger rarely comments on or is rarely called upon to advocate for racial justice.) I predict that Barack will self-identify as “black” for primarily political reasons. The most important issues for me will not be how Barack identifies himself or is identified, but what he has done and will do in the areas of foreign policy (war), civil rights, and the ongoing racial/class injustice in the world.

NOTE: The term “Black” was born out of the mid-20th century American civil rights movement as a political statement against “whites” who had given Blacks racist names like “Negroes” and “Coloreds.” “Black” identification was a political statement; people who identified as black were demanding racial justice and civil rights. “Black” was beautiful. “Black” was not inferior or sub-human. “Black Power” was a socio-political movement aimed at overturning “white” power. “Black” is not just a label. “White” is not just a label. In our racialized society, the construction of race impacts almost every aspect of our lives. Knowing how and why “race” is constructed (i.e. deconstructing race) is part of the process of healing and dismantling racism. Unfortunately, most anti-racists and social activists in America (scholars included) continue to racialize themselves in an attempt to confront racism. That is, they use the construction of race without discernment: i.e. knowing how and when the construction contributes to the continued racialization and racism within our minds and society. Using the words of the oppressor is needed to communicate with one another. But, the oppressor’s words need not continue to frame the discussion or define anti-racist action. This is not an argument against Affirmative Action or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Racial counting or demographics by the U.S. Census is still necessary in order to monitor compliance with Civil Rights legislation. Educators and religious leaders have failed when the majority of the American populace still believes that “race” is a biological and cultural reality rather than a social-political construction. The U.S. government’s (i.e. Census Bureau and EEOC) use of racial categories sustains racialized thinking but is also necessary in the dismantling of racism. Some people use “Black” as an ancestral term making reference to the descendants of West African slaves who live in the United States. Determining who is and who is not a descendant of African slaves is extremely problematic. Birth records of slaves are sketchy at best and using “blood lines” for racial membership only adds fuel to the biological myth of race and racial purity.

Postscript – November 2008

Using racialized terminology to label people will continue until there is a significant degree of racial equity in the United States. The election of a President who identifies and is identified as “black” is a significant but still a small step towards racial justice. Unfortunately, because the U.S. is so firmly segregated by race and class, only a small number of people recognize or experience the continued effects of institutionalized racism (e.g. public school funding and real estate steering).

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