“If I’m lucky enough to have children, I won’t tell them that Barack Obama was America’s first black president.”
Thus began columnist Clinton Yates’ piece, Barack Obama: Let’s not forget that he’s America’s first bi-racial president. Published on The Washington Post website two days after the 2012 election, Yates’ piece explores the notion that singling out President Obama’s African heritage alone has resulted in an incomplete narrative of his identity.
“As a black man who plans to eventually start a family with my white girlfriend, I’m going to tell [my future children] that Obama was the first man of color in the White House and that America’s 44th president was biracial,” writes Yates. “What would I look like telling my kids that a man with a black father and a white mother is ‘black’ just because society wants him to be?”
Yates’ stance on President Obama’s racial identity points to an on-going, complicated debate surrounding the president’s race and how he chooses to identify himself.
Since Obama’s second presidential election win, countless media outlets have analyzed the major support in voter turnout exhibited by African-Americans and Latinos for the president. At the same time, an overwhelming amount of racist backlash surged on Twitter for several days, signaling the fact that, for better or for worse, race will likely always be a predominant element to consider during Obama’s term as president.
Yet, most reports on and reactions to President Obama have failed to mention his biracial heritage. It is rarely addressed in discussions concerning how the public identifies Obama, or critiques of how the president identifies himself. Yates’ consideration of Obama as the “first bi-racial president” is rare in its vociferous proclamation to define the man by both lineages.
To widen this limited discourse, we asked some of the nation’s leading authorities on biracial and multi-racial issues to share their thoughts on the president’s self-identification as black, and the possible stakes of not addressing his bi-racial identity more directly. These leaders offer interesting and at times surprising perspectives on what it means to have not only a black man, but also a biracial man in the White House.
In the paper Barack, Blackness, Borders and Beyond: Exploring Obama’s Racial Identity Today as a Means of Transcending Race Tomorrow, I explained that the president is black for three different reasons. I used a sociological framework, an ethnological framework, and a psychological framework.
- I say he’s black because he says he is.
- His heterogeneity, or his mixed background, is no different from people who are black.
- I say he’s black because he looks black, from a sociological viewpoint.
Everyone seems to be negating President Barack Obama’s own story. The man himself has said publicly in print that, yes, his mother is white; yes, he is technically bi-racial, mixed race, whatever the language is people choose to use, but in this racialized society he is seen as a black man. And for that reason he identifies as black.
We’re having all this conversation about who he is, and I think that it’s just reflective of who he is as the president of the United States. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if he was just an average Joe walking down the street. Yes, I get it. People are now saying he’s ignoring his bi-raciality, he’s ignoring his whiteness, but we’re also presupposing that that is somehow important to him. I think it’s okay if it’s not.
I think it would be perhaps more digestible if he were to say, okay, I’m bi-racial or I’m mixed. But he says very clearly, very loudly that “I’m black.” And that’s just a reality that I think people are unwilling to accept. Self-identity is important and we can’t dismiss that. We can’t negate that.
For mixed people, being mixed you identify differently at different times and in different situations. I think the president is no different, so [a bi-racial] child still can take pride in [the fact] that President Obama is a bi-racial president. But he’s also a black president. I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive.
And that’s what happens often in politics when it comes to policy, that it has to be one or the other, not some sort of combination of policies that can be good. Because he’s bi-racial and always compromising and trying to find the balance between two different identities, I think he tries to do the same things in terms of his policy.
I think that the population and demographic of mixed people are getting bigger. In history when we write about the president in the future, we will see more books and more writings about him being mixed and the importance of that in terms of him being elected. Because I actually don’t think he would have been elected if he weren’t bi-racial. If he were monoracial, African-American, or actually white for that matter, I don’t think he would have won the election the first time.
I think his identifying [as African-American] is very positive. On the other hand, I think there’s nothing creative or innovative or groundbreaking or revolutionary about [his identifying as black.] It’s very much following the status quo of the way that a majority of people expect him to identify… I personally didn’t have a lot of expectations about his ability to really go beyond what would be the mainstream position in terms of how he labeled and located himself.
I have hopes that he might help us to go beyond these kinds of rigid racial classifications and categories. I think he could do that if he was able to identify himself more openly with all the different parts of his heritage.
For example when he was in Ireland, he identified himself with his Irish heritage. People can be cynical about that in terms of his desire to get support among Irish-Americans, but I think that type of action that he took there is the kind of action that can help a lot of people to identify themselves in [such] ways that they can embrace all different parts of their identity and have multiple identities; and that that can be done without threatening an identity that you feel more strongly about than another, in this case African-American.
I think he could still be African-American and also be able to say to people, “Yeah, but I’m also Irish.” So that would be my hope. I think he could help a lot of people in the country begin to transcend some of these categories by allowing people to identify more with all the different parts of their heritage and to do that without having to deny or to give up that more basic affiliation that they feel.
- Suggested readings of the month October ’12: Raising Biracial Children, Amy Hodgepodge (kolorblindmag.com)
- Bi-racial versus black: Thought leaders weigh in on the meaning of President Obama’s bi-racial heritage (thegrio.com)
- Monday’s Photo Potpourri: The President, Barack Hussein Obama, Makes History. (theobamacrat.com)
- The President & I: Barack Hussein Obama Visits Burma (Myanmar) (theobamacrat.com)
- President Barack Hussein Obama In Thailand: Making History (theobamacrat.com)
- Barry, I thank you (freepennypress.wordpress.com)
- On Thanksgiving Day to whom will your President be Giving Thanks? (wdednh.wordpress.com)
This article was first published in the Washington Post.