Friday, January 23, 2009

He's Not White Or Black

All the recent media coverage celebrating our “first black president” makes me recall an interesting article in the Washington Post entitled He's Not Black.

Being in a interracial marriage and raising an interracial son, debates on ethnic identity sparked by Obama's election have a sense of urgency to me. How do I raise my son to be himself when society cannot decide what he is?

Barack Obama calls himself “Black” although his mother was a white woman from Kansas. He has brown skin and coarse hair. He identifies himself as what he looks like rather than what he is. Obama was raised during a time of racial tension in America when those with mixed heritage were often stuck in a cultural no-man's-land. In a sense he was forced to pick a side. In his book “Dreams From My Father” he says that he felt as a young man that people that identified themselves as interracial were betraying their fellow blacks as just “ordinary niggers.” (His words)

That young man eventually got his bearings and achieved greatness. The America that elected him president is very different than the one into which he was born. The political tensions surrounding race have dissipated, something America seems to have only fully realized once a brown-skinned man became president. Cultural assumptions based on ethnicity, however, are as prevalent as ever. Jamie Foxx commented at an inaugural ball that Obama's dance moves were proof “we definitely have a black president.” We are right to assume that culture and upbringing have an effect on a person, but it is absurd when we assign cultural identities to a people just because of their skin. Obama was raised by a white Kansan mother in Indonesia, but that doesn't matter. He is just “black.” You are what you appear to be.

It is this racial destiny assigned by looks that gave me anxiety when my wife was pregnant. I wondered how I a white man would raise a son that was identified by everyone as a black man. An unusual genetic shuffle, however, produced the opposite of what I anticipated. If Barack Obama is black, then my son is certainly white. His skin is lighter than mine and his hair is very straight. Even thought he looks just her, people seem to assume his beautiful, black mother is his babysitter. Throughout his life people will think he is white and make assumptions about him based on assigning him to this racial group.

My son may be light-skinned but he is not white nor do I want him to be. Obama may be dark-skinned but he is not black even though he calls himself that. Even the American categories of “white” and “black” are imprecise groupings of people of many ethnicities that where artificially created to justify slavery and segregation. It is true that culture and family affect an individual, but assigning culture based on skin tone is backward. Perhaps eons ago when humans rarely moved one could make accurate judgments about lineage and culture just by looking at a person's features, but in our interconnected world assumptions based on skin are more likely to mislead than inform.

Obama described his first innocent encounters with the world when “I was too young to realize I needed a race.” He doesn't need a race, nor does my son. Nor does anyone. A person's physical description doesn't necessitate a cultural classification. My son will probably always be fair-skinned, but that doesn't make him white and it definitely doesn't make him less his mother's child. He is who he is, and he can be proud of all of his heritage without having to pick or have one assigned to him.

The Washington Post wrote “We are racially sophisticated enough to elect a non-white president, and we are so racially backward that we insist on calling him black. Progress has outpaced vocabulary.” Racism may be nearly eradicated but Race with all its presumptions and misjudgments is alive and well. We can discuss our cultures and bodies without needing to draw these artificial lines between us. I hope my son is proud of all of his family and his heritage. He doesn't need to claim a color in order to have identity. He is himself and that should be enough.


Anonymous said...

This one has been edited, i.e., re-written since the first verson I read. In the prior verson, you described your bi-racial son as "white," meaning his skin color and hair texture appears to be more white than black. He's your beloved son, so what does it matter? It is what it is, so why must you revise and equivocate? PC?

JD said...

I can say with certainty the post has not been revised since I posted it. I think you missed the quote the second time you read it.

It still says "If Barack Obama is black, then my son is certainly white."

I am not saying he is white, but pointing out he would be considered such by the logic that calls Obama black.

The post says that it shouldn't matter. The only problem is that these artificial categories still influence society.