Soon, the first African American president will be sworn into office. Let’s leave aside the historical nature of this event and analyze what makes Barack Obama “African American.” Clearly, he has African roots; his father was Kenyan. But his mother was a white woman from Kansas and one of her parents claimed to have some Native American ancestry. And his stepfather, the man who helped shape his personal moral and ethical sense of the world, was Indonesian. But while he hardly knew his African father, having spent only a couple of weeks in his presence as a young boy, he was well acquainted with his stepfather. And while his mother is the person about whom he says “the best parts of me are because of her,” he also spent considerable time with his white grandparents. So how is it that any of us would think to simply call this man “African American”?
It is possible to imagine how these relationships could develop in Barack Obama a global, multi-ethnic identity. But they do not. For in spite of the fact that he is the quintessential “multicultural, multiracial human being,” at some point in his post teen years he chose to identify himself as African American.
But did he really choose?
Consider this: If identity grows out of culture (the people and environment in which we grow up as opposed to the blood that flows through our veins), one would think that Obama might consider himself white—or maybe even Indonesian. In fact, technically he has as much claim to being a “white American” as to being a “black” or an “African American,” and clearly he is more personally connected to white culture than he is to black or African culture. But he nonetheless refers to himself as “black” and “African American.”
We know that he was seen by others as “black,” and those of us who have up close and personal experience with multiracial people know that they are generally labeled by their dominant features. But people who are multiracial do not have to accept those labels…right? So could Obama have chosen to identify himself as white? What about refusing to choose one or the other and instead claim his biracial status? Was this possible?
Here’s the question for the moment: What is it that makes Obama feel most connected to (i.e., identified with) black people? And what is it that allows most of us to accept this identification with little dissonance?
And what about the identities of each one of us? Why do we select the racial, ethnic, and ancestry labels that are applied to us? Think about it: Why do we respond in the way that we do when someone asks us, “What are you?” What aspects of our culture/biological ancestry/physical appearance are we including and excluding in our identifications? Are we merely mimicking our parents and grandparents?
Check out this map of the “Obama extended family” from the New York Times.