Black by choice

2010-05-01 11:54

President Barack Oba­ma created a bit of a stir recently when he

completed his census form. In response to the

question about racial identity, the president

indicated he was “Black, ­African American or ­Negro”.

Despite being born of a white mother and raised in part by white

grandparents, Obama chose to identify himself

solely as black even though the census allows

people to check multiple answers for racial


This choice disappointed some who

have fought to ensure that multiracial people have the right to indicate their

complex racial heritage.

It confused some who were

surprised by his choice not to officially

recognise his white heritage.

It led to an odd flurry of obvious political

stories confirming that Obama was, indeed, the

first African-American president.

When Obama marked his census form he offered another lesson in what has been

an intensive if unintentional seminar on the social construction of race.

In just a few years, decades of multiple ­racial formations have been projected onto him at


When Hillary Clinton held a significant lead among black voters,

media outlets regularly questioned if Obama was

“black enough” to earn African-American electoral support.

When the Rev Jeremiah Wright dominated the news cycle, the question

shifted to whether Obama was “too black” to garner

white votes.

By the final months of the campaign, Obama’s opponents charged that he was a noncitizen, a

Muslim and a terrorist.

But Obama did more than disrupt

standard definitions of blackness; he created a definitional crisis for


Imagine that a young American falls into a Rip Van Winkle sleep in


He awakens in 2008 and learns that there is a historic presidential

election between a white and a black candidate.

He learns that one candidate is a Democrat, a Harvard Law School

graduate, a lecturer at the conservative University of Chicago Law School.


candidate is married to his first wife and they have two children who attend an

exclusive private school. His running mate is an Irish Catholic.

The other candidate is a Republican.

He was an average student who

made his mark in the military. He has been married twice and his running mate is

a woman whose teenage daughter is pregnant out of wedlock.

Remember our recently awakened American’s understanding of race and politics was frozen in 1960, when a significant

number of blacks still identified themselves as Republican, an Ivy League

education was a marker of whiteness and military service a common career path

for young black men.

He would expect marriage stability among whites and sexual

immorality to mark black life.

Our Rip would probably conclude that Obama was the white candidate and McCain the black


By displaying all these tropes of traditional whiteness, Obama’s candidacy disrupted the very idea of whiteness.

Suddenly whiteness was no longer about educational achievement, family stability

or the command of spoken English.

One might argue that the folksy interventions

of Sarah Palin were a desperate attempt to reclaim and redefine whiteness as a

gun-toting ordinariness that eschews traditional and elite markers of


Obama’s whiteness in this sense is

frightening and strange for those invested in believing that racial categories are stable, meaningful and essential.

Those who yearn for a post-racial America hoped

Obama had transcended blackness, but the real

threat he poses to the American racial order is

that he disrupts whiteness, because whiteness has been the identity that defines

citizenship, access to privilege and the power to define national history.

In 1998 Toni Morrison wrote that Bill Clinton was the first “black

president” because he “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent

household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing,

McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas”.

Ten years later the man who truly became America’s first black

president displayed few of these tropes.

In this sense Obama was the white candidate in 2008, and a substantial

portion of white voters preferred his version of whiteness to that of McCain and


Now, back to Obama’s census choice.

Despite his

legitimate claims to whiteness, he chose to call himself black.

As historian Nell Painter documents in her new book, The History of

White People, white identity was a heavily policed and protected border for most

of American history.

A person born to an African parent and a white parent could

be legally enslaved in America until 1865.

From 1877 until 1965 that person

would have been subject to segregation in public accommodations, schools,

housing and employment.

In 1896 the Supreme Court established the doctrine of separate but

equal in the case of Homer Plessy, a New Orleans Creole of colour whose ancestry

was only a small fraction African.

Obama’s census self-identification was a moment of solidarity

with these black people and a recognition that the legal and historical

realities of race are definitive, that he would

have been subject to all the same legal restrictions had he been born at another


So in April Obama did as he has done

repeatedly in his adult life: He embraced blackness.

He did not deny his white parentage, but he acknowledged that in

the US, for people of African heritage, having a white parent has never meant

becoming white.

Copyright © 2010 The Nation

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate

­professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University

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