Shades of black
If the man who could be our first black president has a white mother, and yet Toni Morrison says we already elected one in Bill Clinton, then what’s black and white is pretty gray.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published April 15, 2007
Since before he started a historic run for the presidency, Barack Obama has told the world he considers himself a black man.
It’s not the kind of statement most men of color have to bother making. But because his mother is white and his father is Kenyan, Obama has spent time explaining a choice some find unusual – embracing a culture that neither of his parents actually grew up in.
What is really astonishing is what happened next: Some black folks didn’t believe him.
“When black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about,” wrote noted cultural critic Stanley Crouch, who is black, last year. “While he has experienced some light version of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own.”
In a January column for Salon magazine, Debra J. Dickerson, who is also black, was more blunt: “Barack Obama would be the great black hope in the next presidential race – if he were actually black.”
Which prompts a compelling question, as Obama visits the Tampa Bay area today for an Ybor City fundraiser: What really does determine your racial identity in today’s society? And if a guy with caramel-colored skin, an African father and a black wife isn’t considered authentically African-American, then who is?
One man who might be considered an authority, longtime black civil rights activist and former presidential candidate Al Sharpton, thinks all the Obama-doubting is an awkward way of asking a more complex question: Can black people trust him to champion their interests effectively?
“Those who are ambivalent and nonsupportive as of yet … it’s not about his genealogy, it’s about his policies,” said Sharpton, calling from Miami. “It’s a clumsy way some of us black people are asking about this: What is it that you’re going to represent?”
But Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, isn’t so sure.
“If that’s what people mean, then they ought to say so … instead of saying that because his father’s an African he’s lacking in some kind of racial authenticity,” said Bond. “Whether or not he’s committed to the same values we expect is going to be determined by what he says now and what he’s done in the past.”
Complicating things further for Obama on questions of race is his unique political situation.
In the past, significant black politicians mostly have come from two camps: the nation’s civil rights/protest establishment and the Republican Party. Whether you’re Sharpton, Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell, voters often guess where you stand on issues important to people of color based on those associations.
But Obama hasn’t risen through any of those ranks. And while his message of racial inclusion seems to reach white supporters in ways that more confrontational words do not – he has said “rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America” – Obama’s evenhandedness muddies another huge characteristic black people use to judge the racial identity of politicians.
Namely, aggressive advocacy for issues considered important to black people.
Ask Sharpton whether Obama is too easy on white people and he says: “I’ve heard that from some black people; I don’t know if that’s fair or not.
“I think what I resent is there being a different rule for civil rights advocates,” added Sharpton, irritated that some view his hesitancy as a political attack. “I want to see public policy statements … on what kind of Justice Department we should have, police brutality, questions of corporate discrimination. … Why would anybody assume I’m going to endorse anybody without knowing the answers to those questions?”
While some may view race identity as something handed down through families, experts agree that race is a delicate balance between how society perceives you and how you perceive yourself.
Tiger Woods, for example, learned the folly of trying to carve a new race identity for himself without society’s permission – once insisting on Oprah Winfrey’s popular talk show that he was not African-American but “Cablinasian,” a mix of Caucasian, black, Dutch, Native American and Thai (both Woods’ parents are from mixed-race heritage).
But Woods quickly found trouble: Some black people assumed he was denigrating their culture by refusing to be a part of it, and white sports commentators didn’t seem to know how to handle a guy who didn’t want to be the first black golf legend.
“He came out too early on. … America wasn’t ready to take it,” said Carmen Van Kerckhove, a New Yorker of Flemish-Belgian and Chinese heritage who serves as president of the antiracism training company New Demographic.
“I think mixed-race people exist in this space where their legitimacy is constantly questioned,” said Van Kerckhove, who recalled a discussion with friends who insisted mixed-race people must “choose a side” when defining their racial identity. “Different communities try to claim you, depending on how well you’re doing at that point in your life.”
Woods, it seems, has learned his lesson: He rarely talks openly about race anymore. But Obama, in seeking to become the nation’s first black president, doesn’t have that luxury.
And when he does talk about race issues, his style is striking: He isn’t confrontational. He doesn’t shame people. He isn’t particularly aggressive.
In other words, he isn’t angry.
Is less guilt good?
“What’s unique about Barack Obama is that … because he doesn’t come from the traditional civil rights background, he does not make white people feel guilty,” said Sylvester Monroe, a former correspondent for Time magazine who serves as senior editor of the black-focused magazine Ebony.
Still, Monroe expects there will come a point when traditional black voters will not allow Obama to walk that fine tightrope between the aggressive advocacy they expect and the inclusive consensus-building that draws nonblack support.
Sooner or later, they will ask: How can a guy who talks about consensus and a rising tide lifting all boats stand up to those who want to kill affirmative action and reduce Equal Employment Opportunity law enforcement?
“If Obama does well, it takes a lot of juice from guys who have made a life of fighting for civil rights,” Monroe said. “Some of the people in that tradition say, if you don’t keep white people’s feet to the fire, they can act like everything’s fine. (Soon, traditional black voters will say) you’re black, we’re black, you’re our guy. You have to represent.”
It’s that kind of talk that worries Syracuse University professor Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Author of a 2001 book called Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution, Lasch-Quinn resists what she calls the “myth about what blackness is.”
“I’m talking about the idea that there’s one black response to things … the idea that it is basically rage,” said Lasch-Quinn, who is white. “Part of the question about whether Obama is black enough seems to be asking, ‘Is he angry enough? Is he devoted to the idea that black people are separate enough?’ It’s a notion of uniformity – that there’s only one black identity, and it’s one of rage.”
It seems possible this dynamic is reciprocal; that black people have learned through experience that rage and confrontation are often the surest way to see their concerns addressed by the white mainstream.
Definitions of blackness can be inclusive; Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton America’s first black president in a New Yorker essay for his stands on race issues and persecution by conservatives.
And Lasch-Quinn’s vision of minimizing race differences may sound to some black people suspiciously like a call to play down their culture in favor of white, mainstream values.
But Lasch-Quinn blames modern race experts for developing a vision of blackness that is separatist and divisive. “(It includes the message that) every black person is totally responsible for their community and what happens in it … there’s this image of someone who always has a bone to pick, doesn’t believe in reconciliation,” she said. “If an issue of race comes up in an interracial setting, the white people will often yield to the most aggressive position. … (But) why should it be that people have this idea that there’s just one black opinion?”
Black like him
Back in the late 1940s, aspiring art student Peter B. Hammond decided to try an experiment.
A free-thinking 19-year-old blond, blue-eyed white man, he was traveling through South Florida telling people he was black – referencing the old “one- drop rule” of segregated America that said if you have even one drop of black blood in your heritage, you were considered black.
Though he didn’t look the least bit African-American, everyone who heard this fib believed it – even black people.
Their reasoning: Being black was so tough in a segregated South, who would claim to be a Negro who wasn’t?
“I was thinking this whole system of segregation was pretty idiotic, and that kind of confirmed it for me,” said Hammond, now 78, who was inspired to become an anthropologist after experiencing the crushing racism of Florida in the 1940s. “Race is a social construct. … (And) it may defy any type of scientific definition.”
Now teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hammond said black people who remember those times might have difficulty accepting a politician like Obama – whose family may never have faced such circumstances – claiming to be black.
“They may feel it’s as if he’s taking advantage of being black without paying his dues,” the professor said. “Black folks might be saying, ‘Here’s this guy who is presenting himself as a brother, but he was raised in Indonesia.’ … (And) on the other hand, white people may say he’s not a real black person. … You can pat yourself on the back because you voted for a black person, but (think) ‘Thank God he’s not really black.’ ”
Van Kerckhove, Hammond and other experts agree there is a long list of characteristics others often use to judge someone else’s racial identity. And these details can be crucial cues for others – sometimes given more weight than what the person actually says about his or her own racial identity.
Some characteristics: physical appearance/genealogy; language (do you have an accent or speak in a vernacular?); race of your romantic partner; race of your friends (an area which is often segregated in people’s lives); music you enjoy; your history of activism, if any; your name; where you go to church (churches are still highly segregated); your assertion of culture at your job.
For example, Halle Berry self-identifies as a black woman and reinforces that assertion by dating and marrying black men, playing black characters in film and TV and talking about race issues from a black person’s perspective publicly.
Nicole Richie also self-identifies as a black woman, because she was raised by two black parents, pop star Lionel Richie and his ex-wife Brenda. But she was adopted and actually has Hispanic, black Creole and Caucasian heritage, she has blond hair, has often dated white men and her onetime best friend, Paris Hilton, is a white woman.
To the world, she is likely considered a white woman, no matter what she says about her own heritage.
“We need to be honest as a society about how we let people decide who they are,” said Jonathan Holloway, a professor of history and African-American studies at Yale University who is black but was raised by two black parents light-skinned enough that some people assumed his mother was white.
“I have no problem with the fact that (Obama) decided to be African-American … the honesty of it shows how complex this issue is in society,” Holloway said. “Blackness is a slippery kind of thing. … It depends on where you are, how you speak and what group is judging you. My politics are – a lot of them have been socially determined, because I identify as black very consciously.”
Unite and conquer?
Of course, there are some who say the whole question of Obama’s blackness is a political smokescreen – allowing some black leaders and other political opponents to hold back without looking selfish or racist. Once the nation gets to know Obama better, some say, questions about his allegiance to black culture will fade.
“People like Sharpton, whose profession is being black, they have a dilemma because they are supposed to choose the black person over the white woman, but (Obama) is not beholden to them,” said Monroe Anderson, who is black. A columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, he also writes the Obama Watch blog for the Web site of Ebony and Jet magazines.
But Sharpton is quick to say that expecting him to support Obama simply because he is black also sounds racist. And a growing controversy over the candidate’s slow reaction to racist statements by radio/TV shock jock Don Imus – Obama didn’t issue a comment criticizing Imus until CBS Radio and NBC News had already suspended him – may lend credence to those who wonder if he can effectively address racism when necessary.
And activists such as the NAACP’s Bond resist the idea that black politicians who handle race issues like Obama does present a new way of talking about race and culture in America.
“(Obama’s) message has more wide appeal to whites than say the Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Julian Bond message … (because) many people wrongly believe that the three of us are divisive and that he is a healer,” said Bond. “I think that’s probably true about him, but it may not be true about us.”
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org Got a comment? See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
How do we decide blackness?
On the cover
Using the criteria cited by experts, Eric Deggans outlined the cues signaling race identity for several notable people. Comparing the characteristics that signal blackness to those that don’t provides a little perspective into how we all perceive race.1. Eminem: Problack characteristics: Music – Pioneer in rap music, which is rooted in black culture; Friends – Counts major black artists such as Dr. Dre as mentors. Nonblack characteristics: Genealogy – Born to two white parents; Romance – Ex-wife is white; Personal image – Self-identifies as a white male.Conclusion: Familiarity with black culture aside, Eminem is white.2. Bill Clinton: Problack characteristics: Friends – Counts prominent black people such as Toni Morrison as friends; Profession – fought to improve affirmative action and oppose racism. Nonblack characteristics: Genealogy – Born to two white parents; Romance – His wife is white; Personal image – Self-identifies as a white male.Conclusion: Morrison’s anointing as the first black president notwithstanding, Clinton is a white male.3. Halle Berry: Problack characteristics: Romance – Dates, has married black men; Personal image – Self-identifies as black. Nonblack characteristics: Genealogy – Raised by white mother.Conclusion: Berry is considered a black female.4. Nicole Richie: Problack characteristics: Genealogy – Raised by two adoptive black parents; Personal image – Self-identifies as black woman. Nonblack characteristics: Appearance – Has blond hair, light eyes (apparently of white, black Creole and Mexican ancestry); Best friend – Paris Hilton, a white woman.Conclusion: Richie is considered a white female.On the WebWhat does the phrase “African-American” mean – and to whom? Go to links.tampabay.com