Who, or what, is Barack Obama?
Although people ask this question about all presidential candidates, I see it raised much more frequently concerning U.S. Senator Barack Obama. Shelby Steele (author of “The Content of our Character”) argues in his new book, “A Bound Man”that Obama can’t win the presidency because he doesn’t know who he is. Obama’s quest for his identity is the theme of his autobiography “Dreams From my Father,” which was written before he found the national limelight. In that book, he gives one answer: “A black man with a mixed heritage”.
Accurate enough, but that’s an answer virtually every black person in America could give — and probably more white people could give an equivalent answer if they knew enough about their own past.
Barack Obama, as most of us know by now, had a black African father and a white American mother, and he has a half-Indonesian half-sister. Multiracial people such as Obama wrestle with two fundamental questions:
“Who am I?”
“Who (or what) are you?”
The first is a personal, internal question, and the answer must satisfy the individual. The second is an external question, for public consumption, but some answers will not easily please the public.
Roosevelt University professor Heather Dalmage, herself interracially married, summarizes the struggle with the first question in this way:
Because they do not quite fit into the istorically created, officially named, and socially recognized categories, members of multiracial families are constantly fighting to identify themselves for themselves. A difficulty they face is the lack of language available to address their experiences.
This quote is from Dalmage’s book, “Tripping on the Color Line: Black-White Multiracial Families in a Racially Divided World.”
In a world in which half-black, half-white Barack Obama is “the first serious black contender for the presidency,” the language with which to call yourself something else is hard to come by.
Dvora Yanow of Vrije Universiteit, in Holland, brings out the struggle multiracial people face in answering the “who are you” question thus:
Individuals who cannot find their identity in available categories become invisible, in a sense: without a label, without a vocabulary, their stories are untellable and they themselves are unnarratable.
This is from Yanow’s 2003 book, “Constructing ‘Race’ and ‘Ethnicity’ in America: Category-making in Public Policy and Administration.”
In my masters thesis, I added:
Because of the state’s historical and continuing role in racial politics, Americans often address government in narratives that begin, “I am a (fill in the blank) American,” but the federal government only makes available some categories of hyphenated-American for people to use in telling their stories (Yanow, 2003). “Being unable to do so calls into question one’s membership in American society,” (Yanow, 2003, p. 194). The unsuccessful attempt to place a “multiracial” category in the 2000 U.S. Census was, Yanow (2003) asserts, just such a contested claim for membership.
Thus it is that someone like Barack Obama could, early in the campaign, be seen as “not black enough” because he didn’t bear enough markers of race, while to others he “transcends race” due to the same lack of racial markers. But all this revolves around what other people think or say about Obama.
Is it possible for a multiple answer to both questions? I.e., “I am black here, white there, ‘mulatto’ in a third context and God knows what elsewhere.” As the parent/uncle of multiracial children, I believe such an answer is not only possible, but a fundamental right. More on that in a post coming soon.