With the November election less than 100 days away, the Obama campaign continues to come up against questions about the president's racial identity. Most recently, reports that the president is "passing," or claiming that he's representing himself as a member of a different racial group than the one(s) to which he belongs, have resurfaced. For instance, actor Morgan Freeman recently told NPR, "America's first black president hasn't arisen yet. He's not America's first black president -- he's America's first mixed-race president." The logic I see behind such claims is twofold. First, the president is not really African American because his American mother is white (and, by extension, his ancestors were not enslaved). Second, that "mixed-race" and "black" are mutually exclusive ways of being.
None of this particularly surprised me, as I have been writing for years about the power of passing -- emphasizing a part of identity rather than the whole -- when it comes to thinking about racial identities in America. My assessments are complied in my new book, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, which covers the same ground as many of Obama's political and social critics and visits the president's own responses to the claim that he is not really African American.
For example, in March 2008 Obama touted the power of personal relationships in promoting racial justice when he explained that he could identify with the experiences of African Americans (i.e., slavery) through the ancestry and experiences of his wife and daughters. Later, he privileged the role of the present over the past when he said that he understood what it means to be a black man in America today because of his racialized experiences and identity. In interviews he discussed what it felt like not to be able to catch a cab in New York City and how he confronted bigotry in the form of hate speech, among other incidents. As recently as 2010, he made an appearance on ABC's The View that called for more accurate historical accounts of racial identities and history. As the president put it, "We are sort of a mongrel people." He continued, "I mean we're [African Americans] all kinds of mixed up. That's actually true of white people as well, but we just know more about it."
And now, thanks to Obama's own family tree, we're beginning to know much more. On the heels of reports about the First Lady's multiracial heritage comes the latest headline, "Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not by His Father but His Mother, Research Suggests." According to the Times the president and his mother are descendents of John Punch, "the first African to be legally sanctioned as a slave, years before Virginia adopted laws allowing slavery."
The revelation that the president and his mother are descendents of the "first slave" provides us all with an opportunity to acknowledge racial relationships with all their problems and awkwardness. Perhaps now, rather than merely questioning the president's racial identity, we can pose bigger questions about the meanings of race. Questions like: Is slavery still the defining experience of African American identity? If so, who says so? Is any racial identity -- multiracial, African American, white -- better understood as an idea that can change over time? Wouldn't it be real progress to admit that an increasing number of people who identify with monoracial identities like black and white might also be mixed? How do we deal with the too often painful history of racial mixing in African American communities? How many families that we know as white might actually come from a history of racial mixing and passing?
President Obama embodies and embraces these tough questions about race like few others. His ever-evolving racial identity questions the construction of the color line. At the same time, the way his identity is reinterpreted and evaluated in mainstream media now begs the question: If Obama is now black enough for us because he's white, then what does race really mean? In light of this, it may be most appropriate to understand our present and our president as embodiments of social rather than the biological constructions of race and the complicated histories from which such social constructions emerge.
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