Monday, December 15, 2008

Obama's Race

The Associated Press is reporting a dispute over whether President- Elect Barack Obama is, in fact, our first Black president. Because the Senator is mixed race, many insist that classifying him as Black is incorrect.

For his part, President- elect Obama has said, "I identify as African-American- that's how I'm treated and that's how I'm viewed. I'm proud of it."

My take on this issue is straight forward, but nuanced, and it comes from a lesson I learned freshman year of college.

One of my best female friends that year was a Black girl named Chiazor. One afternoon, Chiaz and I were hanging out in the room of mutual friends. I brought up race, and asked what I look back on now as a very ignorant question. "Why is it that Black people refer to themselves as African- American, rather than referring to a specific country?"

Chiaz looked at me strangley, unsure if I was serious, "Um... Chris... because African Americans don't know where their ancestors came from," she said slowly before laughing.

I felt like an idiot.

The story illustrates an important point on this issue: Being Black is not the same thing as being African- American.

In my opinion, the term "Black" is superficial when applied to race. Racism is based on how a person looks, so much of it is about how the world treats an individual based on his appearance. Obama seems to acknowledge this reality in his above quote. The President- elect may be biracial, but he looks far more like a Black man than he does like a caucasian.

But there is a cultural element as well, and Obama embraced Black culture by joining a prominent Black church, moving to a Black community, and marrying an African- American woman, amid other conscious decisions to embrace the culture into which society placed him.

Barack Obama is black.

However, to say he's African- American waters down the term. African- American means descended from slaves, it's a nod to the ugliest chapter of our national history. We cannot afford to lose the meaning. The President- elect knows where his Black ancestors came from. His father was a visiting student from Kenya.

Barack Obama is Kenyan- American. He is not African- American.

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