Biracial versus black: Thought leaders weigh in on the meaning of President Obama’s biracial heritage

Opinion

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Yaba Blay, author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race and artistic director of the multiplatform (1)ne Drop project

Everyone seems to be negating President Barack Obama‘s own story. The man himself has said publicly in print that, yes, his mother is white; yes, he is technically bi-racial, mixed race, whatever the language is people choose to use, but in this racialized society he is seen as a black man. And for that reason he identifies as black.

We’re having all this conversation about who he is, and I think that it’s just reflective of who he is as the president of the United States. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if he was just an average Joe walking down the street. Yes, I get it. People are now saying he’s ignoring his bi-raciality, he’s ignoring his whiteness, but we’re also presupposing that that is somehow important to him. I think it’s okay if it’s not.

I think it would be perhaps more digestible if he were to say, okay, I’m bi-racial or I’m mixed. But he says very clearly, very loudly that “I’m black.” And that’s just a reality that I think people are unwilling to accept. Self-identity is important and we can’t dismiss that. We can’t negate that.

Andrew Jolivette, Associate Professor at San Francisco State University
Editor of Obama and the Biracial Factor: The Battle for the New American Majority

For mixed people, being mixed you identify differently at different times and in different situations. I think the president is no different, so [a bi-racial] child still can take pride in [the fact] that President Obama is a bi-racial president. But he’s also a black president. I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. And that’s what happens often in politics when it comes to policy, that it has to be one or the other, not some sort of combination of policies that can be good. Because he’s bi-racial and always compromising and trying to find the balance between two different identities, I think he tries to do the same things in terms of his policy.

I think that the population and demographic of mixed people are getting bigger. In history when we write about the president in the future, we will see more books and more writings about him being mixed and the importance of that in terms of him being elected. Because I actually don’t think he would have been elected if he weren’t bi-racial. If he were monoracial, African-American, or actually white for that matter, I don’t think he would have won the election the first time.

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, Professor of Ethnic Studies at Stanford University
Author of When Half is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities

I think his identifying [as African-American] is very positive. On the other hand, I think there’s nothing creative or innovative or groundbreaking or revolutionary about [his identifying as black.] It’s very much following the status quo of the way that a majority of people expect him to identify… I personally didn’t have a lot of expectations about his ability to really go beyond what would be the mainstream position in terms of how he labeled and located himself. I have hopes that he might help us to go beyond these kinds of rigid racial classifications and categories. I think he could do that if he was able to identify himself more openly with all the different parts of his heritage.

For example when he was in Ireland, he identified himself with his Irish heritage. People can be cynical about that in terms of his desire to get support among Irish-Americans, but I think that type of action that he took there is the kind of action that can help a lot of people to identify themselves in [such] ways that they can embrace all different parts of their identity and have multiple identities; and that that can be done without threatening an identity that you feel more strongly about than another, in this case African-American.

I think he could still be African-American and also be able to say to people, “Yeah, but I’m also Irish.” So that would be my hope. I think he could help a lot of people in the country begin to transcend some of these categories by allowing people to identify more with all the different parts of their heritage and to do that without having to deny or to give up that more basic affiliation that they feel.

These responses have been edited for clarity. Follow Patrice Peck on Twitter at @SpeakPatrice and Tumblr.