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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt with daughter and granddaughter

Who is white? Who is black?

Racial identity has seemingly become even more ambiguous since a young senator named Barack Obama first stepped on the national political stage four years ago. While those of us obstensibly of the "black race" have learned that the color "black" comes in varying shades, and that black-white bi-raciality has for the most part been thrust under the umbrella of "African-American," the question of who is white or black is one that is newly being pondered on message boards, on blogs, and even in the MSM. One of the points I've noted with growing irritation is how some white voters who opted for Obama try to ameliorate the racial rancor from the anti-Obama camp by declaring that Obama is not black or African-American "since he's half white." It is as though they are saying that you're not to treat Obama as you would a wholly-black man. And what one can infer from what they are saying is that Obama might not have gotten their vote had he not been half-white.

The renewed focus on racial identity particularly irritates me because for centuries, blackness has been co-opted and defined for those of us for who had everything taken away from us, including our cultural and familial ties. We managed to re-create those ties under the umbrella of our "blackness," our "otherness" that separated us, for good or bad, from mainstream America. And it was somehow OK, that even the whitest of us could self-define as "black" as long as it didn't adversely affect those who were not "black." That is, as long as we didn't sully other bloodlines by "passing" or create undue confusion by not outright declaring our blackness in contradiction of our "white" skin, society could avoid the question of true whiteness and blackness.

But now that a black man has been elected to the highest office in the land, it has become a standard assertion by many uncomfortable with Obama's racial ambiguity to try to obfuscate his "blackness" by promoting his "whiteness." And yet these same folk are patting themselves on the back for forgiving his blackness and voting him into office. And on that I call bullshit, because if you have any problem with Obama's African lineage, you are just as befuddled as those who are unapologetically racist.

During the early days of the campaign, I pondered whether to post about the parallels between Obama's campaign and that of Harold Washington, who became Chicago's first black mayor over twenty years ago. As a Chicagoan in my 20's during the time, I distinctly recall the virulence and division that Washington's run brought about. And just as the Republican party rallied around McCain, someone they were at best lukewarm about, ethnic Chicagoans focused their "white hope" around Bernard Epton, the Republican candidate. Ironically, many in the ethnic communities has initially rejected Epton because he was Jewish, but upon Washington's declaration, they decided that Epton was the lesser of two evils in that Jewishness could make some claim to "whiteness" whereas there was no racial ambiguity with Washington. He was plainly black. If he could make claims to any whiteness, as nearly every African-American born on these shores can in some respect, that whiteness was distinctly buried under layers of melanin. Which, in retrospect, allows me to rethink Washington's campaign as the greater victory of self-interest over racism, one that truly brought the different factions, whether of race or class, together. There would be no apologists explaining away their vote by declaring that at least Washington was "half white." (Update: just found out that today is the 21st anniversary of Harold Washington's death.)

Another occurrence I'm noting more and more is that some "non-black" folk are attempting to re-define "blackness" to their comfortability. For example, a Youtube discussion recently erupted over whether actress/singer Vanessa Williams is white. One commenter, who identified herself as white, noted Williams' blue eyes and light complexion and declared emphatically that Williams was more white than black. Actually, Williams has often been mistaken as bi-racial, even though both of her parents self identify as black. However, this particular commenter created an interesting equation in that two bi-racial parents makes the offspring bi-racial, also. So, in her view, Williams is half white, and her European phenotype trumps whatever blackness she has. Ergo, Williams should be labeled white. Much as Obama has been labeled more white than black by some racial apologists (translation: racists).

Most black folks I know, rightly or wrongly, adhere to the one-drop rule, mostly because the rule has been foisted on us for so long that we over time have inculcated it to our core. You can be the whitest of white, if you had even one-sixteenth of black blood, you were "family" if not a fully-embraced member thereof. Although there are those who declare that they will not allow a racist rule to define them. I'm all for self-definition; if Williams wants to declare herself "white," she has every right to. But for "others" who can't even begin to appreciate the complexity of the color discourse to summarily attempt to define us is a verse in perverse irony.

Years ago, my sociology professor had a poster on the wall his office with pictures from the 40s showing an array of people of various shades. The caption read: "Who is White, Who is Black?" The professor, a dark-hued man with his own colorism issues had some resentment against lighter-skinned blacks, whether he realized it or not. I did attempt to determine from the pics who had African lineage. My results were a toss-up, because it was truly hard to tell. So, I do understand how racial ambiguity can cause some sort of cognitive dissonace, or a nagging discomfort for those who need to neatly compartmentalize.

In the end, race is simply a subsect of the larger human family, and like most families, this family has its scisms. But I'd like to think that this past November, the family overcame its racial division, if only for a moment in time.


Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 11/25/2008 08:51:00 AM Permanent Link     | | Home


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