Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Great White Hope

One of the media conversations I'm peripherally aware of (again, in this bubble I don't have the omniscient view of the media borg I usually do) is the "why do people call Obama black?" It's quite fascinating, really, that this is an issue. The same issue was raised when Halle Berry won her Oscar. I'll try to be kind to those raising the it, but they really seem to have a view of race as being genetic or "in the blood," which is, uh, a rather interesting view of race. The "one drop rule" still exists -- not because it's government imposed, but because if you look black people categorize you as black. Now, I look forward to a colorblind society but it doesn't exactly exist right now. Obama is black because people see him as black. The content of "black blood" in him is irrelevant. I highly doubt any of the people saying this didn't think of Obama as a "black man" before they discovered that one of his parents was white.

Look, this is why silly liberals like me say things like "race is a social construct." That isn't to say there aren't some persistent genetic differences between populations, but those populations don't match up very well with what we, as a society, call "race." And, those conceptions of "race" differ quite a bit from country to country.

But, as for why this issue is coming up now specifically, Obama himself says it much better than I ever could:

If I was arrested for armed robbery and my mug shot was on the television screen, people wouldn't be debating if I was African-American or not. I'd be a black man going to jail. Now if that's true when bad things are happening, there's no reason why I shouldn't be proud of being a black man when good things are happening, too.

I've never been a big fan of the term "African-American" as it ties a race into a geography, and it becomes increasingly confusing as immigration patterns become more complex. I'm happy to identify people in any way they want to be identified, but I do think the adoption of the term has been counterproductive in a number of ways. Is Theresa Heinz Kerry an African-American? Would an Afrikaaner immigrant to the US be? What do we call black Hatian immigrants, or black citizens of Britain? Once it becomes complicated, we default to the term which is really the primary issue - skin tone.