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Abby L. Ferber Headshot

Black or Biracial? Who Gets to Decide?

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Is Obama Black? Biracial? And why do we care so much? A new book by George Yancey and Richard Lewis, Jr., Interracial Families: Current Concepts and Controversies, is a nice primer on the subject, and argues that an historical context is necessary for understanding why questions of racial identity are so heated in the U.S.

I had the good fortune recently of sitting down and discussing the issue with two young, bi-racial women, both sociologists, who have had ample opportunity to reflect upon this issue both personally and intellectually. We can all learn from their experience and insight. Why is the issue so contentious? According to Chandra Waring "It is difficult for black and white people to understand that when they label black/white biracial people as black or as white, they are asking--no, telling--that person to deny, ignore or even disown one parent."

Angie Beeman can relate to this. She has experienced white students telling her "'But I don't see you as a person of color, I just see you as white." Both Chandra and Angie reveal a central dilemma- the issue of who is given the opportunity to self-identify. As Angie observes, "these statements made by European Americans reflect white privilege. I feel that those who are making these statements are acting with such arrogance--as if they have the authority to completely erase my history and experiences as a person of color. I grew up in a small, predominantly 'white' town, where I never passed for 'white.' Yet my experiences are continually minimized by white people."

The privilege to name oneself and others is an expression of power. White people have the privilege of self-identifying themselves, and historically, naming and defining who does and does not count as white. Today's debates about Obama's racial identity continue to reveal the significance of being able to name oneself. According to Yancey and Lewis, some estimates predict that people defining themselves as biracial or multiracial will approach 20% of the U.S. population by 2050. For many young biracial people, naming themselves as biracial or multiracial is a radical act of self-definition.

While most African-Americans in the U.S. have white lineage, the experiences of children that are raised by parents of different races may be qualitatively different from those raised by two parents both classified as black. Reflecting on her childhood, Angie observes:

"I now understand why my parents could not help me. Neither of them experienced life as a bi-racial person, and neither of them experienced racism when they were growing up. Scholars have argued that people of color have a collective wisdom that results from shared experiences with racism. Therefore, mono-racial parents may feel the need to teach their children how to navigate a racist world at an early age. My father is a 'white' U.S. born man who taught me much about being proud of my working class identity, but he said nothing about racism. In fact, my father does not believe that racism is a problem in the U.S. He feels that all racism is wrong, but that anyone can be racist. My mother is a person of color, but she did not grow up in the United States" so she also could not relate to Angie's experiences of racism.

Chandra, like Obama, has one black parent and one white parent. While she self-identifies as both black and white, she explains "people still see me as black and that is because society teaches us that black and white equals black (unless the biracial person can pass, then maybe, they can be white). President Obama is a prime example of this ridiculous racial mathematics. He is just as white as he is black, yet he is celebrated and overwhelmingly understood to be black. Obama illustrates how being biracial works--or does not work--because he was raised by his white mother and white grandparents, yet still is viewed as black. If a biracial American who was raised entirely by his white family is not acknowledged as half white, who will be?"

While frustrated by this logic, Chandra is also very much aware of the history that has brought us to this place. "One thing to consider about Obama is his age group; he is of the generation where 'biracial' was simply not a choice in the racial identity vocabulary. Also, we cannot have a conversation about biracial Americans being constructed as black without acknowledging the role slavery has played in racial identity politics. Historically, the child of a white male slave owner and a black female slave (many times through rape) was constructed as black, and was therefore another body donated (by the father) to the exploitation empire of slavery."

The U.S. alone adopted the one-drop rule, defining any child with "a drop" of black blood as legally black. Throughout our history, these racial classifications have been imposed to maintain white supremacy. Chandra believes that "If we are going to make any progress in dealing with race, we need to have an honest, frank and probably uncomfortable conversation about it. That means people need to learn about the relatively short history of the concept of race, how it is a social invention and how racist ideology functions both overtly and covertly." This is something we generally don't hear discussed on the talk shows. We cannot comprehend the anger and threat many in the black community feel is inherent in the assertion of biracial identity if we do not understand this history and what is at stake today.

Maybe Obama does provide us with some guidance in this regard. He recognizes and seems to take seriously his identification as black. And yet, Obama does not define himself as simply black. He recognizes that he is black in the eyes of others, and according to the history of race and racism in the U.S. "However," according to Chandra, "he demonstrates behavior that may be characteristic of biracial Americans: he shifts." For example, "in his first press conference as President-Elect, Obama said he wanted to get a 'mutt like me' when discussing potential family dogs. In using the word 'mutt,' he is acknowledging his mixed racial background in a subtle manner that is politically safe. He also mentions his 'white mother from Kansas' in every speech that he mentions his 'black father from Kenya.' President Obama might identify as black because he knows most Americans will view him as black, but he also frequently reminds us that he is white. President Obama represents a fusion that was not possible during slavery, being the child of a white mother and black father. "

Chandra sees "President Obama as a role model for all people who feel a certain 'in-between-ness.'"

And it may be in this "in-between-ness" that the answer lies. As these young women's reflections highlight, the problem lies in our desire for a simple answer. But if race is a socially constructed category, as we know it to be, there is no real, correct definition of who fits into any specific racial category. Our answers should respect individuals' desire for self-identification, especially people who have been denied that right in the past. But they should also recognize the political, historical and social context. Questions and answers about racial identity are both personal and political matters. Just as biracial people have learned to code switch, the rest of us should as well. We need to be able to embrace different answers about racial identity in different contexts, depending upon who is asking the questions, and why. And the only constant guiding our answers should be the end goal: the best answer will always be whatever answer will advance the cause of anti-racism in that moment.