by Jim Rotholz
We stand on the verge of electing the first African-American as president of the United States – and the country is pulsing with anticipation. Senator Obama’s rise to prominence has brought tears of joy from the eyes of many who have long waited for the sight of a non-white nominee. By anyone’s measure, it is an historic occasion for our nation with its dubious racial past. But there seems something askew with the notion that the offspring of an Anglo mother and an East African father should be called a “black American.” If half of Obama’s genes are Caucasian, who decided he was black? By the same logic, why not call him white? Such questions about a person’s racial makeup cause more than a little discomfort because they uncover a deep, collective anxiety we steadfastly harbor over issues of race and identity in America.
Sen. Obama’s racial origins are important, and extremely interesting, not so much for what they tell us about the man himself but for what they reveal about American cultural values regarding race and ethnicity at this particular juncture in our nation’s history. Since Colonial days, we Americans have been in a process of constantly negotiating and renegotiating the conditions of racial identity. There has been a glacially slow but inexorable movement from fixed to fluid categories, a movement which Obama’s nomination has now greatly intensified. Questions about his racial identity are really questions about our own individual and collective identities in the 21st century and the values we associate with them. How we categorize Sen. Obama determines how we in turn categorize ourselves and every other American. And that is why we squirm.
When we behold the man – his color, build, personality, and remarkable intelligence – we inevitably ask ourselves this question: “Is he one of us or one of them?” White Americans may think, “He’s not one of us …but then he doesn’t seem like one of them either.” This process is for the most part unconscious. It issues from deeply held beliefs that manifest in the everyday behaviors we express toward one another – whether “our people” or “the other guys.” A myriad of highly-charged emotions – guilt, fear, concern, and hope among them – are intertwined with those beliefs. And that is precisely the reason the whole thing is so volatile. But to make substantial progress with issues of race in the future, it is paramount that we come to a better understanding of the cultural values that underlie our present conceptions of race and identity.
To start, it is important to recognize that technically there is no such thing as a black man. Black is a color and not a racial category. Even the US Census Bureau admits as much, noting that their use of Black, White, Asian and other racial categories has no “biological” or “anthropological” basis. But then they go ahead and employ the terms just the same, reinforcing the popular notion that those terms represent something real. Although most Americans use black and white as short-hand for Negroid and Caucasoid, they are imprecise terms at best – like a brain surgeon in baking mittens. And they can only be subjectively employed. Down through history and across cultures there is a wide disparity in who considers whom black or white. And it is little help to say Obama had an African father and is therefore African-American (i.e. black). [The linguistics of race and ethnicity present an uncertain and ever-changing terrain, constantly forcing us into an agonizingly unsatisfying search for politically correct terminology – always upsetting someone’s sensibilities in the process.] Africans are so utterly diverse and come in so many shades and sizes that typing his father African only reveals our own ignorance of the “dark” continent (dark because we know so little about it). Should not a white Zimbabwean immigrant to the US also qualify as African-American? Somewhere along the line we have determined that racial terms shall not be equally applied.
Obama’s father belonged to the Luo of Kenya, a Nilotic people whose ethnolinguistic origins point to ancient pastoralists from southern Sudan – tall, independent peoples whose distinctive height and lean stature differ greatly from most other African populations. The Luo see themselves as Luo, not as generic Africans who belong to a chunk of humanity that happens to share one gigantic continent. Africans, like Americans of every designation, make distinctions between themselves based on numerous criteria – including language, culture, and religion. Distinctions based on skin color obviously exist, but are subjectively applied and not always apportioned the same weight. For example, the Amhara of Ethiopia, with their lovely bronze-colored skin, consider themselves to be neither black nor white. Black is a color they reserve for sub-Saharan Africans; white for the pasty people from the north.
The Amhara consider that they are utterly unique (as do most groups). However, upon immigrating to America, the Amhara have to come to terms with being labeled “black” by the majority culture, a designation which seems more distant from their self-conception than the East African highlands they left behind. Fortunately, they are an affable people and adaptable to our idiosyncrasies. It is because we Americans are fairly ignorant of the rest of the world’s geocultural detail, and because we want an easy formula for day to day functioning, that we simplify a complicated world into black and white – throwing Hispanic and Asian into the mix in an incongruent but arguably utilitarian integration of color, geography, language, and ethnicity.
In his autobiography, Dreams from my Father, Obama tells of a time when he realized he would be forced to choose a racial identity. He was a young boy living in Indonesia with his mother and her Indonesian husband (not his paternal father). A brown-skinned lad among others of similar hue, he had until then viewed everyone in his life, including his white maternal grandparents, as just people – individuals without respect to categories of race and ethnicity. But in Look Magazine Obama saw the picture of a black American who tried to lighten his skin using a chemical application – yet only succeeded in horribly disfiguring himself into a “ghostly hue.” When Obama questioned why anyone would do such a thing, his eyes were wrenched opened to the harsh realities of race and discrimination in America. Obama wondered what it might mean for him and his future in an America he called his own. He felt constrained to choose an identity according to categories foisted upon him by the Anglo-dominated culture to which he belonged. Like leaving Eden’s barred gates, the adolescent Obama had to abandon a world where people were just people for unknown lands where racial typing was the accepted norm.
No one, it seems, is able to escape the need to identify with a specific group. We know that from a very early age babies distinguish self from non-self. Call it a survival technique, it is part of our hard-wiring. Further cognitive development depends on that foundational step. Once taken, it’s not hard to see why humans are then driven to identify with a particular group, providing the means to cope with and negotiate a wider world of individuals and groups for whom one is considered “not one of us.” Racial and ethnic self-identification is also linked to an early sense of belonging to one’s given birth family, however that family might be configured. All cultures and all peoples devise lines of kinship to demarcate “us” from “them,” “our people” from “not our people” – and too often, us “good guys” from those “bad guys.” That is the point at which what is natural and functional becomes aberrant and dysfunctional.
So Barack adopted a black identity. Should the world accept that choice out of respect for his capacity to determine his own station in life – as we would that of, say, a conscientious objector? Or is there something immutable about race? Some in the “Black Community” have questioned whether Barack was “black enough” to deserve the designation and represent their interests. Their concern was not about his genetic heritage so much as his exposure to the “black experience” – including the humiliation and hardship that inevitably accompanies racism and discrimination. But eventually the issue dropped off the radar screen because whoever would choose to identify him or herself as an African American, with all that entails in this country at this time, deserves to be embraced by the larger community – mixed genes and all.
Historically, some people of mixed but indeterminate heritage have, in certain situations, chosen which identity they wish to adopt – if only temporarily. There is a phrase for it: situational identity. My children are a mixture of English, French, Scottish, Scots-Irish, and Ashkenazi Jew. They may choose to identify with one or more parts of their heritage depending on which seems most beneficial at any given time. But because we are part of a white majority, the maneuver has little value beyond the frivolous. However, for minorities in this country – and in the racially and ethnicity fractured world beyond – it has sometimes meant the difference between life and death. Situational identity is a survival strategy that only a few lighter-skinned African Americans have had the genetic luxury to exploit.
What if Barack decided to self-identify as white (the secret choice of some biracial people of light skin color in this country)? Could we as a nation accept that decision? Obviously not! We are locked into the culturally-determined conception that any color beyond a vaguely defined shade of brown is definitive of non-Caucasian heritage. According to that hazy scale lodged in our collective heads, Obama “appears” more black than white, though who would broach such typing publically? And, the thinking goes, once white genes have been altered (read: polluted) by non-white genes, there is no way to redeem “whiteness” as an inherited state. The change becomes a permanent devolution down an imaged hierarchical scale of humanity. The so-called “one drop” rule comes into play – the racist notion that any admixture denigrates a Caucasian inheritance. (Of course, Caucasian is a dubious racial category that includes a very wide range of people from North Africa to India). Barack had only one choice to make and we, in concert with our culture-bound forefathers, already made it for him.
The average guy on the street does not think he participates in the act of drawing racial lines, but through accepting the racial demarcations handed down from previous generations each of us reinforces the cultural values of those who did the initial drawing. Those line drawing ancestors were themselves unconsciously motivated by a context-specific need to get ahead or stay ahead as a group in an environment of perceived threats from “others” vying for desired resources. Racial categorization was a defensive move – an easy fix. Today most biologists, geneticists, and social scientists agree that racial categorizations are essentially arbitrary – detritus of a colonial past. The physical traits that distinguish races are culturally derived. Beyond culture-generated preconceptions is the reality that racial and ethnic categories are but a continuum upon which differences flow seamlessly one into another.
Genes we normally associate with racial groups move between those groups unimpeded. In fact, more genetic difference exists within each racial grouping than between any of them. Sen. Obama’s skin color, for instance, falls between pale white and jet black. But every other imaginable shade exists in both directions, in diverse combination with every other trait we clumsily associate with race. A better conceptualization is one in which continuums of traits intersect with one another in a vortex-like fashion – with all manner of genes constantly shifting throughout the entire network. Seen this way, race can only be illustrated three-dimensionally in a dynamic fashion that readily incorporates new combinations of constantly arising traits. Thus the call to simply abandon the concept of race as a biological reality and admit that it’s existence only benefits the few.
Who are these few? Racial line drawers the world over have one thing in common. They belong to a dominant group, whether social, economic, religious, or political. These are the people with power and resources at their disposal – the “movers and shakers” of economic and political life. They determine who is what and who gets what within their sphere of influence. Those without power are forced to accept the designations handed to them, except in cases where extreme isolation offers some level of self-determination. In the US, the original ruling white class reinstituted the racial categories brought over from their white European forefathers (never mind that the category “white” is a very mixed bag indeed, as early Irish immigrants to this country were unfortunate to learn). Most thought their racial superiority to be a divine appointment. A divine social order, with whites at the top, was accepted by the overwhelming majority of those who framed the Constitution. The lofty human rights they insisted upon did not apply to African slaves or Native Americans. That inclusion only came in time and with great struggle.
In early America, the unwritten rules of culture often took precedence over written law – as they still do today. Where racism was not officially sanctioned, it was sanctioned de facto through culture – through the lived values of the majority. Racist laws upholding slavery were, after all, but the codification of the cultural values of the time. Yet here we must make a distinction between racism and discrimination. In Understanding Diversity, sociologist Fred Pincus points out that racism entails power and oppression that only a dominant group has available to wield, while prejudice is a racially or ethnically based discrimination of one group by another, regardless of circumstances. Only dominant groups can be racists but any group can practice discrimination.
What racism meant for the offspring of white slave owners and their black female slaves was an absolute exclusion from “whitehood.” After all, property rights were at stake. White landholders had to insure that their “legitimate” offspring would inherit all properties – the basic means of production and control. Whenever there is a threat to authority, wealth, or position, culture has an incredible power to establish and maintain the status quo. In that the integrity of racial categories was deemed sacrosanct by our forbearers, those categories were vigorously upheld on all fronts legal and cultural. To keep their goodies, our white ancestors used every available means to shoo others away from the goody bag.
Among Hindus, light skin color is traditionally associated with holiness. The lighter the hue, the closer to divinity. It is a cultural value squarely corresponding to caste – an outlawed but still functional system in much of India and Nepal. Brahmans, the highest caste, are as a group much lighter in skin color than lower castes such as Dalits, the so-called “untouchables.” Though many Indians and Nepalis now actively seek to change the discrimination of caste, culture’s grip is extremely tenacious and those who benefit from the current system are loathe to relinquish their inherent advantage. Hindus, however, are certainly not alone in this denigrating arrangement between skin color and social standing. It is interesting to note is that in many regions of the world, servant and unskilled working classes – those who spend long days laboring in the hot sun – are of darker complexion than the people who benefit most from their services. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Certainly higher survival rates attend the offspring of those who better tolerate the intense sun because genes respond to environmental influences. But then culture alone can justify oppressive circumstances based on physical differences, institutionalizing social hierarchy through religious and political authority. Interesting to think that if one reversed the roles of rulers and ruled, servants and served, high and low castes, with enough generations skin color would eventually follow suite.
Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. researched the origins of a number of well-known contemporary African Americans, utilizing the tools of historical research and genetic analysis. He discovered that many black Americans, himself included, have white genes in their DNA. Colonial improprieties were apparently commonplace. Biracial children, considered “illegitimate” and thus outside the realm of legal obligation, were raised without fanfare by African Americans too poor and powerless to protest. Thomas Jefferson was one such early progenitor who spread his Anglo genes among his slaves. Strom Therman is another notable and much more recent example.
Biracial children light enough to “pass for white” are no longer an unusual occurrence. But if it is possible for an ancestral line to pass from one color to another, what does that say about color and race? And if skin color – the historic clinch pin of racial determination – can be significantly altered through genetic mixing, could not all traits traditionally associated with race also undergo changes in any direction? Whither immutability? Perhaps a larger and more significant question is why Dr. Gates’ revelations are surprising to us at all. Whether one adheres to the origins myth of Adam and Eve or mitochondrial Eve, all human diversity we see today emerged from a single, original gene pool. Ironically, perhaps globalization is now taking us all back in that direction – a human biological collapsing universe.
So where does it get us to know that the traditional determinants of race – skin color, facial features, body and hair type – all reveal a high degree of genetic plasticity? And what of ethnic groups and their relation to race? Certainly ethnic groups are easier to lay hold of, for that is how most people self-identify. Add linguistic associations into the mix and the designations get more accurate still, forming the ethnolinguistic groupings with which anthropologists love to work. But problems also attend ethnolinguistic categories, as when groups think themselves either related to or unrelated to neighboring groups, contrary to the genetic and linguistic evidence at hand. In addition, the relevance of ethnic groups is relative to the context. In Somalia, for example, nearly the entire population is ethnic Somali but bitter inter-group conflict exists along tribal and clan lines. Warfare or cooperation results from perception alone.
The research of sociologist Wendy Roth revealed that Latin American immigrants to the U.S. reject being typed racially, preferring national and ethnic categories relevant to their countries of origin. Many Latinos have been livid over the government’s role in forcing them into racial types. Controversy has been brewing for decades. Feeling the pressure, in 2000 the U.S. Census Bureau for the first time allowed citizens to choose more than one box for race on the census form. Hispanic/Latino along with a white or non-white qualifier was added as an ethnic category. Confusion ensued not only for Latinos but for all racially mixed individuals. Later research showed that 40% of people who chose more than one racial category would have made different choices if given a second chance. In other words, they changed their minds about their racial makeup. As if to add insult to injury, the US Census Bureau only counted the minority box for those who checked white plus any other minority racial category. Clearly there is work to be done.
As people and cultures mix and change on a rising tide of globalization the whole endeavor to identify ourselves racially becomes more and more convoluted and inaccurate. Mixing race and ethnicity is no solution. Both are subject to the problem of who slices the pie. Unable to come to grips with the plethora of people now in America, its no wonder the common citizen adheres to that most simple and unfortunate of tools: skin color. And color is a tool we yield but crassly, as when a Sikh was killed in this country after 9/11 by a parochially-minded white American whose values were infused with the ignorance and prejudice that permeates so much of our culture. One wonders if the US Census Bureau should be complicit in such crimes.
If the parameters of race are culturally defined, why don’t we just change the rules and slice the pie differently, paying closer attention that the disenfranchised benefit? Clearly we need some new lines, clearer thinking, less exclusion and lumping, and more plasticity. The problem: no one could devise such a system without bias. Is the call to jettison race altogether tenable? Unlikely. In the end, there are really no good solutions to the problems attending racial categories. But meanwhile we can at least begin to recognize the deleterious impacts of racial conceptions in our daily lives. And this election is a fine place to start.
The truth is that both black and white Americans – and every racial/ethnic group within our borders – need Obama to be black to feel good about racial progress in America. Whites need to alleviate guilt over historical reticence to accord equal rights, opportunities, and human dignity; blacks and other minorities need to foster hope for a better future. So if Obama has chosen to be a black American, there is every reason to embrace that choice. It has purpose.
The progress our country has made on issues of race is certainly noteworthy when we consider the distance we’ve covered since our Colonial beginnings. But, sadly, not all would agree that there is still a very long way to go. The national psyche is still tormented by a deeply embedded and unacknowledged form of racism that has stealthily transitioned into the shadows. Overt racist policies have for the most part been tamed by the law. But the law does not rule the human heart, and that which has not been tamed is now sublimated in areas beyond reach of the law – like bandits holed up in the badlands.
Preferential hiring and promotions along with racially-biased testing are examples of today’s hidden racism. It manifests not only in white-black relations but in the uneasy and ambivalent relations between minorities in this country. And it shows up in a subtle but equally destructive form in the way many Americans, of all shades, see the world beyond our borders. Overtly outlawed here, we have regularly been exporting our racial and ethnic hatreds to “enemies” abroad – the North Koreans, Venezuelans, and those in Islamic countries whose diverse populations we naively clump together as Arab or Muslim.
During the primaries Sen. Obama challenged the country to put issues of race on the national agenda, but as a country we apparently weren’t ready for such a strenuous undertaking. He, as an individual, seems to have come to terms with issues the rest of us find too inconvenient or too demanding to grapple with just yet. But as a nation we must sooner or later find the will to do so. The current election is letting the ghosts out of the closet. They can be heard howling whenever an opponent – fellow Democrats during the primaries and now percentage-point hungry Republicans – accuse Obama of “playing the race card” whenever his heritage is mentioned. Could the Republican mantra that Obama is “not ready to lead” the country be racially tinged, like the narrow-minded assessments of old that black football players could not make good quarterbacks? And on the other side of the isle, are Democratic chants of “change” and “hope” manipulating language symbolically to induce affective behavior from the guilt-ridden consciences of voters – those whose unresolved racism lurks beneath the surface like a smoldering volcano? It is quite possible that whichever side more adeptly manipulates “the race card” will win.
Race, it seems, is never far from the surface and too easily accessed. We have all grown up with some level of racial tension defining our lives. Those who end up embracing racist ideologies do so for one of two reasons: they grow up in social and cultural isolation in homogenous racial groups, having only abstract racial categories from which to shape a worldview, or they have had genuinely negative encounters across racial lines. The latter is most often the exclusive experience of racial minorities, but the knife can cut both ways and sometimes does. Conversely, those of us with positive cross-racial interactions are much more likely to formulate positive attitudes towards not only the concept of a fully integrated society, but towards people whose racial and ethnic makeup differs from our own. We’ve learned to personalize and thus humanize difference.. Positive, first-hand experience is the key. Categories and color recede in the presence of the human personality.
But there’s a problem. The ability to personalize others doesn’t translate well on a grand scale. Our ability to personalize others becomes all but impossible in a country of more than 300 million diverse individuals – or a world of 6 billion. The human mind balks at the prospect of personalizing the masses, like trying to grasp the reality of a billion stars – and we fall back to some simple cognitive framework made up of broad social categories. Hardwired to interact intimately and personally with just a few hundred individuals, large numbers leave us lumping one another together in some form or fashion. And race seems to be the most convenient designation so far.
Because it is all but impossible to overlook racially-linked features in those we encounter, we are stuck with typing. Our innate human psychology simply will not allow us to ignore obvious differences in color or shape or facial structure – try though we might.. Our brains note all differences great and small and form categories accordingly. Those differences provide the cognitive handles we need to orient ourselves in the challenging social world we inhabit. But we are not constrained to make unsympathetic judgments from those observations, relegating those with differences to positions lower down than our own on some imagined scale of human perfection. Such verdicts are learned – absorbed from others. Historically, those who adhere to them – Aryan Nazis, for example – have wrought havoc on the rest of humanity. Values are taught, myths handed down, biases reinforced, and hatreds implanted father to son, mother to daughter, priest to people, media to public. And that is precisely the point at which they must change.
To make significant racial progress – to reach a place where perhaps an article about Barak Obama’s race is of no interest to anyone – we Americans desperately need to learn to see one other, and by extension the world at large, as individual persons first and foremost. Then we must determine to treat each other accordingly. We are all like-minded human beings shorn in cloaks of race, gender, and ethnicity. To look for our common humanity is to personalize the world. But where relationships cannot be personal, they can at least be principled – drawing on religious, scientific, and cultural traditions that emphasize unity, civil behavior, kindness toward strangers, and loving one’s neighbor in a globally-connected world. We can learn to acknowledge and even celebrate differences without the need for competitive alignments. There is plenty to go around.
So what is a viable goal for race relations in America, knowing that no matter how vigorously we try, racial typing and its short-hand designations of color will be an inevitable part of the picture? What is viable knowing that racism and discrimination are so easily employed and readily learned via culture’s dark side? Certainly no one put it more eloquently than Dr. Martin Luther King when he spoke of a biblically-inspired dream that one day we all might learn to judge one another not by the color of our skin, but by the content our of character. Given our human penchant for self interest, that simple but lofty goal may never be fully realized in this fracture-laden world. But with every word and action each of us can choose to move the whole human lot closer to the reality King envisioned. Cultural and policy changes will follow our will to do so. Non-participation is not an option, but only another way to reinforce the status quo with all its attendant problems.
As issues of race come up in this election and beyond, it behooves us to remember that our children are intently listening, watching, and learning – forming the very values that in turn will determine what sort of America and what sort of world we all shall soon inhabit. Let us choose to live in a world that celebrates differences without resorting to discrimination. Then, no matter the outcome of the election, we all win.
Jim aspires to be a cowboy philosopher but is currently mired in apparent mediocrity far from his rural Texas roots. Beset by chronic illness a dozen years back, he repeatedly tells himself the glass is still half full while persistently lamenting the half empty part. That half empty part includes travel and mountaineering adventures on several continents, years of humanitarian aid work in Asia and Africa, an academic life in theology (BA) and anthropology (MA, Ph.D.), and a decade of eating donuts and dubbing around with his chums under the guise of running a carpentry business.
The half full part includes a wonderful wife and two spectacular children who somehow survived Jim’s horrendous parenting to emerge as intelligent, caring, socially-engaged young adults. There’s also the occasional success at putting his ludicrous thoughts into written form and opportunities to participate in worthwhile causes such as helping school kids in Africa. And there’s also…well that’s enough because he doesn’t want to stop thinking about the half empty part.