Monday, May 19, 2008

overlook barack obama's whiteness

When Barack Obama went bowling for votes during the Pennsylvania primary, he was trying to align himself with a traditionally white, working-class voting block. This effort failed, miserably.

Not only was Obama's bowling score terrible (a 37, for those of you who know anything about bowling), so was his statistical support among Pennsylvania's white, working-class voters.

Of course, Obama's difficulty in connecting fully with white, working-class voters as well as Hillary Clinton does is accounted for by much more than his lousy bowling skills. The primary cause is the common perception of him (a perception that he himself embraces) as "black." And like many other states, Pennsylvania has a high percentage of working-class whites, many of whom simply won't vote for a "black" candidate.

And yet, what people continually overlook about Obama is that he's actually half black, and half white.

As I've written before, Obama is perceived as African American, despite his biracial status, because by the magic of America's racial double standards, his white mother and black father had a black baby. If the parental situation were reversed, with a black mother and a white father, they still would've had a black baby.

In both the actual and the hypothetical case, the half of Obama that is black trumps the half of him that is white, because it's still the case that white women can have black babies, but black women can't have white ones. Ever since Obama was born, Americans have overlooked his white half, allowing the black half to rise up and virtually obliterate it.

Obama's opponents have occasionally called his patriotism into question, in part because he has declined the fashion option of a flag pin on his lapel. A more consistent reason for these doubts has been his presumed blackness. The automatic nature of this racial status, no matter which of the two parental options described above might have been the case for him, is a hangover from the days of America's more overtly white supremacist past, when people adhered to something called "the one-drop rule."

Becuase white Americans used to generally believe in the innate, genetic superiority of their race, threats to white racial purity, via sexual intermingling with the black race, were feared and denounced as a threat to that supposed superiority. Thus, as an expression of popular "common sense," the one-drop ruled stated that even one drop of black blood meant that a person was no longer "white," and was thus "black" instead.

The Wikipedia article on this rule is fascinating; it notes, for instance, that if America still fully adhered to this rule, people like Mariah Carey and Angelina Jolie would be considered African Americans. Fortunately, the rule's power as constructed common sense has faded, but it still informs our perception of Obama--a person who is a full 50% white--as black.

Remnants of one-drop thinking also inform our holding of Obama to standards that do not apply to Hillary Clinton, such as the demands for racial accountability that resulted in his delivery of a major speech on race because of racially charged comments made by his minister.* No similar demand for racial accountability was made of Clinton after racist comments that she herself delivered (for more on this double standard, see the post on Clinton's whiteness below). This racial double-standard applies to Obama but not to Clinton because she "is white," and because despite Obama being half-white, he "is black."

Most white Americans like to think that the white supremacist thinking that resulted in such absurdities as the one-drop rule is a thing of the past. However, a widespread favoring of whiteness clearly continues to guide our perceptions of reality. As Thomas DiPiero notes, "believing is seeing," and for most Americans, a mostly unconscious presumption is that the sight of a white American is that of a "true"American.

"American means white," as Toni Morrison has written, and there still is a sense in which the most genuine, full-blooded Americans are those with roots in its colonial past. Those, that is, who are white, and preferably even whiter than those from countries besides England who later became white. This current mode of subsumed white supremacy was recently exemplified by Kathleen Parker, a columnist for the Washington Post who questioned Obama's ability to fully embody and represent true American-ness because he is not "white."

Parker opens her column by quoting the preference of Josh Fry, a white West Virginian voter, for a "full-blooded" president. Fry cited full-bloodedness as his reason for liking John McCain more than Obama. Instead of explicating and denouncing the white supremacy that likely informs Fry's remark, Parker lauds it as a down-home bit of common-sense wisdom:

His feelings aren’t racist, he explained. He would just be more comfortable with “someone who is a full-blooded American as president.”

Whether Fry was referring to McCain’s military service or Obama’s Kenyan father isn’t clear, but he may have hit upon something essential in this presidential race.

"Essential" indeed. Parker tries to say that the essential difference between Obama and Clinton isn't so much "about race and gender as about heritage, core values and made-in-America." Parker never says as much, but the fact that Obama's father was a black man born in Kenya does makes him, for Josh Fry and for herself, less American than Clinton, less connected to those "core values." What Parker also implies, rather than directly states, is that Clinton is more American than Obama because she's more white.

"It’s about blood equity," Parker writes, "heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots. Some run deeper than others, and therein lies the truth of Josh Fry’s political sense."

Again, Parker steers clear of an outright statement about Obama's less-than-fully American black blood; the blood she directly refers to is that spilled by the real Americans in its many wars. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear just who these real, "ordinary" Americans are for Parker--the white ones:

What they know is that their forefathers fought and died for an America that has worked pretty well for more than 200 years. What they sense is that their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative. And they fear what else might get lost in the remodeling of America.

Aside from her blithe setting aside of the fact that for most of those 200 years, America wasn't working very well at all for African Americans, Parker gives voice here to a very common brand of contemporary white supremacist thinking. This is the mindset that considers the most ordinary, real, hard-working, sacrificing, and thus most deserving Americans to be the white ones. To declare them white would clearly be "racist," but to imply that they're white is supposed to be okay.

And to imply that Obama and his sort, including those African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans and others, whose free and underpaid labor did as much or more than that of many "white" Americans to "build this country"--to imply that these people are not as truly American because they're not white, is to write something so exclusionary and fundamentally racist that it's a wonder the Washington Post actually published it.

Bowing to what she would no doubt perceive as politically correct pressure not to call a spade a spade, and a white person better because she's not a spade, Parker declares Clinton the better choice for president because of DNA: "Clinton’s own DNA is cobbled with many of the same values that rural and small-town Americans cling to. She understands viscerally what Obama has to study."

If pressed to explain what she means by this difference, Parker would probably say that because Obama's father is from Kenya, at least half of his ancestry was not involved in the building of America with those small-town values. You know, those small white towns that kept black people out, and lynched them if they didn't stay out. (The temptation to point out the many racial blindspots in Parker's argument is hard to resist.)

And since those "values" somehow get passed down right through a person's "blood" and "DNA," Obama's racial status can only make him, at best, half as qualified for the presidency as the full, superior whiteness of Clinton makes her.

But for Parker and the many white Americans who think and "feel" this way (you know, with visceral feelings, those honest, real feelings), Obama isn't even half-white. He's black. Parker never mentions, of course, the extensive "roots" of Obama's ancestors in the kind of white genealogy she prefers. That Obama is actually related to Dick Cheney and can trace his ancestors back to colonial times is irrelevant for her, because she overlooks his whiteness. It's trumped by his blackness.

It would be nice to think that Parker's brand of covert white supremacy and various other degrees of it are not widespread, but they are. That's why Barack Obama doesn't spend much time bowling, or hunting, or downing beers and shots with good ol' white boys. He and his advisers know that the half of him that's black will almost always overshadow the half of him that's white.

Update: For another way in which the image of Barack Obama bowling resonates in racial terms, see Amy Goodman's piece on the murder of black protesters who sought the right to bowl. As Goodman writes,

it was not too long ago when African-Americans were not allowed in some bowling alleys. In Orangeburg, S.C., three young African-American men were killed for protesting against that town’s segregated bowling alley.

It was Feb. 8, 1968, months before the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It was more than two years before the massacre of students at Kent State University in Ohio. Students at South Carolina State University were protesting for access to the town’s only bowling alley.

In response to a question in the Comments about what Wright said that was "racist," I've replaced that word with the description "racially charged." I can't find any comments in Wright's church performances that qualify as "racist."


  1. love the double post, keeps up with current events and says many insightful things. one q: while obama IS a major part of the news right now, are there any other "black" celebrities that you could also critique in order to pan out your argument better?

  2. glad you liked it. that's an interesting topic, but i think black celebrities don't have to work as hard for BROAD appeal. politicians get elected by the public in general, but movie stars, comedians, singers, and other such celebrities can and do usually appeal to more specific market sectors.

    There is a lot to be said, though, about black celebrities and whiteness, so thanks for reminding me. I think Oprah, for instance, may well tone down certain supposedly "black" characteristics in order to appeal to a broader audience. Whether this is a way for her to act "white," or just a way to not act "black," is an interesting question. For me, suppressing one's habitual cultural markers in order to gain something at least replicates a process that those non-white groups who were allowed to become white also did. If that goal-oriented suppression is "whiteness," then a lot of black celebrities could be said to be acting white.

    OTOH (it IS a complicated topic), certain entertainment-oriented modes of blackness become white in another sense, that is, by eventually appealing to largely white audiences, and by being produced and controlled by largely white-owned corporate conglomerates. Most of what Americans now think of as "rap" and "hip hop" music is white in this sense, even though the performers are still usually black. They could probably be labeled white, though, in terms of the whiteness behind and in front of them, and in terms of the white demand for what have become stereotypically "black" modes of performance.

    Thanks for the helpful suggestion; this is something that I'll keep think about.

  3. Two points: one, have you read Dreams From my Father? If not, I think you should, because it's in part Obama's struggle with which racial identity he is going to embrace. And he chooses blackness...chooses to be a community organizer in the black community, chooses a black church, chooses to stop dating white women.

    two, regarding Oprah, have you heard that apparently her ratings have dropped since her endorsement of Obama?

  4. I have read Dreams, Sarah, thanks for the suggestion. I read it when it first came out, though, so I don't remember that part. I remember thinking back then (believe it or not) that this Obama guy was going to be someone to watch out for. I'll definitely have to go back to it.

    That's interesting about Oprah's ratings. I didn't know her audience was that heavily comprised of old white women.

  5. What struck me about Parker's article, aside from the incredible insensitivity and bigotry expressed in it, was her insistence that it was NOT about race. It makes me wonder: is her denial so deep that she actually believes she is writing about some deeper, essentially "American" quality, or is she just lying outright?

    The answer to that aside, for me the most interesting part of her article was something you quoted, as did many others- it sums up something about these voters:

    "What they sense is that their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative. And they fear what else might get lost in the remodeling of America."

    I believe it is what these Americans fear, that their heritage of supremacy, oppression, and institutionalized racism will cease to be swept under the carpet and will be out in the open where they have to face it honestly. And what else do you think they fear they might "lose" in such a remodeling of America unless it is a life of advantage?

  6. Its going to be interesting to see how White Democratics will play out if Obama becomes the candidate for president.

    But going to the blog. Its amazing to see how his white mother is rarely talked about in the media and his african father doesn't exist.

    I wonder how would media cover Obama's family heritage if he was 100% white. Meaning that when someone is perceived (particuarly in Obama's case) as black, there is automatic rejection of his or her family background. Meaning, Obama is no more different from other blacks, no father and raised by a single mother.

    Lastly, I am really bothered when they media (mainly from the right-wingers) say that Obama is elist. Code Word for Uppity Negro type. Which, that doesn't seem to apply to the Clintons and there Southern Uppity ways, hell, they (the clintons) are not even considered to be nouveaux riche! I was wondering if anyone noticed these elements in media? Good blog by the way.

  7. " say that Obama is elist. Code Word for Uppity Negro type. "

    what else should i think when the man is reported to have said that poor americans are bitter and therefore cling to their religion and their guns and have an irrational aversion to those who are different. it sounds like you want to excuse just such comments without allowing for criticism. this i find to be curious.

  8. Roger,

    Most politicians are elites. I don't think that Obama is more nor less elitist than Hillary Clinton. Hillary understands the struggle of the white working class in America? There was an opinion conducted , which showed Obama not perceived as being elitist.

    In any case, I have to agree with Obama's statement about religion and guns. It is evident that many people are without proper working wages, health care, etc, which present a series of problems. I think probably wanted to add more to that. I welcome you or anyone from that matter to criticize Obama on that note or on any note, go ahead, but to only label him as being an elitist, I think that we need to look at all candidates and we will find that all of them are not in the same class like most Americans.

  9. "Bowing to what she would no doubt perceive as politically correct pressure not to call a spade a spade, and a white person better because she's not a spade..."

    You do know that "spade" is a (somewhat archaic) racial slur, right?

  10. Yes, I do know that Kaite, and that's exactly why I used it. Thanks for pointing this out. Note that in the context of that paragraph, I'm using it in a way that does not register approval of its usage as a racial slur. At least I hope I'm using it that way.

  11. Why do you feel comfortable using a racial slur (however archaic) as a figure of speech?

    Knowing that it was intentional is kind of...baffling.

  12. I don't feel comfortable using that slur. As I meant to say in my previous comment, I wrote that paragraph in such a way that it puts those words in Kathleen Parker's mouth, since I'm guessing that, given the barely veiled racism of her article, SHE would be comfortable using them.

    As the sentence says, Bowing to what she would no doubt perceive as politically correct pressure not to call a spade a spade, and a white person better because she's not a spade, Parker declares Clinton the better choice for president because of DNA . . .

    Many people don't actually realize that the phrase "call a spade a spade" is, as you initially noted, a racial slur, and many people still use it, but usually in a non-racial sense. In the second clause of my sentence, I emphasized that it is a racial slur, at least in its original usage, and I emphasized that by repeating it in directly racial terms. Again, what I meant to do with the term is say that I imagine if Parker were to use it, she would have no trouble with using it as a racial slur.

    Are the intent and effect of that sentence in the post clear or unclear to any other readers?

  13. I'm still not getting your logic. Because Parker's racist, it's ok to use a slur that she DIDN'T use, because she probably would have used it? But you're not really using it, because the way the sentence is constructed, SHE used it? Or something?

    In the end, you're still using a racial slur. For effect. Why in the world would you do that?

    And you're incorrect - the phrase was not originally a racial slur. The nouns within the phrase became a racial slur sometime around 1928, according to the collective wisdom of the internet.

  14. Katie, since you're still interested, if you'll look at the sentence once more, it includes these qualifying words: "she would no doubt perceive." Again, that phrase momentarily shifts my language to an attempted approximation of hers. I don't know how else to explain that although I'm uncomfortable using a racial slur, I'm okay with using it in the context of commenting on someone else's racism, and indicating as I do so that the racism behind the slur is a reflection of hers, not mine.

    You have given me pause, though, as I probably wouldn't use worse words in the same way. And when it comes to slurs for blacks, is "spade" really any less severe than other words? Some may say it is less severe, but at any rate, I'll certainly think again before using such words in a similarly imitative sense.

    Thank you for the correction on the origins of the slur. Now I'll be able to avoid annoying all those etymologists out there with the claim that a word's 80-year old meaning isn't precisely its original meaning.

  15. I think what happened in the post below - and the follow-up post below that - are a complement to what's happening right now. The comment thread of the first post will explain. (And yes, I'm *that* Katie.)

  16. Yes Katie, those posts are apt complements to what's happening right now, or rather right here, with this post and its "Comments" thread. Like Jack in those posts, I realize that I've yet to unlearn fully the tendencies induced by my white training.

    And so, like Jack, I have changed parts of posts in response to reader comments (and once, if I remember right, in response to a comment of yours). In this case, as I've explained, I'm not yet convinced that a change is warranted, as I think it's clear that the slur is an approximation of Parker's beliefs and attitudes, not my own. Perhaps I'll reconsider if other readers weigh in with more charges against the paragraph as it's written.

  17. Yeah, Macon, my 2 cents is that that can be a fighting word.

    I'm not Black, but I don't think I'd want to be reading along, enjoying the post, and then suddenly get hit three times in a row like that, bang bang bang, without even a warning.

  18. (I understand your point that you're attributing the train of thought to someone else. I just picture somebody reading it and, despite your best intentions, feeling kind of smacked.)

  19. As a self-proclaimed African American, it's so funny to me that I know not even one Black person, not even one, who is 100% sub-Saharan African. This is a well known fact amongst Black people, and this is no suprise to us. we know lots of mixed people, and we are mixed ourselves. My father is from Cuba and my mother is a descendant of Black slaves in America-her great great grandfather was white, of course, like so many Black people. Did you see the special with Henry Louis Gates that found that Don Cheadle was 20% white-YES-Don Cheadle. And Oprah's great great grandmother was Chinese. So, listen, Blackness is a melting pot. My motehr in law is white and my father in law is biracial, but yet my husband still considers himself black even though he is waaaaayyy more black than white. That is just if you believe in race at all.

  20. This post reminds me of a joke I heard a number of years ago, maybe it was Chris Rock, I can't remember, but anyway, he was talking about Tiger Woods, and how initially, everybody was saying "Wow, look at this black golfer!" And then the more Woods won, the more people started to complicate his race: "Actually, Tiger Woods is Asian!" I think the punchline was that eventually Tiger Woods would be "white."

    It also reminds me of a skit on Chapelle's Show a few years ago, where the different races held a "draft" to see who could "claim" which multiracial celebrity.

  21. What did Rev. Wright say that was racist?

  22. Good question, anonymous. I can't find any remarks by Wright that fit that description. So, I mistyped this sentence in the article:

    Remnants of one-drop thinking also inform our holding of Obama to standards that do not apply to Hillary Clinton, such as the demands for racial accountability that resulted in his delivery of a major speech on race because of racist comments made by his minister.

    I'm going to change "racist" to "racially charged." Thanks for your helpful question.

  23. Ah, Mariah Carey is considered African American (ie. black) and Angelina Jolie is considered white. Just FYI.

    Just curious, but do white folks consider Mariah Carey to be white?

    That is very interesting.

  24. Still wondering whether you've reconsidered your wording in the sentence I pointed out before.

    I've been doing some thinking about it and tried to put it in terms that I think might better explain how problematic I think it is. But really all I can come up with is frustration and anger that you think it's ok to use racial slurs as clever wordplay. Being Asian American, I can only compare it to, perhaps, someone saying "a Chink in her armor" or something of that sort, and meaning an actual Asian American. That would outrage me. I don't understand why I shouldn't feel the same way here - in fact, I do. So....any new thoughts?

  25. Hi Katie, I think you do understand how I think it's okay to use that word in the way I did, because I've explained it here at least twice. It seems more like you disagree with me, and you think I should agree with you.

    I invited other readers here to weigh in on this issue, and only Tom said that reading the words within an otherwise enjoyable post might make some feel as if they've been smacked (although he didn't say that he would feel that way). I don't know enough yet about who aside from you might feel slapped by that word. Simply put, if anyone does, I just hope it's clear that I'm using a common technique in writing about someone else's opinion (there's probably a name for it), which is to write a phrase or two in a voice and/or vocabulary that is, clearly, an attempt to approximate someone else's.

    To "call a spade a spade" also fits the context because Parker's expressed perspective in her article has a certain old-school feel to it, as does the phrase "to call a spade a spade," which used to be used by people who complained about what now gets called PC language.

    That's as clear as I can make my current belief that the sentence is effective.

  26. This was linked to in the comments thread of a recent post. So I read, and learned some stuff. Didn't know that "to call a spade a spade" had racist connotations (though was tickled to learn via wikipedia that the term has origins in Plutarch). Further googling of that phrase and "chink in her armor" suggest that neither term has offensive origins, but have become iffy due to containing words similar to modern slurs/words that became slurs in an unrelated context, after the fact.

    la Legion di Risistenza "Most politicians are elites. I don't think that Obama is more nor less elitist than Hillary Clinton. Hillary understands the struggle of the white working class in America?", which reminded me that one of the more interesting elements of this election was that both major democratic candidates came from relatively "normal" backgrounds, in the sense that neither of them come from the traditional ruling elite or aristocracy (though they still had vastly different childhoods).

    McCain was a fourth generation west point grad and the son and grandson of admirals. Made me giggle a little every time he'd hurl charges of elitism at Clinton, Obama or the dems in general.

  27. Interesting article. As far as I am concerned, and I have always said it, Obama is mixed.

    My reasoning...How can a person automatically be Black when they have one White parent and one Black parent? No matter how they look appearance wise, they will always be mixed.

    Another issue to consider is genetic disorders...specific racial groups suffer from genetic disorders such as sickle cell, haemoglobin C, downs syndrome, Tay-Sachs to name a few. Some of these disorders are confined to specific races. As a result, in the UK for example, they will test/screen newborn babies in specific racial groups for Sickle cell in order to determine the needs of the child and family.

    Therefore, just classifying a person as Black or White because of their skin colour can lead to a number of complications later on. This can be witnessed when some people give birth to children that look Black in an assumed White relationship and vice versa.

    So, just because a person looks Black or White doesn't necessarily mean that they are not mixed, in some way or the other, through their genome. Only a DNA test can determine exactly what "mix" a person really is.

    Also, when I was a teenager, I always thought Mariah Carey was White until someone told me that her dad was Black. When I looked it up online I found out her dad was Black Venezuelan. At the time, we were watching the Honey video when it first came out on MTV in the late 1990s, and having a conversation about how she always fetaured Black guys in all her videos as a White woman. That was the line of the conversation.

    To me, Oprah is just Oprah. She is not toning down or toning up. She is just Oprah. When I was a teenager, Oprah was one of the few Black faces you consistently saw on television, right from the early days of her show. Her shows were always positive and encouraging and we used to rush home to watch her shows after school.

    Also, how is Oprah suppressing her cultural markers?

    What I feel is suppression of cultural markers are some Black celebrities going off to marry White celebrities for the sole purpose of trying to get ahead. The fact is that marrying a White person does not change your skin colour, despite what those celebrities do or think.

    Also, bleaching the skin (I am not talking about people with skin disorders) in order to appear White and wearing blonde wigs and weaves in order to appear White, now that is what I would call "suppressing cultural markers", amonst other things. People do these things so that they can fit in and be more accepted.

    The media, television and the effects of slavery and colonialism and the desire to "belong" have certainly made their mark on a lot of us, directly or indirectly.

    Incidentally, so is tanning. I have often wondered about some White people who completely dislike Black people but will languish in the sun tanning away in the quest for that "golden" tan and spraying on so much fake tan that they look orange or those who do it wrong and have orange palms afterwards...LOL

    There are some other things I can think of, but I will stop there.


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