Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

Speaking of Obama… February 19, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 10:18 pm

Understandably Obama is a very popular president in Africa. (I started writing a post about how disappointed the Kenyans are going to be with him, though, but for some reason never finished it.) However, there are many misunderstandings about him. One has to do with our definition of African-American.

Our system of defining race in America extends only to our own borders. We seem to like ‘black’ and ‘white’ and nothing in between. From my understanding (and correct me if I’m wrong), someone mixed-race finds themselves in a position at some point in their life of having to choose either ‘black’ or ‘white’. I have spoken to some very pale-skinned African-Americans who will call themselves ‘black’. I’m not judging this, just making an observation on my culture. (And just the fact that I feel the need to write a disclaimer demonstrates what a sensitive subject this is.)

Outside of the US, racial labeling takes on different meanings. I can in no way generalize for England, or other countries in Europe, or other countries in Africa. But I do know that in many places outside of America, ‘mixed-race’ is a common label, and even ‘mulatto’ is not necessarily seen as a negative label. In Mozambique, for example, people are defined by the actual color of their skin, as far as I’ve observed. If you are indigenous African, then you are black. If you are European, then you are white. If you are somewhere in between, then you are mixed. It makes practical sense. Mozambicans call it like it is. (See Beyonce’s What??? And Tall and Skinny.) Mozambique certainly has its own race issues, but the labeling extends beyond ‘black’ and ‘white’.

So the other day I was having a conversation with a colleague about Obama. A comment that my colleague made about Obama being African prompted me to say something about how he’s only half African. He said, “Oh yes, his parents are African and he was born in Africa, but he just grew up in America.” I explained that his father was Kenyan, but his mother was white American like me. Eyebrows raised, he responded, “Ah-EH? So you mean he’s mixed?” Exactly. (Remember, we are outside America. We are outside American racial definitions.)

I’m sure my colleague is not the only one who has heard the terms “African-American president” and “black president” in the news and has conjured up a misrepresentation of who our new president actually is. I’m sure there are many who think that any immigrant can go to America and become president. My housemate was at a training conference in South Africa with some guys from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa when the election results were announced. Apparently, the African guys were jumping and screaming in the halls, “We won! We won!” Yet there was not a single American there.

In America emphasis has rightly been on him being the first black or African-American president. In our context, that language is understood and completely appropriate. In Africa (and perhaps elsewhere), different language needs to be used. I think we need to clear the air – regardless of his skin color, he is American. Before anything else, that is why he is president.


3 Responses to “Speaking of Obama…”

  1. Lynne Hubers Says:

    Well said, Jennifer.


  2. jhubers Says:

    Yes, well said. The term “African-American”, by the way, is quite recent. In many circles is is once again being dropped for the more commonly used “black” at least partly because it is confusing. It’s confusing particularly when it gets slapped on recent immigrants from Jamaica who do have African ancestry, but would not necessarily see themselves as “African” in the same sense.

    Most important here is what lay behind this term. It was an attempt to make note of the fact that while white Americans often knew their European heritage (as you are a “Dutch-American”) and proudly so in many cases, those who came as slaves were simply identified by color. It was, in other words, an attempt to recognize that black Americans also had a heritage that linked them to a proud cultural heritage of their own (even though the country of origin was lost in the slave trade).

    One final note: Many African-Americans have mixed race heritage. Just recently it was discovered, for instance, that Michelle Obama has a Rabbi in her family!

  3. Melanie Augustus Says:

    Amen, Jen.
    We don’t even use labels in our home, as you’re right, in America, it would be difficult to find a label that is accurate. We’ve taught the girls that there are different shades of skin color depending on the genes (I can’t help myself – I’m a geneticist) that God gave the person. We also explain that the person’s family came from a certain part of the earth long ago, and that their origin contributed to the shade of their skin.
    They seem to be fine with this explanation, which makes me very, very happy that we don’t have to label people.
    Nice post!

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