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.