What Does It Mean for Black America When Obama Calls Himself ‘Mixed’? [Reader Forum]

Obama finally mentions race on the campaign trail; the Colorlines.com community puts it in perspective.

By Nia King Sep 17, 2012

Last week, our economics reporter Imara Jones commented on President Obama’s skirting of issues of race while on the campaign trail. Then this week, as our /Now editor Jorge Rivas reports, Obama referred to himself as a "mixed kid from Hawaii" at a campaign stop in Colorado.

Though the reference did not address racial inequities in the US or what Obama plans to do about them, it did acknowledge race, and in turn ignited a spirited debate — especially here in the Colorlines.com community — about what it means for the US to have a mixed-race president who identifies himself as such. Here’s what you had to say.

Reader Xavier Best starts off our roundup:

A good way to gauge the character of his statement is to ask yourself if President Obama would have been allowed to sit in the front or the back of the bus in the Jim Crow south. White authorities in the south would have placed him alongside the other oppressed Black people, not mixed people.

According to the "one drop rule" that prevailed in the Jim Crow south, any person with "a drop of black blood" was legally black. Since, legally, mixed people were black people, Obama would have shared in the oppression experienced by other black Americans at the time, including segregation.

However, reader Amanda Ewa Hrabowski challenged the dichotomy drawn in the above post between "mixed" and "oppressed," saying:

Many people are often marginalized within a community that is marginalized enough. Bisexuals get marginalized in the queer community because they’re ‘half-straight’ and, in pre-WWII Europe’s Jewish communities, people who were part Jewish were often doubly isolated. Yet, though they were only part Jewish, they were just as harshly persecuted by the Nazis, and straight people everywhere viewed, and some still view, bisexuals as mentally ill deviants as much as other queer people.

There was a time when miscegenation was viewed more harshly than incest in white America. Did Obama feel isolated for being mixed-race on top of growing up Black? Only he could answer that question, and I won’t put words in his mouth. It is saddening to think that he would identify as mixed solely to be less ‘scary’ to racist white voters.

As Shawn Sinc points out, being a light-skinned, mixed-race black American does come with certain advantages:

Black people come in various shades, and with that comes something called colorism. That’s where people of lighter shades receive favor, benefit and privileges over those of darker shades. The ever-standing White Supremacy offers us that white is right and white is pure. Barack Obama, being of a fairer skin with a white mother, put a very sizable chunk of White America at ease.

Shawn also points out that actions speak louder than whether you call yourself "black" or "mixed":

[Obama] used blacks as competitive ladder when on his campaign. Then he had to retreat from us so he wouldn’t alienate his very white and angry Wall Street base. I also remember him using an admonishing, Cosby-like demeanor with us when we and the CBC [Congressional Black Caucus], suggested that he directly address the suffering of black and brown people who greatly helped him occupy his seat of power.

Some readers described Obama’s identifying himself as mixed as a way for him to distance himself from black America and make himself "less scary" to white America, as above. However, not all readers perceived his "mixed kid from Hawaii" reference as a purely cynical attempt to assuage the fear of white voters. Nancy Bell said:

My children are mixed and they are not completely embraced by whites or blacks. At least there are enough mixed people that someone else CAN relate to what he is saying […] Being mixed takes pride and credit for both sides of his heritage. It is not rhetoric. It is truth.

Revo Mendez noted that Obama is not the only elected official of color who chooses to be identified with different races or cultures at different times. He also contextualized Obama’s "fence-straddling" within the rhetoric of assimilation that has been widespread throughout this election:

As we all know, the Republicans are orchestrating the rise of Marco Rubio. We attended one of the rallies he held to endorse Mitt Romney […] Rubio spit out a whole lot of garbage rhetoric about how he was an American first and a Cuban second. Where he’s been on the record COUNTLESS times speaking Spanish and romanticizing about Cuban culture in front of avenues that featured a majority of Latinos. What people don’t realize is you have to give up who you are to be an American or fit into that mold. This country is synonymous with white supremacy. A lot of whites want to hear that you are an American first and that you are Black, Cuban, Palestinian, Korean etc later. It puts not just white racist America at ease, but white America at large at ease. That straddling of the fence is so intoxicating when you have charming guys like Obama and Rubio to execute it.

These thoughtful comments open the door to some broader questions about the role of racial identity in this election: Is Obama’s reference to himself as mixed a gesture made in fear, or a genuine attempt to embrace both sides of his identity? Could he perhaps be attempting to challenge the "one drop" way of thinking that still pervades American racial discourse and forces mixed folks to choose between one race or the other? And perhaps most importantly, is how he identifies as indicative of where he stands politically as the progress he has or hasn’t made for people of color in this country?

Each week, we round up the best comments in our community. Join the conversation here on Colorlines.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.