Barack Obama and racial authenticity

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Update: Eric included extra comments from the folks he interviewed for this article on his blog, The Feed.

Today’s issue of The St. Petersburg Times features an article by Eric Deggans, who examines the discussion surrounding Barack Obama’s race. If Obama isn’t considered to be authentically African-American, then who is?

It’s a fascinating article that includes a multitude of perspectives: Al Sharpton, Julian Bond from the NAACP, Sylvester Monroe from Ebony magazine, conservative Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, history professor Jonathan Holloway, anthropologist Peter B. Hammond, Monroe Anderson from the Chicago Sun-Times, and yours truly.

I really enjoyed talking to Eric for this article — I think we spent over an hour on the phone. One of the main points I made to Eric was this: How a multiracial person self-identifies is almost the least important factor in how others view that person racially. This phenomenon is especially obvious in Obama’s case. He has repeatedly stated that he self-identifies primarily as a black man and an African-American but still, everyone projects onto him what they want to see.

So if self-identification isn’t how racial authenticity is determined, then what is? Halle Berry and Nicole Richie both self-identify as black women, yet we think of Berry as somehow “blacker” than Richie. Eric’s attempt to create a list by which we judge “how black” someone is is really interesting:

Van Kerckhove, Hammond and other experts agree there is a long list of characteristics others often use to judge someone else’s racial identity. And these details can be crucial cues for others – sometimes given more weight than what the person actually says about his or her own racial identity.

Some characteristics: physical appearance/genealogy; language (do you have an accent or speak in a vernacular?); race of your romantic partner; race of your friends (an area which is often segregated in people’s lives); music you enjoy; your history of activism, if any; your name; where you go to church (churches are still highly segregated); your assertion of culture at your job.

Here’s my take on the multiracial angle:

While some may view race identity as something handed down through families, experts agree that race is a delicate balance between how society perceives you and how you perceive yourself.

Tiger Woods, for example, learned the folly of trying to carve a new race identity for himself without society’s permission – once insisting on Oprah Winfrey’s popular talk show that he was not African-American but “Cablinasian,” a mix of Caucasian, black, Dutch, Native American and Thai (both Woods’ parents are from mixed-race heritage).

But Woods quickly found trouble: Some black people assumed he was denigrating their culture by refusing to be a part of it, and white sports commentators didn’t seem to know how to handle a guy who didn’t want to be the first black golf legend.

“He came out too early on. … America wasn’t ready to take it,” said Carmen Van Kerckhove, a New Yorker of Flemish-Belgian and Chinese heritage who serves as president of the antiracism training company New Demographic.

“I think mixed-race people exist in this space where their legitimacy is constantly questioned,” said Van Kerckhove, who recalled a discussion with friends who insisted mixed-race people must “choose a side” when defining their racial identity. “Different communities try to claim you, depending on how well you’re doing at that point in your life.”

Woods, it seems, has learned his lesson: He rarely talks openly about race anymore. But Obama, in seeking to become the nation’s first black president, doesn’t have that luxury.