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Dominic Mhiripiri ’12: Please. Mr. Obama is not black

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Recently, the United States marked the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s historic ascent to the apex of American politics. For a candidate who electrified a whole generation of American youth and whose promise gave the whole world great expectations, the man’s image borders on the divine. At least, it did one year ago. Since then, America has basked in some sort of self-congratulatory-slash-too-good-to-be-true euphoria. It’s because Obama’s election comes in a different context — namely, a very historic one. It’s because he is the first black president of the United States.

Wait. Really? Black?

Obama’s Kenyan heritage is an established fact. His father (also an Obama of the Barack sort, with a keen intellect like his son) grew up in Kenya. In the late 1950s, after obtaining a scholarship, he sojourned to the land of the free — eventually attending Harvard some three decades before his son would train as an attorney at the same university. In early 1961, he married Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman from Arkansas, and later that year, Barack Obama Jr. was born to them.

So there you go: Obama’s mother is white and his father is pitch-black. In southern Africa, Obama would be called a colored man — nothing more or less. Obama is as much white as he is black, and neither one of them exclusively. The United States made history in November 2008 — electing the first biracial president in its history, and quite possibly the history of anywhere else in the world. In the past, no black man has come anywhere close to becoming a major presidential candidate in America, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton notwithstanding.

In an understandable but nevertheless misplaced assertion, the U.S. is trying to convince itself, primarily through Obama’s election, that it has attained the cherished ideal that Martin Luther King Jr. and many others fought for in their illustrious civil rights movement: a post-racial America.

Even though at Brown I wallow in the rank and file of a small minority, here I am paying no attention to the sensitivities that surround discourse on race in America. Many a time political correctness is overly misplaced or exaggerated, which impedes on fruitful discussion and exchange. In fact, when many people in the recent past tried to be as forthright as they could in articulating race in America, their words did not manage to escape the brutal aftermath of controversy in the media.

I mean neither to justify nor condemn their statements. Former President Jimmy Carter and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., certainly had grains of truth embedded in their comments about race in the context of Barack Obama’s presidency. First, Carter said the popular perception of Obama as a black man (albeit factually wrong) is a source of discomfort for many Americans, and drives some of them to extremes that border on the pathological. This is a fact. And true to the sentiments echoed by Reid, Obama’s success as a politician as well as his acceptance by the American electorate is very significantly correlated to his demeanor of a mixed biracial (as opposed to black) man. Obama is light-skinned and has a white mother and a somewhat unique accent.

This is not to explicitly say that these qualities in Obama are more desirable or better — but that Americans embraced those qualities more than they have warmed up to those in men as black as Jesse Jackson. This is a fact that people should simply get over.
Those with experiences outside of mainstream American issues of race (like myself) know that colorism exists in almost every culture. Colorism shapes people’s perceptions of others and (however sad it may be) often skews equality issues surrounding the distribution of resources and opportunities. Light-skinned-ness is a virtue that many black women in Africa obsessively pursue. Darker-skinned people often get higher sentences in jail than their light-skinned counterparts. Furthermore, research shows that in many non-white ethnic groups, a fairer shade of the skin is correlated to a higher income. Within the same construct, I would like to assert that the U.S. is not ready to elect a black candidate like Michael Steele or Alan Keyes to the White House.

Inasmuch as I strongly want to perfectly “identify” with Obama — I am as black as they come, for the record — simple fact is that we’re close but not quite there. His experiences and his story might be very similar to those of many African-American men, but does not exempt the world from taking him for who he really is: a biracial man. Proclaiming that he is a “black man” takes something away from all mixed-race people in the world. I believe “biracial” should be maintained as a separate and important entity, and if you want to think of Obama’s election as a victory for anyone, then it is a victory for this group more than any other. The world needs to acknowledge that.

Post-racialism is a still a distant hope in the horizons of America, and I eagerly look forward to the day when the country will elect its first black president.

Dominic Mhiripiri ’12 does not really care what you think. However, he can be reached at dominic_mhiripiri [at] brown.edu

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  1. Okay…

    “Obama’s success as a politician as well as his acceptance by the American electorate is very significantly correlated to his demeanor of a mixed biracial (as opposed to black) man”

    Sure.

    “Within the same construct, I would like to assert that the U.S. is not ready to elect a black candidate like Michael Steele or Alan Keyes to the White House.”

    …Whaaaat?

    It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that a) they’d have to pass the Republican primary and b) Steele is an idiot and Keyes is completely insane?

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