Should Obama Be Identified as Black or Biracial?

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July 4, 2008

Several BBNers were randomly asked should Barack Obama now be referred to as "Black"¬ù or "Biracial"¬ù? This question has touched off spirited and candid responses, and some BBN visitors have expressed their annoyance and frustration that we would give this topic any attention.

For starters, BBN did not invent the question. This is how the question was introduced to us, and why we sought a broader-diverse perspective: our managing editor was told by a media colleague that there is dialogue taking place between mostly White editors and producers in newsrooms on how to identify Senator Barack Obama now that he is the Democratic nominee. Should he be identified as Black or Biracial? Senator Barack Obama and Democratic NomineeAlso, that very few Blacks or BiRacial voices in these newsrooms are included in the internal discussions. No surprise, but the outcome of those internal exchanges was that Whites sided with "Biracial,"¬ù and Blacks with "Black"¬ù in how to identify Senator Obama.

BBN finds this topic worthy of input from a broader perspective because often these seemingly harmless, behind-the-scene dialogues lead to a change in course, and in this case a change in language, and racial identification of the first Black man who may very well become the next President of the United States. Two months from now you might read in your daily newspaper, or hear your favorite news reader identify Barack Obama as the "Bi-Racial"¬ù candidate.

Up to now the media has identified Senator Obama the same way he identifies himself, as a Black or African American man. Should news media now decide how it will identify him?

Mainstream publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have already published articles related to the topic of racial identity and Senator Obama. (The WSJ even gave it front page placement last week); and, CNN aired a report.

We believe this topic deserves a broader perspective of opinion that is not limited to writers, editors and producers in newsrooms with very little perspectives of color. Who knows, maybe your insight and thoughts might enlighten others who read our site, and perhaps help them see the matter in way they did not think about.

As always, BBN wants your voice to register. That is part of what we do here -- even if the topic is uncomfortable and seemingly irrelevant.

We encourage you to read all of the responses. Some of the respondents offer candid, thoughtful and telling insight.

(Respondents were not obligated to give their full name. With the exception of editing for space we published responses 'as is' for authenticity).

"Should Barack Obama now be referred to as "Black"¬ù or "Biracial"¬ù?"¬ù

S.W., African-American Male, Media Producer, NY
Whatever HE considers himself, that is who HE is. Obviously, Obama considers HIMSELF an African-American man, a BLACK man. People whom I have spoken to who have met him say that he truly is a BROTHER. An intelligent, thoughtful, savvy and kind person - the best that we have to offer. Conclusion - in my humble opinion, he is a BLACK man.

Sabrine, NY
As you may know, there is usually a Public Enemy quote for all important questions in the world, and that includes this one...Is Obama Black or bi-racial? From the album "Fear of a Black Planet"¬ù.
Song: Fear of a Black Planet
Black man, black woman, black baby
White man, white woman, white baby
White man, black woman, black baby
Black man, white woman, black baby...
Excuse us for the news
You might not be amused
But did you know white comes from black
No need to be confused...

Enough said.

Marcus F. Walton, NY, 35
It seems we have finally gotten a chance to peek behind the scenes and participate in a conversation about race and media as the "fly on a wall". Blackness in America has long been defined as any person with any known African ancestry. As described in Who is Black? One Nation's Definition (1991), "this definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the "one-drop rule,'' meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person a black. It is also known as the "one black ancestor rule," some courts have called it the "traceable amount rule," and anthropologists call it the "hypo-descent rule," meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation's definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks."

Against this clumsy, often embarrassing backdrop of American miscegeny and subjugation, I would like to take a page from Barack's campaign and suggest that it is time for a change. That is to say, if we must engage in this conversation, let the language we use to describe Barack reference his ethnic heritage, not some vague description of the "purity" of his bloodline. After all, are we to revisit the shallowness that gave us the terms Mulatto, or Colored? Or, should those of us who have relatives of various ethnic backgrounds (Irish, German, Cherokee, Nigerian, Spanish, French, etc) refer to ourselves as bi-racial. I suspect not. In fact, it would seem pretty silly for us to do so, as most of us share bloodlines across one or more ethnic groups. To think otherwise is akin to celebrate the "one drop rule" of pre-emancipation America, which legally recognized individuals with one drop of African blood as Negro. Is it not time to relinquish the last remnants of that time period? I submit that the time is long overdue. And what better time to do it than in celebration of America's first Black President (and I don't mean Abraham Lincoln).

Black Woman, 55, NYC, Office Assistant
Barack Obama is indeed biracial but in a country like America he is seen only as a black man. Our society is so color conscience that it is a shame. Many great Black Americans have done wonderful things for this country but because of color our contributions are considered trivial. He was raised by his white mother and grand parents so he should embrace both cultures and not let society dictate who he is. His family seems to have raised a decent man. It is terrible to be forced to choose sides, and it's possible to love both no matter their color. Love is color blind. Biracial/Black sounds okay.

I.M., 56, African American woman, (or should I say bi-racial since there is white and Indian in my heritage), University Associate Vice President, Minnesota
Theoretically, most African Americans are "bi-racial." The rule of hypo-descent that is the basis for the US racial system (see Audrey Smedley's Race in North America) says one drop makes you black. Further, genetically African Americans as a group have more heter-geneity within the group than between blacks and whites. Obama refers to himself as black, not biracial, and then describes his parentage as white mother and black father. I do wonder why we lend credence to these discussions of "black enough." It diverts us from the real issues and the tremendous symbolism of his nomination. He is the first authentically black person to carry the nomination for Presidency. Let us not diminish that by raising these rhetorical questions.

W.S., NYC, Male
How obtuse and ridiculous do you have to be to work at such an organization? As far as I can see you are the problem. The focus should be on Senator Obama as a Black man that has been nominated as the Democratic candiddate. Have you totally lost your mind? If Senator Obama were to attempt to hail a taxi, do you think that he would have less difficulty in accomplishing this goal? I am sure that there are pertinent topics that the readers would prefer to respond to outside the normal Wendy Williams, Michael Baisden genre. Get back on track!

M.T. Glass
I am an aging Caucasian Jewish male who grew up in white Republican suburbia and considers himself politically Left of the Democratic Party. Having said that, I voted for Obama in my state's primary. It is clear that at least by physical appearance, the Senator is a Black man, and by birth, African as well as African-American. Calling him "bi-racial" is genealogically accurate, whatever his skin tone may be.

The African-Americans I have spoken with who have been beaming non-stop since he clinched the nomination seem to have answered the question "Is Obama Black enough?" Being Caucasian, it is not a question I feel comfortable answering. I lack the necessary insight and experience to do so. As one co-worker of color put it to me, "we come into your world -- you don't come into ours." How true. But I wonder: is Obama something other than what used to be called a "Race Man?" Can he afford to be as he struggles to capture the votes of White people? Is Clarence Thomas Black enough? Was Booker T. Washington? Sidney Poitier? Oprah Winfrey? How Black is "enough?"

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a former supervisor at a TV station. We were discussing the imminent departure of the popular weatherman, and I asked whether ratings would suffer as a result. "Don't worry," my boss told me. "I've hired the perfect replacement. He's a non-threatening Black man, and the viewers are going to love him." The new forecaster turned out to be Al Roker, who is just about as popular as television personality as anyone I can think of. Maybe in some sense Roker is a role-model (or, more accurately, a barometer) for Obama?

I believe Obama is as interesting and intelligent a candidate as I can remember. I hope he is elected with a clear mandate to -- dare I say the word? -- change this racist and warmongering country in many positive ways. But sadly, I remain a skeptic.

Tyson Hall, Artist, African in America, NY
Barack has been the one individual in the political arena who has never led the
American people to believe that race, religion, economic status, or political party, is what matters. We are all a people. Another thing that has made Barack such a well rounded and respected individual is his honesty; not to just some of the people but, all of the people.

My question to you is. What does Barack consider himself? I would have to go
with Bi-racial. You can't deny the facts. The minute anyone chooses one way or the other (Black or White) they immediately lose site of what this man truly represents. CHANGE! There isn't a more qualified person beside Barack who can have a positive effect on the racial divide. But to answer your questions, yes, he is definitely Bi-racial. Thank you.

Bill Hudgins, Sales, NYC, 56
I believe that the classification of race has been used as a way to separate us from the American society that we are a part of. Our skin color makes the choice for us. We don't get to choose. We can call ourselves anything we want to. If Barack Obama is walking down the street and no one knows him what is he called? We are for the most part classified by our color regardless of our completely different experiences and backgrounds.

J. Ford, Consultant, Black woman, Maryland
Barack Obama has never referred to himself as anything other than black or African American. There, the question is answered. Oh, but no, the collective and the powers that be "' or both -- now want to claim him AND make him more palatable to others. Thus, he is not acceptable as he is, or as he declares himself to be; 'they' have to change him - redefine him to serve their own needs. God forbid, we actually rise up to the challenge of 'Change' that Barack Obama's campaign has electrified the populace with and change/get rid of these insane 'boxes.'

Just another version of the proverbial "What are you?" question that is truly a plague in U.S. society. As a woman born in Jamaica of Jamaican parents who are of both African descent (Black) and Chinese descent that is a question I grew up hearing all the time once we moved to the US, and that I still hear today long after I have become an American citizen. Folks in the US have a strange need to define the other -- for the "other"¬ù -- regardless of who/what the "other"¬ù says they are. This 'forced' choosing is a huge part of the collective psyche that keeps us stuck in racism, stereotyping and prejudice. And it's not only white folks who suffer from this collective psyche that is so hell bent on defining the other for the other. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in South Jamaica, Queens, New York. Black folks do it to, for some of the same and for some different reasons.

Americans are not satisfied with allowing anyone other than white folks to be just being American -- one either has to choose some ethnicity, or have it be chosen for them. The problem is, it doesn't seem sufficient to allow the individual to make that declaration for themselves.

Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in!

T.L., 30's, White, Male, NYC, Film Industry (Former Republican turned Democrat)
Barack decides how he wants to be referred to.

L. Hampton, 43, Black Woman
Okay! I knew it was just a matter of time!! Putting it many "BLACK" men after being pulled over got an apology after the Officer found out he was Bi-racial? When are we going to get it and really understand that the rules change when White folk say that they change?! "One drop" rule remember? We are a diverse people, one because "Massa" made it a point to visit the "Slave Quarters" on a regular!!!!! Two, because we as a people have always opened our hearts , homes , and minds to all people!! And third, sometime you just love who you love!!!! Mr. Obama is a Black Man, with a White what!! Now the Black or White folk who insist on "checking the box", get over it, move on, and let's get this election won!!

E. Carmichael, Columbus, Ohio
I will vote that Senator Obama is Black. My litmus test is simple, if you are in the traveling in "Klanville," would you likely be called a nig##r?? If so, you are Black! Not so long ago, the test was that you were Black if you had either an 1/8th or even an 1/16th Black blood.

Debra Crowe, 40, Black, NY
He is white. My mother always told me that you are what your mother is.

M.H., 53, Entrepreneur, Black, Female, NY
It is unfortunate that we as intelligent Black Americans should be concerned with if Obama is referred to as Black or bi racial. I think that we should just spend some time reflecting on the fact that he is the Democratic Party nominee and spend time sending email and encouraging others to stay involved and to VOTE! My hope is that we will not get caught up on dividing ourselves but rather paying attention to the issues. I hope that we will soon be able to refer to Obama as "Mr. President".

Monty Ross, 51, Filmmaker
I care not one iota about his ethnic make up. What matters most are his policies. We have some serious issues facing "All Americans". If elected president, history will judge him on his ability to lead, build and forge relationships that foster economic growth, prosperity for all, and restores what's left of the American dream in a global economy.

E.W., Washington, DC, Black/African American Mature Woman
I weigh in on the side of "Black." While technically he is biracial, I don't think it changes the perception or reality that he is and considers himself "Black."

Pharmaceutical Sales Rep, African American Woman, NY
Obama should be considered African American.

A. Starks, VA, Black Woman, Recruiting Manager

Anonymous, NY
It's an interesting question especially because biracial does not necessarily mean Black, but we assume it does because so often the only discussion of race that really matters is about who is-is not Black. I would say bi-racial/Black, and White mix or something like that even though it's complicated. The truth is that only a handful of Black people are able to transcend racial identification. Barack is one of those people. But part of the reason he has been able to get past race is because of his claim to being White as well. It's not only about skin, it's also about the numerous cultural identities we hold as individuals. I feel that we as Black people should be more accurate in the way we identify ourselves, and the ways we allow others to identify us. We need to take control of our individual and collective identity, and break through being the victims of the ways others define us, which are so often interconnected with stereotypes and class definitions. For example, even though I am referred to as African-American, my father is West Indian, and my mother's family was mixed to the point they only could be defined as Black due to the one drop rule (whose rule was that?). Through this election cycle, I've really been reflecting on how I allow myself to be identified and the assumptions that come with that and whether it serves me positively or negatively in my life. I can see that I have actually subtly complied with a limited definition of myself. So, my new goal is to strive to embrace the complexities of my racial identity "' to define myself and not allow others to define me based on their limited vision which is only skin deep.

sharon d. toomer, founder and managing editor,, NY
Only Senator Barack Obama has the right to decide how he will be identified "' not members of the news media or anyone else - and the Senator has consistently identified himself as a Black or African American man. Never has he flip-flopped on that issue.

If this question was raised in newsrooms because now that he is the Democratic nominee everyone wants a piece of him, here is the upside of the debate: As a Black man who was born in America to a White mother and African father (and raised by his White family) Senator Barack Obama can be claimed by ALL of us. That is the inherent beauty and many great truths about his candidacy. But to identify him as something other than what he identifies himself as is not our place, and is the height of superiority. It's just not our place "' especially those of us in news media.

BBN thanks all respondents for taking the time and interest to send in their candid and thoughtful responses.

copyright 2008



Let me buy that man a beer, and we'll be beeracial together. Yes we can. Change? Barkeep gets that, sorry.

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