Michigan in Color: Authenticity
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In an article for the National Review late last year, senior editor Jonah Goldberg discussed the (now former) popularity of Ben Carson amongst the GOP. He said “ … most analysis of Carson’s popularity from pundits focuses on his likable personality and his sincere Christian faith. But it’s intriguingly rare to hear people talk about the fact that he’s black. One could argue that he’s even more authentically African-American than Barack Obama … ”
Goldberg makes this statement and then goes on to make a number of claims as to why President Obama is not “authentically African-American” enough, at least when compared to Carson.
“ … Obama’s mother was white and he was raised in part by his white grandparents. In his autobiography, Obama writes at length about how he grew up outside the traditional African-American experience — in Hawaii and Indonesia — and how he consciously chose to adopt a black identity when he was in college.”
This isn't a new sentiment. Many people of many different races have often brought up Obama's racial heritage as a way to discredit his Blackness. In fact, a 2014 article by the Washington Post shows most of America doesn't consider the president as Black, but as “mixed race.” The problem with this line of thinking stems from how we conceptualize multi-racial identities in this country — one with a history of hypodescent ideologies, like the infamous one-drop rule. The problem with this line of thinking is that all Obama needs to be “authentically” Black is to be Black, and that he most definitely is.
I myself identify as biracial. I have the same racial heritage as my Black president. And just like my Black president, I struggled thinking of how I wanted to identify coming into college. During that time, my identity wasn't something that was of a massive importance to me. However, as I started to learn more about education and social justice, I started to understand the intricacies and nuances of the concept of identity — and how monotonously we view it in our society. From classes on multiculturalism and identity to TED Talks like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Danger of a Single Story, I learned that we all hold multiple identities that make up who we are at any given time. More importantly, I learned that it is not any of those singular identities that define us, but how they come together in each of us, uniquely.
Needless to say, I also had to decide which identities to take on once identifying as something became more important to me. But what? Black? White? Biracial? Blackness wasn't something I often got associated with growing up because of my educational attainment, and whiteness wasn't something that came to mind when you got a good look at me. So what was I to choose?
One of the pinnacles of determining my own identity was during the University's “Semester on Race,” three years ago. It was a theme semester and we had a guest exhibit on campus: The Race Card Project, which asked participants to write down their thoughts and experiences with race and identity in six words. In one of the six-word cards posted in the Diag I read, from a parent: “My son's not half, he's both.” That statement struck me in a profound way in thinking about my own identity and biracial identities in general. Could I be both? I knew I could be Black — I'd learned to see Blackness in a diverse way by this time. And I knew I could be white and Black — I'd been checking two boxes my whole life. But can I be just white? Is that allowed for someone of my skin tone? I decided that my identity wasn't up to anyone else — the only permission I needed was my own. It was after this that I decided that — racially — I would identify as Black. And biracial. And white. What I do not identify as — however — is half.
Half seems intuitive. There were two different races that were put together in one person, so that person is half-and-half. However, scientists determined a while ago that race is not quantifiable — so what do you really mean when you say half-Black? To me, it's not about how much Blackness or whiteness a person has, but about how included they are in Blackness or whiteness. Half-Black is “not all the way black,” it's “not as bad as regular Black,” it's “not Black enough.” Half-Black wouldn’t save me if a racially biased police officer stopped me, and it also doesn't mean I can't embrace Black culture. Half-white is “half-breed,” it's “you have nicer hair than most Black guys,” it's “not pure.” I'm not half-Black. I am not half-white. I am Black. And white. And biracial.
From what I understand, President Obama mainly racially identities himself as Black. So while Obama may only identify as one race — which many biracial people of many mixes do — that is something that is entirely up to him. He doesn’t need something to make him more “authentic.” Blackness is not defined by struggle. If it is defined by anything it is by strength, and that is something this President has demonstrated in ways unseen before he earned that office. Obama is not half-Black. He is Black. Authentically, unapologetically, Black.