Why Obama’s title of ‘first black president’ is problematic


Is President Barack Obama actually America’s first black president? It might seem odd to raise this question with only a few weeks left in his presidency, but the question is meant to zoom in on our label of President Obama as “black.”

Throughout his campaign, Obama’s lineage, especially his nationality, endured constant scrutiny. A number of individuals and political entities, including Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, have launched “investigations” into whether a man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama could actually be an American citizen. Many demanded that the would-be president provide his birth certificate to prove his citizenship. They demanded his place of birth. And when presented with evidence, they ignored it.

Through all the petty investigations, the one question that was never posed to Obama is what he identifies as racially. Instead we pinned the label of ‘America’s first black president’ on him without any consideration of whether or not he actually identifies as black.

You must think, yes, he’s black, look at him. This idea and reasoning is problematic.

It’s no secret that Obama is the son of a black Kenyan father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr, and a white American mother, Ann Dunham. This means that Obama is biracial. Yes, he is both black and white.

He is no more a black president than he is a white president.

After his parents divorced in March 1964, Obama was only 3 years old, he lived with his mother while his father returned to Kenya. It is believed that from then on, his father only came to visit him in Hawaii once. During his childhood, Obama lived in Hawaii, and later, in Indonesia with his mother and her new husband. He then returned to Hawaii in 1971, to live with his maternal grandparents.

In his book “Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” Obama says of his father “my father looked nothing like the people around me – that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk.”

Obama’s connection to family was strictly from his white maternal side. He knew very little of his black father’s life and culture. He was brought up nearly single handedly by his white mother. So why, then, do we demand that he be black? Why do we refuse to acknowledge his whiteness with the same openness as we do his blackness.

In our desperation to make history, we painted him into a corner- the first black president, no matter the cost.

This is not to devalue the historical importance of having Obama as the president of this great nation, rather it is to highlight what too often happens to multiracial people in our society- especially those who are partly black. Too often these people are made to feel as though they have to choose one racial group or another; or worse they are forced into one group based on how they look.

This is problematic. Just as it would be wrong to label a Latin person as being white, simply because they are fair skinned with blonde hair, it is equally wrong to label a person of mixed race as black simply because they have dark skin and kinky hair.

According to a study by the University of Michigan (http://phys.org/news/2015-09-multiracial-children-black.html), mixed-race people who have ‘black’ as one of their racial components are grouped with black more often than with white. This practice is eerily reminiscent of the one drop rule which was a legal principle in the 20th century asserting that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan African ancestry is to be considered black.

While the one-drop rule has long been abolished, we still see remnants of it in our mindsets.

And while there is no way for us normal folk to ask Obama for his self identification, we can use this as a caution in how we interact with multiracial people in our lives, making sure that we don’t mentally sort them into a racial group.

There are nine million people in the United States who identify as being mixed race, according to the United States Census Bureau. (https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/race/cb12-182.html).

Before 2000, the U.S. Census only made provisions for people to choose one race, white, black, Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native or some other race. If the U.S. Census has intentionally changed its practices to give multiracial people the freedom to choose one, none or both of their racial identities then the rest of us need to keep up.