Web Letters | The Nation

Black by Choice > Letters

Web Letter

Our president chose to identify himself as black, without hesitation or compromise.

We can try to guess what is in his head, like the woman with the "Jamaican-American" children. I am Jamerican, daughter of two Jamaicans; I was born in New York City. There are many configurations one can use to formulate a racial identity. The ambiguous term "African-American" can serve multiple purposes, but the fact of the matter is he chose not to check "mixed" or white.

As a black person, I prefer the term "African-American." I feel I am part of diaspora and history, not simply a color. Our president embraces that history wholeheartedly. Kudos to him--not all are wise enough to do that, including many of us growing up with two "black" parents.

The visceral hatred of this man from white people on the left and right speaks volumes to your thesis. I have not observed the constant bashing on the part of my Latino, Asian and Native American friends that I have among white friends and associates. He has not so much redefined blackness--momentous achievement against the odds is what we do. But people like Barack Obama uproot white supremacy. The fact that he embraces being "American" (not white) and black makes him un-American to many. They belittle his achievements and tear him down because white people are dependent on supremacy as whiteness. It is not simply a skin color. It is an entitlement. Obama wants no part of white entitlement. He made his way as a black man, and he intends to stay one.

I pity white Americans, especially. While they blame and castigate blacks and other races, we are moving forward accepting that racism is fundamental to the white entitlement character. But we are doing what we always do-- moving on. Whites trapped in a sense of entitlement will miss the opportunity to build a country that can be truly great. This presidency is an opening. They just don't see it. Too bad, America has a long way to go and many dangers lie ahead. National unity is our most precious resource in a global context. When we vilify (not criticize) as a foreign, Manchurian candidate or terrorist Muslim fundamentalist, we let the world know we are ripe for the picking. A house divided cannot stand to defend anything.

Finally, thank you for this information about President Obama. He makes me prouder everyday. Pray for him, his family, and staff.

Oh, and to all the haters of black people and this president in particular, your arrogance, scorn and sense of grievance (when you've never been victims collectively) are broadcast the world over. McCain represented that sense of white outrage, grievance and entitlement. White Americans are a pariah to the world. Even your European friends back away from you. Calm down, work with others, or find yourself left behind on the losing side of the future.

Kayan Clarke

Bronx, NY

Apr 26 2010 - 7:24pm

Web Letter

Sarah Brown, I can completely relate with everything you have said. As a biracial female living in America, I too have never been allowed the luxury of "choosing" my race. Instead, it was pushed upon me. Being raised around mostly whites, when I told them my mother was white, they thought I was adopted. All of my positive attributes seemed to be related to my white side, but when I misbehaved with my peers, my blackness was normally the first thing to be noticed.

I really appreciate this article. Many people do not seem to understand that when one is consistently boxed into a category at a young age, people tend to own it, rather than fight it. When you tell people you are mixed, or of African-American and Caucasian descent (in my case, Russian and Italian) and they consistently want to challenge that, normally it is easier to just say, you know what, I am black. One can clarify what they identify as, but social situations often dictate what others view you as.

In President Obama's lifetime, I can only imagine these are some of the challenges he has encountered. He has had his loyalties called into question his whole life, and sometimes it is easier to just pick a side. This does not mean he is disrespecting his white heritage, which he acknowledges and appreciates. It simply means that instead of fighting society's desire to have a category for every single thing, he simply decided to label himself.

I should also note that the ability to check more than one box when identifying race is fairly new. I am only 22 and I remember my whole childhood and most of my teen years having to choose one box and being forced to make one choice. I chose the one that other people picked when they looked at me.

What I identify with is irrelevant; people judge race by what they see first and how you act second. My own identity is my own, and when people reject it, I tend to share it only with the ones who I am comfortable with. Perhaps President Obama has been used to having to make the choice for the majority of his life and now does not have the desire to be able to check that white box too.

As Melissa Harris-Lacewell points out, Obama does challenge the very notion of whiteness. Intelligence, charisma, Ivy League education and intact "family values" have traditionally been attributed to whiteness in this country, and to deny that is to deny this country's history. President Obama shows white America that when opportunities are available a black man can excel just as much, if not more, than a white man. This is the pure fear behind many of the tea party activists and where much of the racial tensions discussed in the media come from. Becoming elite is becoming something earned through hard work, not elbow rubbing.

Danielle Cole

Worcester, MA

Apr 22 2010 - 1:03am

Web Letter

Obviously, in most of these responses, we're looking at a white superiority complex that feels that they can not only define blackness but can also refine whiteness.

When one poster used the more negative aspects within the black American diaspora, it was an ignorant attempt to stereotype blackness to justify his limited and myopic viewpoint. Because it would be just as easy for me to say...

that the vast majority of child molestations are committed by white men

that the vast majority of abuses towards women are committed by white men

that the vast majority of corporate crimes are committed by white men and affect everyone, of all races and both sexes

and that the white race has left "us" with lovely role models such as Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson and Jeffery Dahmer...

... and this list can go on and on and on.

(I'm quite sure that if "Rip" was taught the life stories of 50 Cent and Jeffrey Dahmer, I'm quite sure he'd rather hang with 50 Cent.)

So given those examples of "white" America, I wonder who "Rip" would be "unbiasedly" prouder of... the progression of "America"--or the deluded hypocrisy of white America.

For those who don't know any better, being black is more than just a skin color or a racial designation. It describes a state of mind, a state of being and inherent self-pride that's influenced by history, struggle, overcoming discriminatory odds and embracing the essence of them all in a country that has a legacy of racism and was built under the "hypocritic" oath that "all men are created equal" while the enslavement of human beings was condoned and legal.

PRESIDENT OBAMA defines who he is and what he wants to be based on his life experiences and indisputable African heritage--not those with jaded hearts and limited insights, because they've been systematically brainwashed to always feel superior even before, during and after they've committted the greatest crimes and atrocities against humankind that the world has ever known.

G. Dickens

Baltimore, MD

Apr 20 2010 - 11:25pm

Web Letter

Yet another non-issue to bring out the ugly in Americans. No matter what he checked on his Census, it would be fodder for wing-nuts to demonize. I'm rather shocked at the ignorance of some of the letters here.

The same Limbaughist rants emerge. Such as saying blacks commit more crimes than whites. Not true. It's our judicial propensity to sentence blacks and Hispanics to prison for the same crimes for which whites get probation or charged with a lesser crime.

The myth of racial superiority is what this country was built upon, and the election of President Obama has enraged those who will cling to the myths and will never let facts get in the way of their fear and loathing.

Elaine Parry

Eagle River, AK

Apr 20 2010 - 10:42pm

Web Letter

Melissa Harris-Lacewell claims that President Obama made a "choice" to be "black" (ignoring the white family who reared him), while at the same time strongly implying that Obama had no "choice." Which is it? How can he claim credit and praise for making a "choice" he supposedly never had?

Harris-Lacewell is either ignorant or lying when she claims that any "African" ancestry was enough to make a person a slave in the antebellum period. The legal and social boundaries between "white" and "mixed race" status have always been porous. Scholars who study racial classification in depth have found that "acting white" or assuming the social and legal expectations of "whites" was far more important than "drops of blood" in establishing white racial identity. Indeed, the "one drop" myth is a twentieth-century creation (it was the law only in some states) and linked to the eugenics movement. Harris-Lacewell is even too ignorant or dishonest to admit that slavery was inherited via maternal descent (unless broken by formal emancipation, which happened far more to mulattoes as opposed to blacks). Therefore, both she and Obama (children of white mothers) would not have been slaves.

The truth is that black-identified mulatto elites like Harris-Lacewell and Obama are the ones who promote forced hypodescent and the "one drop" myth. It is no accident that Obama's pal Henry Louis Gates Jr. became the foremost advocate of the racist "one drop" myth when he crucified the memory of the late Creole white Anatole Broyard by denouncing the latter as a "black" man "passing" for a "white." This nonsense would quickly die out if not for Gates, Harris-Lacewell and their ilk.

A.D. Powell

Ann Arbor, MI

Apr 20 2010 - 1:33pm

Web Letter

Or he'd awake to see that one candidate is:

• decorated with seventeen medals, including the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit and the Silver Star;

• the grandson and son of admirals in the Navy;

• married into one of the wealthiest famillies in America.

And the other:

• the son of a single mother whose father bailed on his family;

• an admitted former coke user;

• a smoker (he'd catch on very quickly that the only ones left smoking are the poor and disenfranchised).

This small-minded sixties man might make another conclusion. Like you suggest, Obama is the exception in the black comunity. But, considering that he's running for the USA presidency, he's supposed to be exceptional. The black community, on the other hand:

• has an incarceration rate of men approaching 20 percent;

• a majority of children being born out to single mothers;

• gave us 50 cent, Micheal Vick and other lovely role models. (Thank God for Obama!)

I think it's high time for the black community to do some soul-searching of its own instead of worrying if the white one is losing its "whiteness."

Joe Boyle

Atlanta, GA

Apr 18 2010 - 9:56pm

Web Letter

I think the author is missing an important fact here. President Obama is African American in the strict sense of being a first generation American. His father was African and his mother was American. Thus, he is African-American. This black/white thing is moot in his case. My children's father was Jamaican and I am an American--so they are Jamaican Americans. This makes much more sense to them as regards their own identity. Especially since one looks "black" and one "looks" white, as far as skin color is concerned.

Denise Weaver Ross

Albuquerque, NM

Apr 18 2010 - 8:58am

Web Letter

Dear Ms. Harris - Lacewell,

I am a black, female, Princeton Alumn, class of 1986. My dorm was PIC (the Princeton Inn College) now Forbes College. So I spent many, but not all, of my meals at the "black students' " table. Here I grew to respect and admire our current First Lady.

But recently I have grown to admire and respect another black Princeton woman, yourself. Your constant presence in print and on a multitude of news programs makes me very excited and proud to know that you are teaching the next generation of Princetonians.

This article is fantastic. I love how you are able to articulate so many thoughts I have or would have had except you have, written and published them first. I also look forward to another black Princeton woman's work you mentioned in the article, Nell Painter's The History of White People. So funny and appropriate for my barely black, half Louisiana Creole, half West Indian upstate NY tush.

Both you and Nell have me looking forward to my twenty-fifth reunion next year in a way I never thought possible. Another black woman Princetonian writer I admire, who also writes about the First Lady and the president, is Robin Givhan of the Washington Post. Robin and I are from the same class and we worked together at the Firestone Library Circ desk for years.

Thank you so much for all of your work and making the effort to be a positive reflection of the Princeton I love.

Valerie Joseph

Albany, NY

Apr 17 2010 - 8:34am

Web Letter

There are two points that seemed to have been glossed over in this article.

1. Why would the person frozen in time wake up and assume McCain was the black candidate when he is clearly labeled as Irish Catholic? I completely understand the attempted trope argument; however, it falls flat with this glaring inconsistency.

2. The reasoning of solidarity based on historical inequalities seems to be somewhat dishonest. Mainly because of all the tropes of whiteness that are associated with Obama have a direct correlation with the fact that he is the child of a white woman and raised by white grandparents. Even historically, biracial people were the beneficiaries of residual white privilege that was virtually inaccessible to blacks who had two black parents and four black grandparents. Take a look at any of the first students at the HBCUs and parentage of many of the "black" firsts of that time if you need any examples.

It could also be easily argued that Obama benefited from this access to get elected. It is highly dishonest to pretend that his walk as a biracial person with his background is completely parallel to that of black people of black parentage. Acknowledging that is simply a statement of fact. Obama is free to self-identify as he pleases, but the rationale given in this article is incomplete. It also completely ignores any political motivation to align himself with the black voting block.

I just find it a bit presumptuous and over-romanticized to assume that solidarity is the main reason that he checked black only on his Census form. Additionally, it sounds like the agenda of many African-Americans who take issue with biracial people who self-identify as biracial.

Leslie Schaffer

Milton, MA

Apr 17 2010 - 8:34am

Web Letter

As a biracial American, it has been very interesting for me to watch the rise of President Barack Obama and the progress of racial politics. When I was growing up, I was considered black (I won't go into the politics of the term "African-American")--not half-white, all black. I'm not very old, but when I was a child people would look amazed when I said I was biracial--"That can happen? A black person and a white person can have a baby?" Now, twenty years later, every one is a racial expert salivating to call me a race traitor, no matter how I identify myself.

I heard people say that Obama had "thrown his mother under the bus" by checking "black" on his census. This is a ridiculous claim that does not take into account 200 years of American history. For 200 years, one drop of black meant all black. When applying for jobs, loans, mortgages, driving down the street, being arrested for a crime, we were black--and not much has changed in that regard.

I have no problem with Obama not marking both white and black on his census form. It was a shout out to his African heritage and the black Americans that have fought so long and hard to see a black president. It was a statement to America and the world that he is proud to be black.

This is a complex world and I'm so excited to be lead by President Obama during this time. He is a thoughtful, brilliant, calm and strong black leader--and I couldn't be more proud.

Sarah Brown

San Diego, CA

Apr 16 2010 - 10:44am