President Obama’s Identity and How We Describe Him

Sydney, Tuesday

Yesterday I bought Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama.  I feel a bit late to the party, not having read it before he was elected.  As I’ve shared on this blog, I had other priorities last year.

On Obama’s inauguration day, I felt, with much of the rest of the world, a sense of hope and optimism as he began the real work of his Presidency.  Focus is now on what he does, as opposed to who he is, and I think that’s appropriate.  Who he is will inform every aspect of what he does, as is true for all of us.

Throughout the U.S. primaries and Presidential campaign, and since his election, I’ve found myself interested in Obama’s search for identity and his mixed race heritage.  I’ve wondered if he ever had a serious relationship with a white woman, and how the description of him as the first African American President of the U.S. encompasses his white mother and grandparents. 

Technical Accuracy vs. ‘Mutt’

I realise experts on these issues will write doctoral theses and publish book-length analyses for years to come.  As I understand from basic Wikipedia research, any U.S. citizen with at least partial African ancestry is considered black or African American.

I’m less interested in technical definitions, though I did find it enlightening if a bit head-spinning to read around the Internet the various definitions of race.  Race is defined and measured in a variety of ways, in different countries’ census and population reports.

It’s common knowledge Obama’s father was a black man from Kenya and his mother a white woman from Kansas.  He has spoken eloquently about his deep love and appreciation of his mother and grandparents.
My interest is in his personal experience, how he sees himself, and what he learned about himself in the process of exploring his identity.

A few days after the election, when asked about his search for a dog for his children, Obama said, “A lot of shelter dogs are mutts, like me.”

Why I Care

Aside from the obvious fact that Obama has joined the community of world leaders, his story interests me because, in a very small way, I feel I can relate.

obamawithgrandparentsThe most influential, loving, and reliable influences in my life were my mother and my maternal grandparents.

Unlike President Obama, I had a father who was the same nationality and race as my mother, lived nearby, and saw me and my brother regularly.  But like the new President, I grew up knowing it was my mother and her parents whom I could count on, who were there for me and my brother no matter what, who did the day in, day out work of raising us.

And like the new President, I sought more and more information about my father’s side of the family as I got older.  My partner, Clive, is currently on a personal journey to learn and understand more about his birth father and paternal ancestry.

I Can’t Imagine

I can’t imagine the identity issues Obama faced, nor the complexity of the racial issues, and racism, with which he has dealt throughout his life.  I’m sure I’ll learn more about this from his book.  I can imagine, at least partly, his longing to understand his father, who was largely absent from his life.

Reading online about Barack Obama Sr. left me feeling uneasy about the man’s multiple wives and children, especially because he seemed to leave them repeatedly.  I don’t understand how he could visit his namesake only once, when his son was 10 years old in Hawaii.

In the introduction to Dreams from My Father, Obama writes, “During the writing of this book, my mother would read the drafts … quick to explain or defend the less flattering aspects of my father’s character.”

I have had similar discussions with my mother over the years.  She helped me understand what I felt were less than admirable aspects of my father’s behaviour and character.

Labels Are Tricky

I know it’s technically accurate to describe Barack Obama as an African American.  But it doesn’t feel totally right to me, because to me the label excludes the part of his family who raised him and helped him become the man he is today.

obamagrandparents1Then I wonder if maybe my reaction isn’t so much about Obama’s mother and grandparents at all, but because I’m white myself, and just want to feel that connection to the new President.  Maybe subconsciously I just want to ‘claim’ part of Obama for myself, and have it more publicly acknowledged we share some of the same racial mix.

I don’t have definitive answers, but I did feel it was more accurate, and dare I say more truthful, when Obama described himself as a ‘mutt’ of mixed race.

 Mixed Race Is Common

I know from my experience living in Australia and working in Asia for almost 14 years that mixed race couples and children are very common.

A November 11 article in the UK Times stated that in the UK, the fastest-growing ethnic category is that of mixed race.  The article also noted that in California, one estimate was that the proportion of mixed-race children is now one in six.

The UK article also quotes David Maraniss of the Washington Post, writing of Obama’s Hawaii experience, “the notion of Hawaii … the spirit of aloha, the transracial if not post-racial message – that has made his rise possible.”

My blogger friend Barbara of ‘Home in France’ wrote a wonderful post about Hawaii’s rainbow people here. 

A Story Worth Telling

Obama knew at a relatively early age his story was special, and worth telling.

obama_book2A few days before his inauguration, we watched a TV documentary about his Chicago days.  One of the Chicago law professors said, “We made him an offer, and he told me he wanted space to write his autobiography.”  The professor smiled and said, “He was 32 years old.  I said OK.”

The cover of my copy of Dreams from My Father is, rather incongruously, the famous photograph of young Obama with his mother.

I’m looking forward to reading this book and learning more about the current U.S. President.

3 Responses

  1. That was a very interesting post indeed. I must say when I heard him use the term ‘mutt’ it took me aback. It is a shame he cannot just say he is American. What a shame we have to label people. Its not like we have to tell peope we are white. My daughters father has never had much to do with her either and its been a journey for her. I try and defend him too but sometimes I think in doing that we are only defending the choices we made. Its hard. I hope you enjoy the book. I should get it myself one day soon.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Lilly. I agree labels are unfortunate — OTOH geneaology research is a global phenomenon and I think it’s human/normal for people to be curious about their own and others’ origins (especially when others are in high and powerful positions …).

    Couldn’t agree more re the word ‘mutt’! It was of course in the context of the search for a White House dog. Barbara’s post which I referenced says in Hawaii the term ‘mixed’ is used, and the UK article uses the term ‘mixed race’.

    Excellent point about wanting to defend our own choices. It is hard, and it’s great you have talked with your daughter about her father, no matter what! I know I am grateful my mother talked with me about my father and her relationship with him.


  3. It is so great to feel proud of our President again. I’ve always felt too much was focused on the part of him that is black too. I have a friend with a daughter who is half black who said, when he was elected, “Mom, he’s me!”

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