Pick your box

 Written by ARP editor Tami Winfrey Harris

Washington Postreporter Jonathan Weisman proclaimed during an online chat Monday that Barack Obama is “much more white than black.” According to The Huffington Post:

The comment came as part of an answer to a question asking why a recent Obama ad, seen below, was “playing up his white family.” Obama’s mother was white and his father, who he was not close to growing up, was black. Visit the site to read the full question and answer.

If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, this presidential election cycle, which features a bi-racial candidate, has highlighted that in this society it is very important to assign a race—one race—to everyone. People believe it means something—to be able to say “he is black” or “she is white” or “he is Korean.” And it does mean something, but not everything.


We are each a product of our unique life experiences, which may be influenced by class, geography, sexuality, parentage, nationality and education as much as race. And we are each a product of how we are perceived by others, which may be influenced by class, geography, sexuality, parentage, nationality and education as much as race. But in American, race is all. Folks have to know where you fit. If you won’t choose your box, someone else will eagerly do it for you. 


Our culture doesn’t quite know what to do with bi-racial people—how to read them. Witness the attempts to define Barack Obama. For some, it is tough to square the new campaign ad that focuses on the white family that raised Obama with the “unashamedly black” church of his adulthood or his choice of a wife or the fact that he self-identifies as a black man. Because you can’t be the product of a white Kansan family and the member of a church that preaches Black Liberation theology. And some people, like columnist Debra Dickerson, herself the black mother of bi-racial children, figure you can’t be the child of a white mother and an African father and call yourself a black man. 


All of this arguing over who is what neglects that a person can be one thing, or two things or many things at once. And it ignores a fact of history—that many Americans, particularly the descendants of African slaves, are indeed multi-racial, though by our society’s narrow definition of race, we are “just black.” 


I find the way we view and discuss race in this country extremely frustrating, and a hindrance to anti-racist work. How can we ever get people to examine institutional racism and bias, if most of us still stubbornly cling to a “pick your box” mentality?


I’m not sure where I’m going with this post or that I articulated successfully what I’m feeling. But I just recoiled after reading the Weisman’s quote, which I found arrogant and misinformed. 

Let’s just call this an open thread to discuss society’s view of racial definition and how it effects us. What do you think?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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