On March 29, U.S. President Barack Obama sat down and filled out the U.S. federal census form for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He included his wife Michelle, daughters Sasha and Malia, and his mother-in-law Marian Robinson as members of his household. When he came to Question 9, which asks the person’s race, he filled in the square next to “Black, African Am., or Negro.”
Obama, whose father was Kenyan and mother was of European American descent, did not check any other boxes, even though Question 9 allows people to “Mark one or more boxes” for their racial background.
Hadn’t Obama often told his story of being uniquely “American” because of his blended ancestry? During the 2008 presidential campaign, his personal background took center stage and was infused with his message of hope. Our imaginations were captured with this man who spoke of “a father from Kenya; a mother from Kansas; and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.” Here, Obama’s words reflect both his African and European ancestry, which makes it confusing that he personally identifies only as African American.
For many in the mixed community, the realization that our first president of blended ancestry views himself monoracially as a “black man” has been somewhat of a letdown. What are we to do with these feelings of disappointment? Should Obama be expected to identify himself by both “black and white” ancestry or should we accept him solely as African American? Examining a few points will help us answer these questions.
To begin with, Obama draws somewhat of a distinction between culture and race. In his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” he describes moving between “black and white worlds” in terms of culture, not race.
We know that Obama’s mother and maternal grandparents, who were all of European descent, raised him (and for a short time so did his Indonesian stepfather). However, while he was brought up largely within European American culture, this did not change his skin color, hair texture, or facial features, which are all physical racial characteristics.
While growing up during the 1960s and 1970s, the way Obama was viewed by others pushed him toward learning about African American culture and identifying racially as “black.” In a 2007 interview, Obama explained how he came to choose a racial identity based on his physical appearance: “I think if you look African American in this society, you’re treated as an African American. And when you’re a child, in particular, that is how you begin to identify yourself. At least that’s what I felt comfortable identifying myself as.”
Obama’s comments about his racial identity aren’t surprising, for people having both African and European ancestry have historically been forced to identify only with their African roots. This is unique to U.S. society and falls under the notion of the “one-drop rule” — where people who have any discernible or presumed African lineage are racially labeled as “black,” “colored,” or “negro.”
The belief that “one drop of black blood” makes the whole person “black” has been an informal rule in the U.S. for over the past hundred years. Though this idea has somewhat lessened in more recent years, similar beliefs remain about people of mixed heritage.
For example, people who have one “white” parent and one African, Asian, Latino, or Native American parent are rarely considered fully “white.” These people grow up having many different experiences. Some are seen as ethnic minorities and are accepted fully within their African, Asian, Latino, and Native American communities. Others are rejected by all communities and feel they occupy some in-between place. Dealing with this type of discrimination is just one of the problems that people of mixed ancestry still face today.
Within the past few decades, more people of blended heritage have begun to reject the idea that everyone must belong to one race and that racial lines are fixed in society. Being able to openly identify yourself by multiple ancestries is a relatively new phenomenon in this country, even though people have been mixing here in the U.S. for centuries.
Intermixture has always been talked about, but within the past decade there have been wider conversations surrounding people of mixed descent. Obama’s rise to the presidency has sparked much of these discussions.
Other milestones in this history include the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia — which prohibited individual states from restricting interracial marriages — and the 2000 federal census, which allowed people to “mark one or more” racial boxes for the first time in U.S. history.
In the 2000 U.S. Census, roughly 2.5 percent of the population was identified in more than one racial category. This percentage will increase in the 2010 U.S. Census because more people are growing up with the notion that it’s acceptable to identify with more than one ancestry. An increasing number of U.S. citizens perceive themselves and others around them as mixed, which makes checking more than one box a socially acceptable option.
It is expected that increased numbers counting those of blended heritage in the 2010 Census will come from younger people. This may not actually indicate an increase in the total number of mixed people overall, but will more likely be due to young people identifying more with multiple strands of their ancestry.
As Obama’s earlier comments remind us, if people grow up being looked at by others as mixed, they will begin to identify themselves as such and will feel comfortable openly identifying with more than one group. People of mixed descent that belong to older generations will continue to identify more with one racial group and keep checking one box. Like Obama, they will do what they have been doing for decades.
It’s almost certain that every time Obama has come across the race question on a form he has chosen “black.” Can we expect him to fill out anything different from how others perceive him and for how he views himself?
Though Obama has the right to identify himself in any way he pleases, he also maintains the right to change his self-identification. While many in the mixed community hope that one day he will check more than one box, we must also respect his right to choose just one.
Perhaps one day Sasha and Malia will make a different decision for themselves.
A.B. Wilkinson is a history Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently writing his dissertation on historical perceptions of mixed-heritage peoples in North America and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.