Barack Obama and Racial/Ethnic Authenticity
In a speech many hailed as historic for its frank discussion of race in America, Barack Obama, Democratic contender for the presidential nomination, said: “At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either ‘too black’ or ‘not black enough’."
What does it mean to be considered “too black” or “not black enough”? And who decides the answers to these questions? In a previous post, I discussed the challenges biracial people such as Sen. Obama (son of a black Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas) pose to our understanding of race, so I won’t touch on that issue here. Given the Senator’s racial self identification as African American, however, who authenticates his blackness? Is there a Department of Black Authenticity (DBA) whose job it is to stamp him or anyone else “unequivocally black” or maybe “just right”? Do some black aspirants get notification that they are “not black enough” or indeed “too black”? As I imagine such deliberations, I can’t help but wonder whether the head of the DBA would make those decisions or whether there would have to be group consensus.
What does it mean when someone is described as “not black enough”? Likely, you have heard tales of African Americans (particularly males) who “dumb down”: They make a conscious effort to do poorly in school so as not to be seen as “acting white”. In other words they will never be described by those apparently dreaded words “not black enough”; this construction of blackness emphasizes ignorance. Describing the other Democratic candidates as he was announcing his own presidential bid, Sen. Joe Biden described Sen. Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
I’ll avoid dissecting Sen. Biden’s words here except to make one point—that Sen. Biden seemed to be voicing what he and many others perceive as differences between Sen. Obama and many African Americans, and between this candidate and previous African American candidates. Many of these differences—his parentage chief among them—have caused even some African Americans to say that Sen. Obama is “not black enough”.
In a 1998 New Yorker article, writer Toni Morrison provides an interesting description of what constitutes blackness. Morrison described Former President Clinton as America’s first black president because “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” (I reserve commentary on issues related to the conflation of blackness with being African American—as opposed to being African, for example—for another blog.) Morrison acknowledges the over-representation of African Americans among “the truly disadvantaged”, and also makes reference to the cultural orientation and "style" associated with blackness, at least in America anyway.
In an essay entitled “Free at Last? A Personal Perspective on Race and Ethnicity”, Glenn C. Loury recounts the tale of how, for fear of being seen as an “Uncle Tom”, he betrayed his friend Woody by failing to vouch for Woody as a “brother” at a black political rally. (Woody was so light-skinned that he could “pass”, but self identified as black.) This is another dimension of being viewed as “not black enough”—the extent to which blacks are friends with, or married to, non-blacks. Another marker of this tag is being Republican. Since the civil rights era, African Americans have historically supported the Democratic party; African Americans such as Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice are consistently derided for having political ideologies that brand them “not black enough”.
What constitutes being “too black”? Is being associated with anything or anyone strongly associated with notions of black exclusivity “too black”? One major aspect of the firestorm regarding Sen. Obama and his former pastor, Rev. Wright is the fact that the pastor has operated from an Afrocentric focus. This makes the Rev. Wright, and by extension Sen. Obama, “too black” for some.
Policing blackness includes scrutiny of food, film, music, clothing and other preferences. The scrutiny also extends to pastimes, the way we talk, our places of residence, the way we wear our hair (mainly for women), and this is not an all encompassing list. As Loury describes, the impact of having his authenticity policed had a profound impact on many aspects of his life:
I now understand how this desire to be regarded as genuinely black, to be seen as a “regular brother,” has dramatically altered my life. It narrowed the range of my earliest intellectual pursuits, distorted my relationships with other people, censored my political thought and expression, informed the way I dressed and spoke, and shaped my cultural interests…I have learned that one does not have to live surreptitiously as a Negro among whites in order to be engaged in a denial of one’s genuine self for the sake of gaining social acceptance. This is a price that blacks often demand of each other as well.
It is ironic that as much we think of race as fixed and real, questioning African American authenticity points to the socially constructed nature of the concept, given how easily racial authenticity can be challenged. This is also another example of how race and ethnicity are used interchangeably: use of this authenticity yardstick belies the fact that there are different constructions of blackness in other parts of the world; this yardstick is really an African American one.
Why do you think there are questions about black authenticity in the U.S.? Is there a fear related to keeping people in or might it have to do with keeping “impostors” out? How similar or different are these issues for other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.? As for whether Sen. Obama is “too black”, “not black enough”, or “just right,” I think the fact that the question is even being asked is revealing.