ARTICLES AND BOOKS BY WRITER BEN AROGUNDADE
What Is President Barack Obama's Ethnicity? Black Or Mixed Race? 24,000 People Ask Google Each Year
PRESIDENTIAL RACE: Barack Obama's parents were from different ethnic backgrounds. His mother was a white American and his father a black Kenyan. So, does this make him black or mixed race? Not everyone agrees. Many turn to the search engine, Google looking for answers; “Barack Obama ethnicity percentage”, and “What race is Barack Obama?” are just two of many search queries from around the world. Photo by Peter Yang.
WHAT ETHNICITY IS BARACK OBAMA? It may seem obvious, but thousands globally are unsure.
So, what are the conventions that make someone “black” in the modern world? By Ben Arogundade.
BARACK OBAMA'S RACE AND ETHNICITY ACCORDING TO GOOGLE SEARCH
The number of people worldwide who Google the term, “Barack Obama ethnicity percentage” each month.
The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “What race is Barack Obama?” each month.
The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “Is Barack Obama mixed race?” each month.
The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “Is Barack Obama white?” each month.
The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “Is Barack Obama black?” each month.
*All figures for “Barack Obama's Race And Ethnicity According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.
From top left; Obama's parents, Barack Obama Sr and Ann Dunham, pose at Honolulu airport; Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, with two-year-old Barack, 1963; Barack Obama Sr. poses with his son at Honolulu airport; Obama's mother with her Indonesian second husband, Lolo Soetoro, their daughter Maya, and young Barack, in Jakarta, Indonesia, in the 1970s; A gap-toothed Barack Obama as a child.
IS THE 44TH PRESIDENT of the United States black or mixed race? The question as to exactly what term to use to describe Barack Obama’s ethnicity is still debated. Approximately 24,000 people per year Google a range of questions and queries on the subject. While millions of Americans refer to him as, “the first black president”, others dispute that he is “black”, preferring instead a more modern, biologically factual definition that reflects and acknowledges all parts of Barack Obama’s heritage and genealogy.
BARACK OBAMA - FAMILY FACTS
Barack Obama's family background was similar to that of millions of biracial children around the world. He was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His parents were of contrasting ethnic backgrounds. His mother, the late Stanley Ann Dunham, was born in Wichita, Kansas. She was an American of English and Irish ancestry. Obama’s father, the late Barack Obama Sr., was born in Kenya’s Nyanza Province. He was of African heritage, belonging to an ethnic group called the Luo. They make up Kenya’s third largest ethnic group, with other members scattered across eastern Uganda and northern Tanzania.
HOW DID HIS MOTHER AND FATHER MEET?
Barack Obama’s parents met as fellow students in 1960, at a Russian class in the University of Hawaii. The couple married on February 2, 1961, then separated when his mother moved to Seattle, Washington, with their newborn son, in late August of the same year. Obama’s parents divorced in March 1964. Barack Sr. died in an automobile accident in 1982. His mother died on November 7, 1995 from ovarian cancer.
BARACK OBAMA’S IRISH ANCESTRY
Obama has Irish ancestry dating back to his great-great-great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, who arrived in America in 1850. Research carried out by genealogy website Ancestry.com also alleges that Obama has German heritage dating back in history to the 1700s, via his sixth great-grandfather, Johann Conrad Woelflin. Alongside this, researchers also contend that Obama’s mother may have had at least one African forebear, a slave named John Punch.
OBAMA - BLACK BY THE ‘ONE-DROP’ RULE
So, given Barack Obama’s mixed genealogy, should he be referred to as “black” or “mixed race”? The reason many still call him “black” can be traced back to the “one-drop” rule. This refers to a series of racist laws passed across America in the early twentieth century, which dictated that any person with as little as “one drop” of “black blood” were to be classified as legally “black”, thereby restricting their rights and entitlements within society. As a result, all people of biracial ancestry had their European ancestry discounted. The fiction that Africans possessed a separate blood group to whites was used to explain differences in physical appearance, behaviour and culture. The rule was first passed into law in Tennessee in 1910, and was then rapidly adopted across other states.
Although the restrictions were finally abolished by the late 1960s, their original classifications remain very much in use today, despite their roots in racism. While it has been relatively straightforward to reverse law, it has not been so easy to reverse culture — and so, people of mixed or biracial heritage are still considered “black”.
OBAMA ON OBAMA
The president himself, in line with the majority of biracial African Americans, self identifies in accordance with the traditions of “one-drop” culture. “I identify as African-American,” he said; “that's how I'm treated and that's how I'm viewed. I'm proud of it.”
CAN WHITE BE BLACK?
Obama's words have potentially far-reaching implications. By suggesting that contemporary blackness is defined by ones experience rather than their aesthetic, opens up the debate for other non-black groups that have been discriminated against to also define themselves as “black”. Author Roddy Doyle for example, famously described the Irish as “the niggers of Europe”.
SOUTH AFRICA IN CONTRAST
If Barack Obama had been born in apartheid South Africa he would not have been called “black” at all, but “Coloured” — their term for people of biracial ethnicity and ancestry. Today, this group is still legally recognised as distinct from “black”, and the general population are free to self-identify as they choose. Many Chinese South Africans who have been the victims of discrimination, legally classify themselves as “black”, which allows tham to qualify for many of the affirmative action initiatives aimed at undoing the historical effects of apartheid.
A NEW DAWN FOR MULTIRACIALS
Despite the fact that Obama sees himself as “black”, this term, as used to describe those of mixed ethnicity, is increasingly being challenged within modern America. The 2000 U.S. Census was the first time in history that Americans were invited to identify themselves as “multiracial” — and over six million people checked more than one box in the race and ethnicity category. In 2008 0bama himself also humorously referred to himself as a “mutt”, referencing his mixed ethnicity.
In April 1997 Tiger Woods prefaced a new form of social civil rights movement when he described himself, not as “black” but “Cablinasian” — a word he’d invented himself to describe his parents multi-ethnicity and nationality (Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American and Dutch). Many African American traditionalists were angered, not by the fact that Woods dared to self-determine, but because he did not choose to identify himself as “black”.
In recent years, the white mothers of biracial children have also been more vocal in expressing their desire for their ethnicity to be recognized within the identifying terminology, while alongside this, science, via ancestral DNA testing, now reveals that we are indeed all mixed, suggesting even further that the concept of race is eroding.
OBAMA - NOT BLACK BY POST 'ONE-DROP'
“Mixed race”, as opposed to “black” is quickly becoming the preferred term for many, both for self-determining people of multi-ethnicity, and those who observe them in society. “We do not have our first black president,” stated author Christopher Hitchens on the BBC’s Newsnight in December 2008. “He is not black. He is as black as he is white.”
This opinion was reiterated on July 03, 2012, during an interview with actor Morgan Freeman. He said of Obama, “America's first black president hasn’t arisen yet. He's not America's first black president — he’s America's first mixed-race president.” He continued, “[People] just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white — very white American, Kansas, middle of America.”
So while Obama sees himself as black, others disagree. And so, who is right? Ultimately, what really matters is how we see ourselves; and that should be defined, not by society, or by the community, but by the individual, in the true sense of what freedom means.
And so, the answer to the question; is Barack Obama black or mixed race? — is, yes, and no. He is black according to American history, and crucially, his view of himself, but mixed race according to contemporary thinking. What is he to you? You decide.