Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Obama's "Blackness"

Okay, I'm going to weigh in on this whole issue of whether Barack Obama is black. A couple of disclaimers to start with: I am not, myself, black, so take my opinion on this for what you will. Also, at least in the primaries, I think I will be supporting Dennis Kucinich and not Obama.

For those not familiar with the issue, many African-Americans feel that Obama is not "black," or part of American "black" culture. They feel that African-American or American black culture is based on being descended from West Africans who were brought to the US as slaves. Since Obama's father was actually from Africa, and he is not descended from slaves, he does not qualify, according to this theory.

A couple of things about this don't make sense to me. First off, whether Obama actually was descended from slaves or not, he was born in the US and grew up in the US, and since he looks black, he would have been treated by the culture in general as if he were a descendent of slaves, since that's pretty much the default assumption in the US. In other words, his actual experience as an American wouldn't be any different, because he doesn't have "not descended from slaves" tattooed on his forehead, so no one would know to treat him differently.

And, secondly, I don't think that the people promoting this theory have thought through what it means overall. If one's ancestry, that is, one being descended from slaves, and not one's actual experience, determines whether or not one is a participant in black culture, then wouldn't only those descended from slave-owners be responsible for the injustice of slavery? Should those not descended from slave-owners therefore be completely exempt for being included in the "white" category, at least as it relates to oppression of blacks, and any responsibility to do anything about it?

For instance, I do not have any Southern slave owners in my ancestry. Both sides of my family were Northerners, with no branches in the South until after the end of the American Civil War. As such, since my ancestry has no slave-owners in it, can I thus be completely unsympathetic to the problems of African-Americans, because I'm not at all responsible for it? For instance, should I be exempt from being considered "white" for purposes of Affirmative Action? I mean, I don't have any slave-owners in my ancestry, so by this theory, I bear no responsibility for the status of blacks, and thus I shouldn't be included in those formulations.

I doubt that most blacks would be okay with a 2nd-generation, say, Dutch immigrant using the "N" word. They would likely not care that he isn't descended from slave-owners or racists trying to enforce "separate but equal", and therefore (by this reasoning) not one of those whites who oppressed blacks and not therefore forbidden to use the "N" word. He would be a white person using the "N" word, and though it's okay for blacks to use it with each other, I doubt a white person's ancestry would really matter, as it should if this theory were true.

Now, I don't actually think all this is true, of course. I actually do live in this culture and what I do, say, and think affects those around me, including African-Americans. Though my ancestors never owned slaves, I am part of a culture which has a past based in slavery, and which is still dealing with the after-effects of it. Though Obama's ancestors never were slaves, he is part of the same culture with a past of slavery and that is still dealing with the effects. He grew up in a culture where people who looked like him were once owned by people who looked like me. Whether his ancestors or mine were actually any of those people doesn't really have much to do with it.

I just don't think this theory makes a lot of sense if you carry it through. I'm not at all telling blacks who they should support and how they should vote: if Obama isn't their guy, that's fine. I just don't think the logic by which it is being claimed Obama isn't black makes a lot of sense.

Not that I get a vote, of course. I also can't tell blacks whether to accept Obama or not. But I can, I think, point out that the logic now being bandied about is flawed, in my opinion.


At 8:59 AM, Blogger blair said...

Virtually everyone, back, white or brown, has ancestors who were slave owners. Virtually everyone, no matter what race, also has ancestors who were once slaves. That's because civilization itself is slave-based and slavery was once universal.

As far as the United States is concerned, slavery was legal in northern states as well as southern states prior to the civil war. That's why the Emancipation Proclamation freed only slaves in the rebellous states. The primary profits from the African-American slave trade when to slave traders based in New England. These are the profits that financed the industrial revolution.

In the United States, free blacks, Hispanics, and Indians also owned slaves. The Indians were the last to give up slavery. In the years following the Civil War, the United States simply purchased the slaves from the tribes and set them free.


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