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7.4: Racial identity

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    Since the demise of the idea that race is grounded in biology—race, like ethnicity, has come to be regarded primarily as a matter of social identity. Also like ethnicity, it is often presumed, incorrectly, that individuals who share a racial identity must share a common culture. As Appiah (1994: 117) has noted, “it is perfectly possible for a black and a white American to grow up together in a shared adoptive family—with the same knowledge 
and values—and still grow into separate racial identities, in part because their experience outside the family, in public space, is bound to be racially differentiated.” In other words, it is a mistake, not only to assume that race and ethnicity represent biological categories; it is also a mistake to assume them to be cultural categories.

    As we mentioned in the previous section, ethnic identification is typically (although not always) self-determined. On the other hand, racial identities are more likely to be imposed on an individual by others. For example, “white” Americans are likely to presume certain individuals to be “black” or African American based on perceived physical characteristics, including skin color, hair texture and various facial features alleged to be characteristically African. Long before “African American” children have ever had time to reflect on matters of identity, that identity has been decided for them. As with any identity, individuals have it within their power to resist ethnic or racial identification. Ironically, the best, and perhaps only way to effectively resist an ascribed identity is to proudly embrace it.

    Obama-fam.png

    Barack Obama and family in the Whitehouse Green Room

    No doubt the most well-known American to reflect publicly on the perplexities of racial identification in America is Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States and the first black president. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama (1995), writes eloquently of the confusion he experienced growing up the son of a white woman born in Kansas and a black man from Kenya. How did Barack Obama come to embrace a black, or African-American identity?

    Born in Hawaii, a cauldron of ethnic diversity, peopled by groups from all across Asia and the Pacific Islands, Obama tells a story of race and identity that is nuanced and reflective. Barack’s father was somewhat of a mystery to him since his mother and father divorced and his father returned to Kenya shortly before Barack turned 3 years old. Throughout his childhood, Obama recounts, his white family nurtured in him a sense of respect and pride in his African heritage, anticipating that his appearance would eventually require him to face questions of racial identity. These questions surfaced gradually during adolescence, when he began to experience a tug of war between his white and his black identities.

    Inspired by a nationally ranked University of Hawaii basketball team with an all-black starting lineup, Barack joined his high school basketball team. There, he says, he made his closest white friends, and he met Ray (not his real name), a biracial young man who introduced Barack to a number of African Americans from the Mainland. Barack’s experiences in multiracial Hawaii caused him to reflect deeply on the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, indignities frequently faced by blacks. Increasingly confronted by the perspectives of his black friends and his own experiences with discrimination, Obama writes:

    I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a little translation on my part the two worlds would cohere. Still, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right stayed with me (p. 82).

    Amid growing confusion, Obama writes that he turned for counsel to black writers: Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois, and Malcolm X. After high school, Barack’s quest continued throughout two years of study at Occidental University in LA before he transferred to Colombia University in New York. Gradually, he constructed a provisional black identity, while never really disavowing his white one.

    But it seems to have been in Chicago that Barack Obama finally put the finishing touches on the African American identity that he would eventually embrace when he ran for president in 2008. After years of working as a community organizer in the black neighborhoods of Chicago, he had become well known in the black community. He joined an African American church. And he married Michelle Robinson, herself African American and a lifelong Chicagoan.

    President Obama’s story illustrates some of the dynamics involved in racial identification. Obama faced questions of racial identity initially because his appearance prompted people to label him as black. In the end, rather than resist that label, Obama embraced it.


    This page titled 7.4: Racial identity is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nolan Weil (Rebus Community) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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