President Obama is often referred to as the first Black President, but for a man that is genetically half black and half white, he could be equally considered just another white man in a long line of other white men who have served as president.
Obama is more than a black man, he is a man with a story as unique as many other contemporary Americans. His story is not one that can be easily categorized. He is neither black nor white, but he is a mix that is inclusive of both.
Why do so many Americans choose to call him a black man? Perhaps there are several reasons. His true racial mix is more of a mulatto, but mulatto is difficult to say or define. The African-American community uses him as a pillar of strength to lift their spirits and hopes, and his enemies use his race as a reason to disparage him.
Last night I dreamed of a conversation I had on a bus with the passenger sitting next to me. I asked where she came from and she told me she was Mexican. When the question was turned back to me, I told her that I was about as British as they came. My ancestors came over with the Pilgrims; they settled in New England and played a role in the revolutionary war. I had ancestors on both sides of the ‘war between the states.’ But then I thought a little more about the French Canadian ancestor only a couple generations back, thus mixing my heritage a bit. Am I French or British? Does it matter? No, because neither of those ancestors gave me any distinguishing outward features that might give away an ancestry outside of North Western Europe.
My children now have a different heritage than be because their mother’s family hail from Sicily with a little Native American mixed in. In a single generation, the mix has changed fairly significantly, even though it may not be outwardly apparent. Other families mix their heritages and the result may be more visually apparent, but they are no less mixed than mine.
Years ago, I lived in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Ricans are a mix of three different origins. They are a genetic blend of the native Taino Indians, Blacks from the African slave trade and the Spanish conquistadors. On the island of Puerto Rico you will find everything from the Caribbean Blue Blacks (people so dark they look almost blue, or purple) to light skinned, blue eyed and nappy haired people, as well as dark skinned straight haired people. It is really hard to define what a Puerto Rican looks like because there is no single look depending on how the genetic lottery has played out in their parents. Yet this visually diverse group of people all shares a common history and social identity with their small island in the tropics that is greater than the sum of the parts.
My experiences in Puerto Rico taught me how much this concept of race is really a social construct. Race only exists in the minds of those who wish to define a person by their outward appearance. There are some cultural behaviors that persist among certain segments of society, but those are cultural and not related to actual heritage, but by shared experiences.
My current work involves me with many immigrants. I see a pattern in the language and social skills of those families. The first generation immigrant speaks only their native tongue at home, regardless of their proficiency in English in public. They also put a high value on maintaining cultural ties to their homeland. The second generation is fully bilingual speaking the tongue of their parents in the home and English at school and in the workplace. They are more comfortable in English and have very poor language skills in the tongue of their parents. Consequently, by the third generation, they can hardly communicate at all with their grandparents unless the grandparents speak English. By this third generation, the immigrant grandchildren are fully Americans in culture and identity, regardless of the origins of their genetics.