Racial Confessions in a Biracial World

With one Kenyan parent and one white Midwestern parent, I share a similar racial background with Sen. Barack Obama.

As such, I’m especially attuned to people’s reactions to him, and one of the most common I hear, especially from white people, is: “He just doesn’t seem black to me. When I look at him I do not see a black person.” When white people, eager to vote for Obama, speak to me about his lack-o’-black, they seem to suggest that he doesn’t come across as a black man or doesn’t fit a negative stereotypical image of a black man. Class, accent, education and light skin color all make Obama a “safe” black man.

With Obama, people see who and what they want to see. White people often tell me that he looks like a white man with a tan. Black people tell me that he passes the “black” test.

For a while, Obama managed to stay above the racial fray, being everyone to everybody.

Then the video clips of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. surfaced. Wright’s fiery words informed his congregation of past and present evils of the U.S. government – some real, and some imagined.

For many blacks, the sliced clips seemed like a typical Sunday morning.

For many white people, it was a glimpse into an unfamiliar landscape and unsightly anger.

Obama forcefully and unequivocally denounced the offending excerpts, but the Wright firestorm has begun to reduce Obama to a mere racial mortal. The fact that Wright expressed thoughts commonly held in the black community is less a reflection of Obama and more a reflection of the vast misunderstandings that remain between the white and black communities.

Obama, keen to regain his original transcendent, post-racial positioning, answered back with his stately and eloquent speech in Philadelphia, one that could only be delivered convincingly by someone of mixed racial heritage. It should come as no surprise that Obama has cringed when he has spoken to his white grandmother or his black pastor. Being comfortably biracial means that Obama moves in even more varied racial settings, observing and hearing what many others do not.

I can relate.

I recently published a book titled “The Pigment of Your Imagination: Mixed Race in a Global Society.” Frequently, after a book signing, audience members pull me aside for whispered racial confessions, comfortably telling me what they think about Obama and what they secretly feel about race. Often, these fascinating conversations happen once other book-buyers have left. One or two people linger, then confess.

Older white women tell me about how they love black men or how they fear black men.

Some express stories of pain, describing the heartache of giving their mixed-race children up for adoption.

Other people tell me of a lifetime of passing as one race or another.

These frequent racial confessions have made me realize that there’s not enough space to discuss race openly and honestly.

Most Americans would be hard-pressed to claim that they have never heard a friend or family member make a racist comment. Like me, Obama probably hears such comments and racial confessionals all the time. He understands the angst of a “typical white person” as well as a “typical black person.” With his help, maybe the rest of America will begin to understand too, so that we may all move on.

Joy Zarembka is the operations director of the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of The Pigment of Your Imagination: Mixed Race in a Global Society.