Tuesday, February 20, 2007

David Palmer never had all this trouble...

I'm starting to become more aware of the discussions going on around America about Barack Obama's "blackness". I first heard about this on the Radio4 programme Feedback, where somebody had written in to protest at BBC reporters' use of the term "black" to refer to Sen. Obama when he's actually of mixed race. A google search for "obama black mixed race" will spit out allsorts of opinion, ranging from the pathetic and racist, up to the more interesting discussions of what being "black" means to modern American society.

Far from being about petty semantics, there's a very strong sense amongst some African Americans that calling yourself black means associating yourself with Black America's long struggle for civil rights - "Black, in our political and social vocabulary, means those descended from West African slaves" writes Debra Dickerson, who also says it in this interview with Stephen Colbert.

That distinction between "Black" and "African American" (which nobody can deny Obama is) is something new to me. In fact, Dickerson goes so far to label him with a new label - "he's an African African American" - which is, frankly, pathetic. As Colbert points out, she is asserting his blackness not based on his skin colour, but on the content of his character - "a truly special interpretation of Dr King's words". Is anybody else slightly frightened that when she says in that interview "we're not the same" it sounds slightly... er... racist?

I don't mean to paint myself as a truly enlightened modern multicultural thinker, but none of this should really matter. But of course it does. And while we middle class Guardian-reading white Brits allow ourselves the opportunity to say "yes yes, about time the yanks had a black president or a woman president" we mustn't forget our own pathetic record in that same area. We may have had a woman leader for 11 years (*shudder*), but we only just had our first black cabinet member, let alone party leader or Prime Minister. And as far as I know, despite British Asians making up around 5% of our population, there's never been an Asian in senior British politics.

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