The Scolai

“Just a Good Guy…With a Few Bad Habits”

African American. But Why?

with 5 comments

With Barack Obama’s recent ascendancy to the national political stage, I have had a question germinating in the rich soiled delta that forms my fertile mind.

Why, pray tell, is Obama referred to as an “African American”?

We know his father was Kenyan and enrolled in the University of Hawaii as a foreign student, but was he ever an American citizen? If not, why isn’t Obama seen as the product of a white American woman? I realize many will take my question as one of race baiting, however, my intention is purely academic. I want to know why certain American citizens are referred to as “African American” when they also have a parent that is White, or “European American.”

Is it because a person has a Black father and White mother, such as Halle Berry, Obama, or Jennifer Beals?

Is it because a person has a White Father and Black mother, such as Lenny Kravitz, Slash, Leila Arcieri, or even the noted abolitionist Fredrick Douglass?

Or do you qualify as “African American” if you are famous, and a great athlete in a sport that is seen as needing diversity, as is the case with the 1/4 African Tiger Woods, who is constantly referred to as an “African American”?

For those of you who will ask “What business does a multi-ethnic, Irish Souled blogger have asking this question?” I repeat, I am not trying to stir the proverbial pot, just trying to understand the reason for the designation.

Maybe some “reputable” main stream media “journalist” will take on this question during the coming campaign season.



Written by thescolai

March 18, 2008 at 1:32 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Several white people have asked that question. Therein lies the answer…


    March 18, 2008 at 1:45 pm

  2. And the fact that white people have asked the question some how makes it irrelevant?


    March 18, 2008 at 2:13 pm

  3. Barack Obama is referred to as an African American because that is how he identifies himself and because the appellation black or Black American is passe. His connection to and sense of belonging and responsibility to the African American community is very much a part of who he is. He has made that point in his memoir Dreams of My Father; that connection is also exemplified in how he lives his life and in his relatiionships. For example, his wife is an African American, a black woman.

    Halle Berry also identifies as African American, in part because that is how her white mother raised her. Halle’s mother’s philosophy was that since black was how the world was going to perceive and treat her daughter then she wanted Halle to have as close a connection as possible with the black community. To Halle’s credit she has continued to maintain a sense of connection to the African American community thoughout her life. She continues to stand as such in the world.

    As for Jennifer Beals and Tiger Woods, I have never heard Jennifer referred to as an African American. She infamously (at least among blacks) has referred to herself as *neither* black nor white. She refers to herself as bi-racial and so that is how I refer to her. She is thought of and generally treated as white by the media and her fans. She has, as far as I have been able to determine, no connection to or sense of belonging to the African American community.

    Tiger has said that he is both African American and Asian American and equally proud to be both. However, among blacks that I know he is not thought of as an African American. He is diametrically opposite in the way he stands in the world to Barack Obama. In this sense he and Jennifer are much alike in terms of personal identity. To quote Tiger: “The various media have portrayed me as an African-American, sometimes Asian. In fact, I am both… . Truthfully, I feel very fortunate and equally proud to be both African-American and Asian.” Here is a link to an article where this is discussed:

    In my opinion, these individuals (Jennifer, Tiger, Barack, Halle) represent a continuum of personal expression of the bi-racial experience. In large part, identity mostly comes down to a matter of personal choice: How do I want to be seen in the world, what do I want to stand for who with. Each of these individuals has answered these questions for themselves and has been demonstrated to us by how they live their lives. I take them for how they present themselves.

    Personally, as an African American, I feel more closely identified with Barack and Halle. I do not feel a sense of connection or identification with Jennifer or Tiger. That sense of connection is something that happens in the place where your own personal wounds and psychological needs are. Thankfully, I have found that the more I heal my own wounds around race, the less it matters to me about who is identifying as what or who is dissing the black community by opting for a more white identity, etc.

    Now to your larger question as to why our culture or media uses the term African American, the reasons for that are historical and sociological. Blacks in this country have struggled to establish an identity for ourselves that is separate and apart from how whites have defined us (nigra, nigger, colored, black). One of the consequences of the civil rights and black power movement of the sixties was a decision by blacks to refer to themselves as American citizens of African origin. This self-reference does not represent a complete and accurate truth, but has become preferable to designations given to us by whites. The media, rightfully, has followed the lead given them by the African American community in general and has also, as in the case of Tiger Woods, respected how individuals have stated they which to be referred.

    Though it won’t happen in my lifetime, I look forward to the day when we can get past race and see ourselves totally in terms of souls on this planet. To the extent that we must have any identity at all, let it be a spiritual identity, one based on principles and ideals, not genetics.

    Hope that answers, at least in part, your question.


    March 19, 2008 at 7:53 am

  4. Gwen, I can’t say that I agree with everything you have written, but thanks for taking the time to provide such an illuminating response. I too, look forward to the day when we can drop the hyphen and just be “American.”


    March 19, 2008 at 8:43 am

  5. Gwen quite the response you have entered……interesting point of view.


    March 19, 2008 at 9:18 am

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